Elected Silence, by Thomas Merton (Hollis & Carter)
Merton’s autobiography, The Seven-storey Mountain, was published in 1948, and this, the British version, came out the following year. My mother acquired her copy at a second-hand book sale, by the look of it. Someone else first owned the scuffed black hardcover in 1954.
All I knew about Merton was that he was a writer and a monk; one of those remarkably gifted thinkers whose names land up gracing the halls and colleges of academia. I kept his book aside when I packed up my parents’ library after their deaths; perhaps because of his link to a frail but radiant old man I met in August 1999 while on a travel-writing assignment on the island of Patmos. The two had been close friends, both of them poets, both full of passion and angst. I love a good story and suspected I might find one in Merton’s history.
Reading it now, in 2009, I am aware that the juicier bits have been edited out, probably by the religious censors of the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky where Merton finally found peace as a Trappist monk. But despite the editing and the sombre era in which it was written, the text reveals a personality and a flow of ideas that remain surprisingly fresh and challenging.
He was born on January 31, 1915, to an American mother and an artistic father from New Zealand. When he was a year old, the family moved to Flushing, Long Island.
‘Mother wanted me to be independent and not to run with the herd. I was to be original, individual; I was to have a definite character and ideals of my own. I was not to be an article thrown together, on the common bourgeois pattern, on everybody else’s assembly line. If we had continued as we had begun … John-Paul and I might have become successful authors, or editors of magazines, professors at small, progressive colleges. The way would have been all smooth and perhaps I would not have ended up as a monk – the ultimate paradoxical fulfillment of my mother’s ideas for me, the last thing she would ever have dreamed of: the boomerang of all her solicitude for an individual development.’
After his mother’s death from stomach cancer, Merton travelled with his father, sometimes being formally educated and sometimes not. He went into a boarding school in France, had a torrid time at Cambridge (glossed over in the book, no doubt because his wildness had repercussions, the most drastic of which was a child born to a woman who had to be compensated in some way by Merton’s guardian) and then landed at Columbia University in New York. Here he forged a life-long friendship with, among others, Robert Lax – the old man I met on Patmos.
The passages relating to Lax are unexpected keys to the story of the enigmatic recluse who lived out his life in simplicity and contemplation on the island. He had been and still was a poet; he’d edited the New Yorker, worked in a circus as a juggler, converted from Judaism to Catholicism soon after Merton entered the monastery, and wrestled all his life with making sense of the world. His decision to make a home on Patmos was inspired by the way the sunlight fell so auspiciously on a poster of Patmos that he had in his room. That seemed a good enough reason to go there. He became the last real hermit of the island, according to author Peter France, who has a home on Patmos and who paved the way for me to meet Robert Lax. I understood that he was in his nineties, but apparently he was 84 when he died on 26 September, 2000, in his home town of Olean in New York State, a year after our meeting.
Merton and Lax worked on the Jester and both took Mark van Doren’s course on Shakespeare. On the first day, ‘the second row was filled with the un-brushed heads of those who every day at noon sat in the Jester editorial offices and threw paper airplanes around in the room or drew pictures on the walls. Taller than them all, and more serious, with a long face, like a horse, and a great mane of black hair on top of it, Bob Lax meditated on some incomprehensible woe …
‘This was the year that I began to discover who Bob Lax was: a combination of Hamlet and Elias: A potential prophet, but without rage. A king, but a Jew, too. A mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate. In his hesitations, though without embarrassment or nervousness, he would often curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways while he was trying to find a word with which to begin. He talked best sitting on the floor.
And the secret of his constant solidity, I think, had always been a kind of natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God. Lax has always been afraid he was in a blind alley, and half aware that, after all, it might not be a blind alley, but God, infinity.’
Merton battled with what he perceived as a conflict between his talent as a writer and his quest for seclusion. Exploring the idea that we can talk ourselves into or out of any point of view, he wrote, ‘I think that if there is one truth that people need to learn it is this: that the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda.’
But the consequences of our choices cannot be ignored: ‘1939 was to be the year when the war that everybody had been fearing finally began to teach us with its inexorable logic that the dread of war is not enough. If you don’t want the effect, do something to remove the cause. There is no use loving the cause and fearing the effect and being surprised when the effect inevitably follows the cause.’
Merton entered the monastery of Gethsemani on 10 December, 1941. Eventually, with the help of his abbot, he made peace with his double vocation as a writer and a monk. Writing became his spiritual practice and service.
‘In practice, there is only one vocation,’ he wrote. ‘Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to interior life, perhaps to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others.’
In 1965 he achieved a measure of seclusion when he went to live in a hermitage on the grounds of the abbey. But in April 1966 his world was shaken by an unconsummated love affair: While recuperating in a Louisville hospital after spinal surgery, he fell in love with a student nurse, known only as ‘M’ and commemorated in A Midsummer Diary for M. He ended the relationship, such as it was, and recommitted himself to his vows.
In 1968 he took a tour of Asia, during which he met the Dalai Lama in India. He also made a visit to Polonnaruwa (in what was then Ceylon), where he had a religious experience while viewing enormous statues of the Buddha. There is speculation that he wished to remain in Asia as a hermit.
On December 10, 1968, the 27th anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani, Merton died of accidental electrocution in Bangkok while attending a meeting of religious leaders. He was buried in Gethsemani, where, as predicted, his ‘solitude bore immense fruit in the souls of men he had never seen on earth.’
I found the book absorbing, but more than that, I love the intricate routes to knowledge that it represents: here I sit in Cape Town, with a book written in America long before my birth, in which old pencil markings reveal something of my mother’s thoughts and in which new markings reveal mine. A book about one man that brings to life the character of another, who I had to travel to Patmos to meet and whose pair of framed portraits in my study have smiled down on me benignly for 10 years. In one his eyes are open and in the other they are closed. Christiaan, the photographer, entited them ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ and I think Lax would have approved. Would he find it odd that he has landed up on my wall? I don’t think so; a picture on a wall inspired change in his life, after all, so I’m sure he’s glad that the fruit of his labour is now inspiring mine.