My summer with Tom

Moving on from overly pious men…I am spending the summer with my old flame, Thomas Merton, in a very pleasant capacity. I am actually writing several commissioned articles about him, as my involvement with the ITMS (the International Thomas Merton Society—the New York City chapter) grows. Next month I will be traveling up to my alma mater, Saint Bonaventure, to visit the Merton Archives there and prepare an article I’m writing for an upcoming Merton Seasonal ahead of the national ITMS convention that will be held up there in 2017. So you see, I don’t just write dirty novels! Or hang out on the Strip in Vegas.

Tom was a bit overly pious, in his early days as a passionate convert to the Church, as a young monk, but eventually he shook off the narrowly unquestioning devotion to become a seeker and challenger, questioning not only his faith but the actions of the outside world as well, the injustice of racism and wasteful futility of war. Bear in mind that he is now a writer highly favored by our current Pope. I’m writing now of his mission, and the paradox of his working and agitating for a better world, while behind the enclosure of Gethsemani Abbey.

This all relates to that gloomy, blustery afternoon back in early April, when I sat, all alone, at his grave at that hillside at Gethsemani and felt that spiritual connection to him. My question that week was, how is this man relevant to me and my life, and since then, I’ve been trying to work it out the best way I know how. By writing about him. And that in turn is feeding my own vocation.

Merton was a prolific writer—he wrote books, he wrote poetry, he wrote letters and letters and letters. At the learning center where I work, I battle with students’ parents over the writing essays I assign. They say I am not ‘critical enough’ of their children’s work, and that I should be whipping them into shape as expert writers. But I’m simply trying to encourage my children to write, period. For some, it’s a battle just to get one coherent sentence on a page. I want them to just write, and write; to write at length and grow comfortable with the pen in their hand, and maybe look forward to writing some more. I don’t want them to hate or fear it, but embrace it as a necessary and comforting skill, even if it is imperfect, now. It will surely improve. And through Merton I see that such prolific output does indeed polish one’s skill and lead to greatness. I see it as I progress in chronological order through his life, and watch his prose transform and mature through the decades, through his voluminous journal and letters and published books. By the time he’s in his fifties, it’s a nimble, almost weightless, effortless sort of thing, yet sparkling and clear, this writing, best showcased, I think, in his extraordinary poems.

And I try to follow his example, and write as much as I can, when I’m not teaching or reading. Even after decades of doing this, I feel like I’m not quite ‘there’ yet, and I’m sure Merton felt the same way. A great writer should probably never think he’s reached his summit yet, but continually strive for the top.

This writing I’m doing now about Merton is a joy, because I know there are editors and readers waiting for it, there’s an audience for it, it has a definite sense of purpose my fiction writing doesn’t. But I’m trying to carry over the joy and lessons of it into my own work, which has been slipping into discouraging patches in recent days. Just breathe; just write; just live. That is going to be my mantra, for the rest of the summer, at least.

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