This is my long-overdue post on Thomas Merton and his influence on my writing, the man who taught me to see writing as my true vocation. I know my Catholic friends are bored to death with him, especially after the Pope had go and mention him in his address to Congress last year. But this is for everyone else who might be curious about why I’ve turned into such an oddball kind of novelist, when I could be making a comfortable living writing chick-lit and cozy mysteries. I actually have two invisible writing mentors, Tom and John Gardner, one for each shoulder (Gardner, of course, being the slightly devilish one.) Two vastly talented men killed in freakish accidents…But leaving behind a rich legacy of lessons and encouragement for us struggling writers.
For those of you unfamiliar with Merton—and there are a few of you, including my own grown daughter—he was a talented but drifting, unfocussed sort of young man in the 1920s and 30s, who eventually fell into Catholicism in a big way, tried to join the Franciscans, was rejected due to an amoral past, and then became a Trappist monk, choosing to live an austere life of silence and contemplation. He wrote a mid-twentieth century memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, which made him very famous (then), and he continued to write prolifically behind the walls of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky pretty much for the rest of his life. Except he had to go to Thailand, and he had to touch that fan…and get electrocuted. When they finally invent that time machine, I’m going to go back and tell him, Don’t do it, Tom! Don’t turn on that fan. You’re not done living yet! Or writing… He is considered a kind of modern mystic, a spiritual master, although his spiritual path makes me very uneasy. I can’t shake the impression I have that he was looking for a way out, toward the end: Out of the monastery, maybe away from Catholicism, away from the straightjacket of fame and adulation. But he is a superb writer, though regrettably not of fiction; somehow he never quite mastered that genre. But he didn’t need to; his other writings and poetry, speak for themselves.
What I learned from him is that great truths can be cloaked in simple, humorous, even seemingly offhanded ways. Some writers seem arrogant and overbearing just through their sheer prolificacy , but with Merton, his prodigious work seems a kind of boundless generosity, a extraordinary sort of sharing. And he is nothing if not honest. He is the best kind of spiritual writer: Never pious, pretentious, lecturing (well, maybe a little in the beginning), but just real and generous.
Do you remember the film, Six Degrees of Separation? Merton and I are connected by a single extraordinary person that we both knew and experienced: Father Irenaeus Herscher, OFM, who is mentioned in The Seven Storey Mountain—the older editions even have a photograph of him. He always referred to Merton as simply, ‘Tom.’ He was one of ‘Tom’s’ closest friends when Merton taught at Saint Bonaventure University in the 1940s. And of course you know St. Bonnie’s is my alma mater. I worked at Friedsam Library as a student circulation assistant (I stamped outgoing books at the front desk, and ‘fixed’ my friends’ library fines), when Father Irenaeus was Librarian Emeritus. On Saturday mornings, I had the pleasure of working directly with him, serving as his default receptionist. It was my job to summon him from the depths of his basement office downstairs whenever he had visitors. He was a wonderful man, perhaps about eighty at that time, with his shock of white hair, bright eyes behind wired-rimmed spectacles, a cheerful Alsatian accent, and an irresistibly boyish nature: He actually walked with a kind of bounce. Whenever I buzzed the intercom for him, he would literally come running up the circular iron staircase, his sandals flapping and the rosary beads he wore at his waist jingling—he loved having visitors. He lived for them. And one snow-stormy day, there were no visitors; and he trudged upstairs rather forlornly, and stood on the other side of the desk. “No one is coming?” And I think I shook my head in sympathy: No. So he invited me downstairs, to look at his treasures; and he showed me an old-fashioned sort of schoolkid’s notebook, Merton’s own hand-written manuscript for a work whose title escapes me. A book filled with a blizzard of passionate blue-ink handwriting, the writing so intense it seemed carved into the page—does that seem familiar? I memorialized that day in The Novice Master, when Evan lays his hand on the monk Theophane’s handwritten manuscript. I did the very same thing, and Father Irenaeus did not slap my hand away, I’m happy to report. I touched Merton’s handwriting, and it was like the blessing you might receive from a relic, or on Candlemas day. I think, not to get too grand about it, I was ordained as a writer that day and had my vocation bestowed upon me. Not long after that I read Seven Storey Mountain—on the bus between New York City and Olean, delighted to come across Merton making the exact same journey in his book though by train, not the old Bluebird Special along Route 17. And even now, decades later, I still revisit his work, turn to him for an encouraging word or inspiration when the going gets rough. In April I will visit him in a more visceral way, when I make my retreat at Gethsemani Monastery, where he lived for so many years. I will kneel on his grave, and commune with him for a bit, before continuing up my own literary mountains.