The National Catholic Review

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.)

 

Comments

Anonymous | 9/9/2009 - 4:52pm
I have a high regard for both Weakland and Merton and I don't make as much as other commentators of Weakland's critique.  I was once at a Trappist Monastery on retreat and I remarked on the many titles by Merton in the bookstore suggesting that Trappist were quite intellectual.  The response I got was, "no, we are just a bunch of farmers here".  I also expressed admiration for Merton to a monk who explained that he used to intercept phone calls between Merton and his girlfriend.  The fact that Merton had a girlfriend and that Weakland had his own weaknesses does not diminish them in my eyes.  We should strive to be fully human, not pure.
Anonymous | 9/8/2009 - 5:18am
I have been aware of Weakland's critical view of Merton for quite some time and always found it puzzling, but it especially surprises me that he was disappointed with what proved to be Merton's last piece of writing, read at the monastic conference in Thailand very shortly before his death. How well it suited the conference theme, I have no idea, but to discuss monasticism and marxism, as he did, was surely a relevant topic for most if not all of the monks who were present.
It is not only the occasional Benedictine who views Merton more critically than positively but also some Trappists. While staying at St Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, back in 1961, before I had begun my own friendship with Merton, a monk I was assisting in the guest house kitchen warned me that Merton was not just off track but probably a heretic! (In his case, I sensed jealosy was a factor.)
Jim Forest
(author of one of the Merton biographies, Living With Wisdom)
Anonymous | 9/7/2009 - 10:25am
I am a life long "fan" of Merton - (I actually consider him my primary spiritual guide) - and one of the things that I find unique in Merton is how clear he was about his spiritual mission.  Merton was on a roll and did not let the criticism or judgement of others distract him - or even bother him much.  Some, I guess, could interpret this as "arrogance".  I tend to think that it underlies the prophetic nature of his message.  The man had something to say to the world.
Anonymous | 9/7/2009 - 9:09am
Interesting bit of history.  I wonder if if Weakland's views on Merton are common among unreformed Benedictines.  
Also, I can't help but think that if Weakland was a conservative prelate (in the mold of, say, Martino), Austen would have used a different adjective than "dramatic" to describe Weakland's resignation.  "Dramatic" is putting it mildly.
Anonymous | 9/6/2009 - 10:35pm
You know, I've read most of Merton and most nothing by Weakland; only his former reputation as an enlightened and praised Catholic Bishop remains vaguely in my mind. A reputation considerably decreased by revelations of his weakness. I seriously doubt Merton would hold the views of Benedictines that Weakland ascribes to him and them; activism for justice was in Merton's heart; only thru his contemplative life could he fill in the dots. Wouldn't Merton praise those who work for peace and justice as many Benedictines do! Sure he would. Thank you Austen for bring up the topic and another reason not to read Weakland's book of revelations.
Anonymous | 9/7/2009 - 1:20pm
I am shocked to find myself both in total agreement with Archbishop Weakland and admiring his ability to describe much of what I think of Merton myself.As I read the headline I found myself feeling cynical as to what he would add on the subject.Nice surprize.Thanks
Anonymous | 9/7/2009 - 4:28pm
In addition to the various books Merton published, I read his diaries which were published in the 1990s,  Like Weakland, Merton admits weaknesses and personal flaws, too (including his own struggles to remain celibate).  And Merton was very critical of and had serious conflicts with abbots and monks within his own religious order (writing biting and sometimes sarcastic criticism of them in his diaries).  In the diaries, Merton was hardest on member of his own community (more so than members of other religious orders).
Like Weakland and Merton, I am imperfect.  That said, I am glad for the ministries, writings, and legacies of both of these good men.  I have learned things from both of them.  I don't think we need to be divided into hard categories of Wealkand versus Merton.  I respect Merton's candor in his diaries.  And I respect the fact that Weakland is candid about Merton's humanity (Weakland has been candid about his own foibles).  It all seems very honest and open-minded to me.