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Behold, You Will Be Silent

From the Life of Thomas Merton

by Dennis McInerny -- Part I


When Merton entered the monastery in 1941, he embarked upon a life which cut him off from normal concourse with the American public. Unlike contemporaries of comparable prestige and celebrity, he was not exposed to the steady diet of newspaper, magazine, radio and television interviews by which our society regularly attempts to explore every nook and cranny of its men of letters to see what makes them tick. Neither did he ever go on the college lecture tour, to read his poetry or express his views, and later to field questions from a querulous audience, and later still to try to cope with the oppressive chubbiness at the cocktail party in the home of a concerned professor. That Merton was spared these dubious insights was unquestionably to his benefit, but it leaves us without sources of information about him which may have been valuable. All this is by way of emphasizing the fact that Merton's main means of communicating with the world was through his own writing. Because so much of his life was dedicated to writing, because to talk about Merton the writer is to talk about a very crucial part of his total identity, because, again, so much of his person and virtually all of his ideas were transmitted to us through his writing, it makes good sense to begin this study proper by discussing Merton the writer.

The title of this chapter is ironic. The words, "behold, you will be silent," played a significant part in Merton's life. In "The Seven Story Mountain" he tells us about the occasion when, while teaching at St. Bonaventure's unsure whether or not it was his destiny to be a Trappist, he resorted somewhat hesitantly it should be noted to the remedy of opening the Bible at random and putting his finger blindly on a passage to see what answer it might provide. His eyes fell upon "ecce eris tacens," the words spoken by the angel to Zachary, the father of John the Baptist. Though he was later to feel somewhat sheepish about this action, fearing that it smacked dangerously of superstition, the words did set him back on his heels at the time. "Behold you will be silent." Was it coincidence or providence which impregnated these words with their special significance for him? He was thinking a life of obscurity and silence. The Bible seemed to say that it would be so.

But insofar as that incident was prophetic in its implications, it was ambivalently so. True, Merton did join the Trappists; he did join an order which is chiefly known by the fact that its members abide by a strict rule of silence indeed, if people know nothing else about the Trappists they know this about them. But did Merton lead a life of silence? Hardly. Speaking is not the only way of breaking silence; writing also does the job, and judging from the amount which Merton wrote he has to be regarded as anything but a man of silence. To the contrary, he is one of the most talkative Trappists on record.

This is one of the major ironies of Merton's story. Here is a man who made a dramatic decision radical to alter the course of his life. He determined to give up the world, to turn his back on all preciously conceived notions of what he should be and wh at he should do. Among such notions was the idea of being a writer, specifically a novelist. His decision made, that idea was now seen as straw, a feeble vanity which had been nourished by his pagan pride. Writing was at least for him a worldly occupation, a distraction. He wanted to put it behind, to live for God alone. His name was now Fater Louis. He wanted "Thomas Merton" to shut up, to remain a person of the past. He wanted simply to fade away without frenetics or fanfare, to lead the silent life. So he took what one would suppose to have been a remarkably logical step to fulfill his desire: he entered a Trappist monastery. And what happened? He became a world famous author. "Thomas Merton" not only refused to be muzzled, he gained heights of pre-eminence which, in all likelihood, he never would have gained had he stayed back in New York and followed through on this earlier plans to be an academic or novelist.

It is odd how many people want to hold Merton personally at fault for this bizarre turn of events, as if he had deliberately planned it this way. More than once I have heard Catholics complain about this prolific monk who belonged to an order which was supposedly bound to silence, as if with every publication he was betraying a sacred trust. But non-Catholics as well seem to be offended by the incongruity, not so much for ethical reasons, but rather because they felt that there are in the circumstance overtones of aesthetic impropriety. Trappists simply should not write that much; it is not the way things are supposed to be. These reactions aside, it is important to know that Merton's becoming very much the complete writer, and in the process losing out on the privacy and silence he came to the monastery to find, was not altogether the result of his own choice.

Whatever residual longings to be a writer, particularly a poet, may still have been clinging to his unconscious when he came to the monastery, it is abundantly evident that he had definitely decided to give up writing once he arrived. He did not reach this decision without a considerable amount of difficulty, perhaps even pain, for Merton if such phrases mean anything at all was a natural writer. Writing was in his blood, and he put words to paper as much out of need as desire. For him, as for many writers of the same cut (Thoreau and Wolfe, for example), the act of writing was a way of realizing the world of brining to term events, thoughts, emotions the various and disparate stuff of a person's existence which otherwise would have remained in a permanently embryonic state within his mind. And yet, though writing lay close to the center of his being perhaps because it did he saw it as an impediment rather than an aid to the task which must now demand all of his dedication and energies. The original manuscript of "The Seven Storey Mountain" contains several passages which did not appear in the published version and which tellingly recount the struggle he was going through at this time.

It seems that for a while after his arrival at the monastery Merton continued to keep a journal, and perhaps work out a poem every now and then. But he quickly brought himself up short on this matter. The manuscript states: "I used to be a writer, but God wants me to die to all that. I shall give up all writing. Nothing more, not even a spiritual journal. Poems I renounce forever: did I come to the monastery to be a poet? God forbid." That seems unambiguous enough. Apparently, however, no doubt in the conviction that he was at fault for doing so, Merton mentioned to this confessor that he had been writing poems. Instead of being admonished by him he was encouraged. He was told that writing poems can be a form of prayer. But he was hesitant to agree, and rather than this assurance settling his mind it only caused him the more consternation. He then went to the abbot, not so much to get further advice, but simply to have the superior of the monastery override the decision of his confessor. But the abbot thought that the confessor's advice was sound, and told Fater Louis to continue writing. He tried to impress upon him that writing should be considered by him as his monastic work; while others made cheese or washed clothes or sculptured statues or plowed fields, Frater Louis would write books . The young monk did not find the prospect encouraging, and not to be easily put off in his determination to quit writing altogether, he even went so far as to ask the Abbot General of the Cistercians, during his visitation at Gethsemani, if he would give him permission to cease and desist once and for all. The Abbot General said no. He told Merton that he should write in a spirit of peace and equanimity; he could never go totally wrong by obeying his superiors.

Merton did obey, but not without, one imagines, heaving a deep sigh of resignation. It was as if he had been driven to give up writing by an instinctive notion of what was right for him to do. If he could not now give it up he would at least completely transform it. It would become something entirely different than it had hitherto been for him. He would write now no longer for Thomas Merton but for God. But it was not going to be easy. In fact, he was convinced that by being saddled with the obligation to write, and willingly accepting that obligation in the spirit of obedience, he had taken on one of the most formidable crosses which it would be his duty to bear as a Cistercian monk. Thus, in a relatively short span of time, things had come full circle with regards to Merton's plans for his writing. He sums up the situation for us in the original manuscript for the "Seven Storey Mountain. "So in the end, after a lot of twisting and turning and scruples and questions, I am still what I started out to be in the beginning: I am still a writer."