Friday, July 3, 2015

THOMAS MERTON CONFIDENTIAL (or: did they or didn't they?)

I’ve never been much of a Mertonologist, though I know there are entire societies worldwide that exist only to praise his lowly, Trappist name.

For he was a Trappist (also known as Cistercian), a bona fide hermit, bestselling author, cult figure, and many other things besides. I think he probably wrote many hundreds, perhaps thousands, perhaps even millions of pages and is still writing them right now, even as we speak, though he was electrocuted in Thailand back in 1968. Always known to be clumsy, he grabbed a poorly-wired electric fan to steady himself when getting out of the bathtub. Don’t touch those things while wet, Thomas.

I don’t know, nor do I particularly want to know, all the details of Thomas Merton’s life history, except that when he was young, he was Bad, and when he was older, he was Good. I am not sure if he was poisonously good or not, but good he must’ve been, living in that hut and all.

I read a hilarious account written by Joan Baez in which she and her spiritual mentor Ira Sandperl witnessed the good Brother Thomas (or Brother Louis, as he was variously known)  put away two cheeseburgers, an order of fries and more than a couple of shots of Irish whiskey (let’s hope it was Irish, for God’s sake, and not that other stuff), while telling them that he had fallen in love with a woman in Lexington and wanted to go sneaking away to see her.

No one “sees” someone they are involved with. I think it involves considerably more than seeing. Other senses are involved. It’s funny that when you look up accounts of Thomas Merton’s infamous affair, many INSIST that it “wasn’t consummated”, while others insist that it obviously was. Or perhaps should have been.

Obviously, the only thing sexier than having sex is NOT having sex. We knew this in Grade Nine, for God’s sake, while fumbling frantically around in the back seat. An elbow in the eye was a fair price to pay for a digit in the right place. Or don’t you remember?

While I could never get through a  Merton biography because I don’t think they’re honest enough, and while I could not get through The Seven Storey Mountain to save my bloody life, I might be able to get through this semi-bio by Mark Shaw. It’s got an unfortunate True Confessions title (Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free) that has serious Mertonologists hopping mad, hopping up and down in their faux habits which they wear to Mertocon conventions (in which everyone dresses up as the monk of their choice).

It’s just the good parts, folks, though of course to avoid lawsuits the author has had to put it all in context: how this great man and spiritual giant became human and proved, to himself and to the entire world, that he was Humble and Contrite and got away with bloody murder because he was so famous and the abbey needed the money.

Surely that must have been part of why this enigmatic spiritual genius got away with such murder, and why he wasn’t chucked out for frolicking in the green woods with a 25-year-old woman and lying about it (his dishonesty and deceptiveness, in the long run, being the more serious sin).

Merton got himself into this delicious mess when his back gave out and he was confined to the hospital for surgery. An attractive young student nurse gave him back rubs, sponge baths, etc., and one can understand the attraction: someone who hasn’t been touched in 20 years is suddenly getting all this professionally-sanctioned hands-on attention from a young woman.

Attraction quickly gave way to . . . attraction.

Margie Smith was completely awed by the grinning Catholic Buddha/walking contradiction that was Merton, who by this time was the most famous Trappist hermit in the history of the world. He was literally twice her age, and had a very big thing (sorry!) about his vow of chastity, so that in the next few months he pushed it as far as he could without – we think – or so we are told -  “breaking” it.

I have a little bit of problem with a grown man NOT having sex with a woman he is madly in love with. It seems somehow indecent. It reminds me of Bill Clinton and his famous statement, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” because in his humble opinion blow jobs did not qualify as “sexual relations”.  It’s a fairly common practice for men to have anal sex with a woman, particularly a virgin, then deny he “had sex” with her because he used a relatively (though not entirely) non-standard orifice. I have read more than once that this practice is particularly common in fundamentalist Christian circles, where “purity” is prized but perhaps a little ill-defined.

You can have sex with a knothole, men. ‘Fess up. Friction will do it. But there is a certain prissy sense of tiptoeing around, of walking along the line instead of stepping over it. For some obscure reason I find this infuriatingly dishonest.

We define “sex” and “consummation” in some pretty strange ways. I have no problem with the act that legally defines it, but it can and often does happen with no orgasm, at least not for the woman. That’s dreadful. A man with a talented hand can get you there without even undressing you. You see, we live in a sexually-limited society which is secretly still appalled at the whole thing, or at least doesn’t care two figs if a woman is sexually satisfied or not.

I get that feeling with Merton. He couldn’t get away from his feelings, but at the same time he skated around them. He was playing the naughty boy, the bad monk acting out, while secretly hoping his abbot would grab it and get him back to where he belonged. But he played his young would-be lover, too, perhaps even played her for a fool.

This excerpt from the Thomas Merton Confidential book kind of sums up the whole thing, with the same sentiments repeated over and over as he refuses to decide either way and deceives everyone in his monastic world.

“As May ended, Merton was frenzied as he attempted to sort out his feelings after a second secret interlude, where “we got ourselves quite aroused sexually” and he suffered “a great deal of confusions, anguish, indecision and nerves.” He decided, “I cannot let this become a sexual affair, it would be disastrous for both of us.” Placing at least part of the blame on Margie and her “being too curious . . . and too passionate for me (for her body to tell the truth was wonderful the other day, ready for the most magnificent love)”, Merton, praying he could resist her, recalled more talks about the need for the love to be chaste. He was fearful of another meeting alone on the Gethsemani grounds, and told her it was unwise.”

They keep meeting, though meeting right on the grounds seems like lunacy to me, not to mention more than a little “nyaa, nyaa, look what I’m getting away with”. They meet every place they can, which is pretty hard because he is not supposed to leave the abbey or venture very far from his hermit’s hut. His writings about his passionate, illicit interlude, which are surprisingly candid for someone who must have known it would eventually be published along with all his other writings, are full of references to eroticism, kissing, and “making love”, though stopping short of “real” sex in the form of intercourse (which is, after all, the only true sex).

“He admitted later that night that any step toward a ‘fully involved erotic and sexual love for (Margie) – completely fulfilled and frequently so’ would affect his life and vocation as never before. This was because he knew the loving affection he had for her – ‘with the explicit sacrifice of sex and of erotic satisfaction’ – was more in harmony with God’s love than against it. Did Merton’s words mean no consummation of the relationship had occurred?”

Perhaps the question is academic. But isn’t it true that he shouldn’t have been doing anything that wasn’t acceptable for his abbot to see? What about the most powerful monastic vow of all: obedience? This stuff wasn’t acceptable by anyone’s reckoning. If they weren’t having sex, some serious friction must have been going on. It bothers me just to read about it, even creeps me out. The most alarming passage recounts their wangling office space from a psychologist, drinking champagne, and (at least Margie) getting naked. You almost HOPE he jumps over the wall at this point, because the whole thing is beginning to seem downright agonizing and masochistic. Not to mention hypocritical and dishonest.

One fact which often isn’t mentioned in recounting this strange interlude is the power imbalance between a student nurse in her 20s and one of the most famous and revered spiritual leaders of the 20th century. Even more shocking is the fact that Margie Smith was engaged to be married at the time, her fiancĂ©e having just been shipped over to Vietnam. It gets harder and harder to see this as the wonderful (and, of course, unconsummated) romantic interlude that humanized the great guru and made him Even More Wonderfully Spiritual (because now wonderfully human) than ever.

What seems to have happened is that he gradually lost interest in Margie, after having broken it off a number of times (citing his precious vow of chastity. This begins to remind me of one of those wretched Southern debutantes attending a “purity ball”). He renewed his vows and pledged himself once again to being the most famous and gregarious hermit in the world.

One wonders about Margie. By all accounts, she pulled herself together and married (though not to the same guy she was engaged to: did stories of Thomas somehow cause a rift, I wonder?). I have yet to encounter anything written about this strange interlude that is at all critical of Merton, though it is obvious to me that a 51-year-old spiritual giant is no match for a confused, already-romantically-committed student nurse. And what about all the sexual dangling and lack of fulfillment, which may have carried on right to the end? Was that fair to her? Was it all just a titillating game? Was he dangling HIMSELF as the ultimate, unattainable prize?

We’ll never know, because the guy grabbed an electric fan while soaking wet, and thus was instantly delivered by the powerful slingshot of a few thousand volts to that great and unfathomable mystery on the Other Side.

Post-blog thoughts. I found out, to my great consternation, that there is only one YouTube video I can find featuring the real Thomas Merton giving a real talk. It takes place in Thailand in 1968. Shortly after this talk, feeling a little limp in the heat, he decided to take a shower (or bath depending on which Merton legend you buy into). Then came the encounter with the electric fan that ended his life. So Merton's last spoken words, in public anyway, were "let's go grab a Coke or something." Kind of makes me love him a whole lot more.

ADDENDUM. The death of Thomas Merton

Twenty seven years later, on the same day that he had arrived at the monastery - December 10th, 1968 - Merton died in Asia.

On December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Merton made his last journal entry, and said Mass at St. Louis Church in Bangkok. Merton had been invited to the 
Bangkok conference of Benedictine and Trappist Abbots. He left for Samutprakarn, 29 miles south of Bangkok, for the Sawant Kaniwat (Red Cross) Conference Center, arrived in the afternoon and was housed on the ground floor of Cottage Two.

On the 2nd day of the conference (December 10th), Merton presented his paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspective”. The paper had been on his mind for many weeks, and he was somewhat nervous by a Dutch television crew that had turned up to film his lecture. (His abbot had ordered him to avoid the press.)

Merton’s paper dealt with the role of the monk in a world of revolution …

“to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate it to others.”

Finishing the talk, Merton suggested putting off questions until evening, and concluded with the words:

“So I will disappear.”

He suggested everyone have a coke.

At around 3 PM Father Francois de Grunne, who had a room near Merton’s, heard a cry and what sounded like someone falling. He knocked on Merton’s door, but there was no response. At 4PM, Father de Grunne, worried that something was wrong, looked through the louvers in the upper part of the door and saw Merton lying on the terrazzo floor. A standing fan had fallen on top of him. The door was forced open.

There was the smell of burned flesh. Merton, clearly dead, was lying on his back with the five-foot fan diagonally across his body. The fan was still electrically volatile.

A long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin. There were no marks on his hands. His face was bluish-red, eyes and mouth half open. There had been bleeding from the back of his head. [see footnote]

The priests gave Merton absolution and extreme unction.

Merton’s body was dressed and laid out, and the abbots attending the conference maintained a constant vigil for him.

“In death Father Louis’ face was set in a great and deep peace, and it was obvious that he had found Him Whom he had searched for so diligently.” (Letter from the abbots attending the Bangkok to the Abbot of Gethsemani)

The next day Merton’s body was taken to the United States Air Force Base in
Bangkok and from there flown back to the United States in company with dead bodies of Americans killed in Vietnam.

An official declaration of Merton’s belongings came with his body and read:

1 Timex watch, $10.
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise frames, nil
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary, nil
1 Rosary (broken), nil
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child, nil

At the end of the funeral Mass at Gethsemani, there was a reading from The Seven Story Mountain, concluding with the book’s prophetic final sentence,
“That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

His brother monks buried Merton in their small cemetery next to the abbey church.

- Beth Cioffoletti, louie louie blog

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