Back in my college days, my friends and I were huge fans of Thomas Merton. I read his short essay “Firewatch” while I was in college and found his journals on retreat but it wasn’t until I traveled to Florida in May that I started reading The Seven Storey Mountain, the story of his life leading up to him becoming a Trappist monk. It wasn’t until I was helping my brother move into his new apartment that I was able to finish it.
One reason my friends and I are huge fans of Merton is that Merton took a long and winding road to find home in the Catholic Church and like many of us, had vocation issues. Throughout his travels, God was always with Merton even when he wasn’t aware of it, through the poetry that he read. Merton had his conversion in New York City and after a few years, finally found his vocation as a Carthusian monk in Kentucky.
Whenever I picked up The Seven Storey Mountain, I felt like I was travelling with Merton wherever he went, whether it was in England or France or Cuba or New York. His words conveyed so much beauty, especially when he talked about observing the Mass as an outsider. And this was back in the days where Latin Mass was the norm. But when I was sleeping up in my brother’s loft apartment, Merton’s words of him visiting the monastery for the first time and starting his life as a monk were a beautiful solace where wi-fi couldn’t be found.
I understand that Thomas Merton is a bit of a controversial figure. But last time I checked, he didn’t leave his monastery for either Buddhism or a woman. He never broke his vows. I understand being fascinated by different religions, even enthralled. But if Thomas Aquinas was able to learn different things from the religions of his time as well as the atheists, then I wouldn’t put it past Merton to try and do the same if he lived longer. I also understand falling in love. It happens even to people who take a vow of chastity.
And hey, as of now, Merton has a bishop-elect’s approval. That’s gotta give him some cred.
Everyone has spiritual and emotional crises that they have to overcome. Whatever happened to Merton could easily happen to any of us. But the best saints come out of the best sinners. If I learned anything from Thomas Merton this past weekend, it’s that when I have a crisis, I have to turn to Jesus and cry out to him if I must.
One particular passage from The Seven Storey Mountain stood out to me. It was from Merton’s first encounter with the Gethsemani monastery, after celebrating Mass with them.
“See Who God is! See Christ here, on the Cross! See His wounds, see His torn hands, see how the King of Glory is crowned with thorns! Do you know what Love is? Here is Love, Here on this Cross, here is Love, suffering these nails, these thorns, that scourge loaded with lead, smashed to pieces bleeding to death because of your sins and bleeding to death because of people that will never know Him, and never think of Him and will never remember His Sacrifice. Learn from Him how to love God and how to love men! Learn of this cross, this Love, how to give your life away to Him.”
I have been emotionally exhausted this summer, coming down from a flurry of changes in my life. People come and people go, but God was always with me. And just when I thought I could settle down, I was given one more trial of complete isolation. It wasn’t until I cried out to Jesus that I knew that the trial was over. I wrote a long prayer, asking Christ to hide me in His wounds and let me know that everything will be okay. I told him everything that I missed and how I wished things could be different. Like Merton, I realized that God was calling me to be alone with Him so that I would know how much I really needed him.