Saturday, November 14, 2015

Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon by Donald Grayston

Author Don Grayston's laughs with friends as he prepares to launch his book Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon at the Canadian Memorial United Church and Centre for Peace.

It's always a pleasure to hear my former SFU professor speak, and wherever he addresses a group, there is laughter.

That doesn't mean Donald Grayston is frivolous. Far from it. An anti-war activist, he has long worked for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. He is also a proponent and practitioner of inter-faith dialogue.

The way forward, he says, is to "include and transcend," adding, "There is no them -- only larger groups of us."

Pope Francis, Don told us, has called the monk Thomas Merton one of four great Americans and an outstanding spiritual writer of the 20th century. Merton's life was marked by restlessness. His parents, from different countries, were dead by the time he was sixteen. Merton graduated from Columbia University "at the edge of a nervous breakdown" and joined the Roman Catholic church, where he remained a monk for 27 years.

His main concerns were peace, war and non-violence. Desiring a solitude in which he could be present to himself and to God, he lived a life of contemplation at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where he wrote extensively, publishing, as Don reported to an appreciative audience, "67 books while he was alive and another forty after his death."

Thomas Merton was also concerned with ecology. He corresponded with Rachel Carson, the author of the groundbreaking book, Silent Spring.

When his abbey grew noisy with renovations and innovations, Merton was motivated to seek permission to join a monastery in Camaldoli, Tuscany. About this effort, Don opined, Merton was a "scamp." Since the monk knew the abbott read all incoming and outgoing correspondence, he smuggled out the letter of request for a hermitage at Camaldoli, and instructed his interlocutor to answer in a code that concerned roses.

Merton, said his biographer, was "both independent and deferential." In spite of his efforts, his attempt to move from Kentucky to Italy was scuttled. Yet perhaps this was for the best. At that time, Camaldoli was in the midst of a "culture war" between tradition and modernity.

The answer to this period of restlessness was a change of position. Given the great responsibility as the Master of Novices, he settled down and lasted ten years before restlessness struck once more.  This time, feeling he had a particular ministry for intellectuals, he sought and received permission to go to Mexico City. However, in the atmosphere of Cold War, the church kiboshed this plan too, out of fear of the influence of "somewhat communist" clerics there.

Once more Merton was told, "Bloom where you are planted." This time the consolation prize was a hermitage near the abbey, where he stayed three years. During this time, Joan Baez visited and brought him jazz records. Jazz was not allowed in the main community.

1966 turned out to be the peak year for priests to leave the church. Rather than a loss of vocation, Merton underwent back surgery. During his hospital stay, a third phase of restlessness hit, and aged 51, he fell in love with a 24-year-old nurse called Margie. Their shared passion was a highly unusual romance. For Merton, it resolved longstanding doubts about his lovability.

Fifty years later, the story of their passion still retains a certain suspense. Margie, who later married and had children, burned Merton's letters and never spoke about their affair. She has written about it, but this document will be released only upon her death. Amazingly, she has done interviews for the CBC, which will also be aired after her passing.

Merton himself died accidentally in Thailand in 1968, while he was at the height of his powers. A great practitioner of interfaith dialogue, he'd recently had a profound spiritual experience at a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. And it was after talking to Merton that the Dalai Lama said he never understood Christianity until he talked to Thomas Merton.

One of many written about Thomas Merton, Don Grayston's book deals with the Canadoli correspondence, and includes fascinating letters written to and by the great man.  

In closing, Donald Grayston quoted Merton as saying, in the context of his nuclear pacifism, "the root of war is fear. Until we deal with fear, we will not deal with violence." As someone who has worked toward nuclear disarmament, our speaker reminded us that though the press no longer harps on this, both the US and Russia still have missiles on hair trigger alert.

As much as I enjoyed hearing about it, I look forward to reading this book.

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