So here’s a bit of biography of Merton’s early life. You can define him by contradictory statements: he was a noisy hermit, an ascetic who loved beer (and, he says, “to love beer is to love the world”) He was a compulsive and consistent writer who had a very ambivalent take on his art and craft, he often saw himself as a failure and said if he were ever to be a saint it could only happen in the midst of all his contradictions. He was there again for any sort of criticism, beginning with himself. T. S. Eliot said he didn’t edit enough, Evelyn Waugh said he should give up writing books and concentrated on letters concerning spiritual direction, in the end even the CIA was investigating him, but for a number of people his words, his contradictions, the messy stuff of his life is good news, fresh air rushing through in the inexact work of taking up the heart of life in order to give it away.
He was born in France with an Australasian-American alliance. His American mother parents had moved from Ohio to New York when Merton’s grandfather, called Pop in the family, made a small fortune publishing cheap picture-filled novelisations of silent movies. He did well enough to send their daughter Ruth to Paris to study interior design and where she met the son of family who had gone from London to New Zealand to be choirmasters and schoolteacher associated with the Cathedral at Christ Church,.. Owen Merton and Ruth Jenkins met in a bohemian Paris salon and produced their first son Tom rather quickly after their Anglican wedding. He was born in southern France in 1915, towards the end of WW1 but went with his family to live with Ruth’s family on Long Island, New York towards the end of the hostilities. He’s from a mixed family; highly conventional people who delighted in being avant-garde, artistic, racy. But there’s much tragedy. His mother dies of stomach cancer when he is six and his younger brother is two. Merton recalls sitting in the back of a hired-car outside a public hospital in New York City trying to read a letter of farewell from his mother who is telling him she will never see him again. It seems a needless tragedy but research in the last two years shows evidence that the hospital had a strict policy not allowing children in the women’s wards at that time.
After her death Merton’s father left Tom with his maternal grandparents but came back several years later to take him first to Massachusetts and then to the island of Bermuda where Owen Merton was involved in a menage a trois with a married American couple – a novelist and writer — which lasted for several years and which Tom’s stubborn implacability to the relationship doomed. By the time Tom was nine Owen Merton had admitted defeat, and gone with Tom to a new life in a village in the south of France. He lived there with Owen, then Tom was sent to a local boarding school and, after a year, his father arrived to take him to England where he attended Ripley Court, a small school near his English family then went on to Oakham school at the age of 13.
I’ve already mentioned my theory that everybody has a table of twelve in the middle of their heads to give them identity and definition — and I bet Merton’s was a mixed bouquet by the time. His father was there – but a bit blurry wavering semi-Impressionist painting – as well as a clear cartoon sketch of “Pops,” the practical American grandfather. The memory of his mother left a sharper impression, both worried and severe, and then there was the American novelist, bitter in her attempt to marry Owen. His father died when Tom was 14 and he’d appointed an old friend, an English doctor, to be his guardian. He tended to be critical. and a few years before at his new boarding school his great aunt Maude had been a comfort to him but he had lost touch with her. He also held dear the visit of a New Zealand aunt to NY where she taught him to pray the Lord’s Prayer. To be blunt, it’s not much of a family.
Oakham changed his mind but might not have been that good for his heart. He said he would pray daily when he first got to Ockham, but one day the school chaplain said that, “The word Love in first Corinthians 13 could be replaced by the word Gentlemen” Merton became an instant atheist and a Marxist to boot. His table got more heady. Karl Marx would’ve been at his table, along with Sigmund Freud, Mahatma Gandhi, James Joyce, – you can imagine the dinner conversation. This is heady theories of mind and politics, alienation and youthful passion but also poets, martyrs and mystics like Gerard Manly Hopkins and William Blake were modelling transformational journeys and invite us to follow. There was a place for hope but don’t you see the disconnect? A boy with such sadness, loneliness, not solitude but endless action, evasion; not silence but such a lot of noise.
He lasted a year at Cambridge. He drank too much, studied too little, the rumour is he got a local girl in trouble and a court case was settled before a full scandal, but in any case his guardian wrote him a rather brutal letter telling him he had no future in England and he might do better in America.
It was a chance to begin again. There was enough money put away by his grandfather in a trust fund for his education at Columbia University in NYC with the help of a few part-time jobs and a lot of nights were spent listening to jazz in nightclubs, with afternoons tutoring schoolboys in Latin or answering questions of tourists visiting the top of the Empire State Building in addition to his studies. He tried out for the track team, joined a fraternity, started writing for the Humour magazine and the Literary magazine as well spending most of his time with his work in literature. But he found himself moving from an intense interest in literature, both the reading and writing of it, into a deeper exploration of mysticism that would change the way he saw the world and the way he lived his life. Part of this came from a class on Shakespeare. As Merton writes, “All that year we were, in fact, talking about the deepest springs of human desire and hope and fear, and we were considering the most important realities: “life, death. time, love, sorrow, fear, wisdom, suffering, eternity.” And for the first time, I think, he felt himself surrounded by good, clever, funny friends, both professors and students, people he could trust, learn from, love; men and women to share the journey, to take the faithful path to another new beginning.
There is often a line crossed in a person’s life which can be seen more easily in others than in ourselves, where there is a motion from abstract thinking about something to doing something about it in a concrete way. For now Merton is ready to suspend disbelief and follow a more logical way as a student and a pilgrim. This required a reorientation on his mind with a higher understanding and value given to actions of the will. But he was also coming to understand himself as a poet and, even more, as a lover.
He was moved reading Aldous Huxley, in Ends and Means, that, “not only was there such a thing as a supernatural order, but as a matter of concrete experience, it was accessible, very close at hand, an extremely near, an immediate and most necessary source of moral vitality, and one which could be reached most simply, most readily by prayer, faith, detachment, love.” Then Tom began the work of training his will, budgeting his time, testing his priorities to meet the possibilities that he read in Huxley, heard from his teacher and friends as well as a visiting Hindu monk named Bramachari, and his increasing attraction and exposure to the Roman Catholic Church.
“I am not an idealist [for] the logic of the poet — that is, the logic of language or the experience itself — develops the way a living organism grows: it spreads out towards what it loves, and is heliotropic, like a plant.”
As he later writes in the text of The Seven Story Mountain, “The life of the soul is not knowledge, it is love, since love is the act of the supreme faculty, the will, by which man is formally united to the final end of all his strivings – by which man becomes one with God.”
And all his readings, late night conversations, meditations and listening to a sermon in the middle of a Latin mass all came together as a vehicle that would take him, within a very few years, to a new life in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. As he wrote on the early December day he decided to go to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, “I earnestly pray to give myself entirely to God”