Fans of the monk writer Thomas Merton are often surprised to find how low in the esteem of other monks he was sometimes held. In the fascinating memoir by Rembert Weakland OSB, former Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, and Archbishop of Milwaukee until his dramatic resignation in 2004, you find, for example (p.166):
"Merton had a negative attitude towards us 'black Benedictines'* (he considered us inferior monks, hyper-activists not to be taken seriously). I did not agree with him; nevertheless, I continued to read his writings, but with mixed reactions. His more serious mystical works did not seem to evolve out of lived experiences, but seemed formulated from academic reading. Other works, like those involving social justice, I found to be on the mark."
Weakland did not know Merton well, but sensed "a bit of aloofness around superiors" and thought that at times "his self-assurance bordered on arrogance". He is also critical that Merton had failed to assimilate areas of Benedictine spirituality: that his writings lacked both "a good foundation in biblical theology based on the best historical, critical and literary exegesis" and "the deeper liturgical spirituality expected of a monastic writer". And while Weakland praises Merton's "enormous" contribution, there was "something incomplete about the Merton endeavor that left me puzzled".
The Abbot Primate was in Thailand for the 1968 east-west monastic conference at which Merton spectacularly died. Weakland remembers that Merton's address, "Marxism and monastic perspectives", was badly received: "the talk did not fit into the aims of the meeting and there was general disappointment in the group, a view I shared."
That afternoon, a monk ran to tell Abbot Primate Weakland that Merton had been found dead in his room after an accident in the shower. Weakland's portrayal of what he finds is graphic -- but strangely devoid of emotion.
"I ran to his bungalow to find the body on the floor, face up, arms extended, hands free but slightly gnarled. A floor fan had fallen on his body leaving strips of burn marks on his arm where the fan lay."
He goes on to speak of the arrangements he had to make, and the funeral mass at which he presided the next day. It's all very cool and monastic. In sum, Weakland is saying that Merton was arrogant, formulaic, not very Benedictine, and he wrote not very good theology -- and the speech he gave before he died was inappropriate and badly received. Phew.
(* NB 'Black' Benedictines are the original, "unreformed" monks, who often run parishes and schools, and can be considered "activist" -- not a nice adjective in the contemplative world -- by the 'white Benedictines', ie Cistercians or Trappists, who are reformed Benedictines and whose notion of monastic withdrawal is more radical. Merton, of course, was a Trappist.)