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Merton and the Meaning of Being a Monk
and Being Called

by Dennis McInerney


There are many things we can make of Merton's being a monk, that is to say, we can attach various psychological or sociological meanings to his decision to lead a life which, by just about every standard with which we feel comfortable today, has got to be considered rather unusual. I intend to dwell for a moment upon such matters, but before doing so, and for the sake of balance, I think it necessary to admit that the deepest meanings of his vocation as a monk are not going to be found, finally, in that kind of analysis, no matter how carefully done and well-intentioned.

There is a large amount of mystery behind a man's decision to live as a monk, and unless we are willing to begin by acknowledging this we can not lay claim to very much objectivity at all. In this sense we must be willing to accept Merton on his own terms, and concede with him that the meaning of his being a monk is explained ultimately by a response to a supernatural grace, a divine call to lead such a life. In a word, Merton chose to be a monk because he felt he had been chosen to be a monk. He believed this to be the core factor of his monastic identity, the foundation upon which rested whatever else might be brought to bear on the subject.

This, he realized, was at once an explanation and a non- explanation, for when you claim you are something because God chose you to be that something then you immediately enter into a realm of mystery where you no longer feel confident in explaining matters, not even to yourself. However, being in the realm of mystery is not the same thing as being in a state of confusion, and a man can willingly admit that his life is shrouded in mystery without being in the least doubtful that that life is the one he should be leading.

Having started with the premise that Merton's monastic life is to be viewed simply as the result of a free decision on his part to follow such a life, based upon a firm conviction of a divine call, there is nothing which says we have to stop there. More about the matter can be said, in particular that his being a monk was in part an expression of Merton the Romantic poet.

Recall it having been noted that a way of considering Merton a poet, figuratively speaking, was as one who lived out in his life many of the attitudes which were common to the poet of the nineteenth century Romantic tradition. That is to say, he tended to be a loner; he felt alienated by his times, was highly critical of his society; and he put a premium on following that personal daemon which would lead him to his enchanted yet hidden destiny. These are factors which contributed, I believe, though most probably not consciously, to Merton's decision to become a monk, particularly a Trappist monk.

The intensely medieval character of the monastery which he entered in December 1941 appealed greatly to his Romantic temperament. The milieu would provide him ample opportunity or at least so he hoped to be alone, and in the silence of his soul bring to term all the things which he was destined to be. The very idea of entering a monastery flew in the face of everything which was modern, which is to say, at least as far as Merton was concerned, reprehensible. Monasticism was a living indictment of a world which he, by the time he was twenty-five, had become thoroughly disenchanted with. To live as a monk was to live constantly in protest against that world. It was a most dramatic way of announcing one's repudiation of it. There was, as I say, a good deal of the unconscious Romantic poet in this, but we must also realize that Merton always considered the element of protest to be integral to the monastic life, not the sulking, wounded-pride type of protest common to the Romantic, but rather the robust, clear- headed protest of the prophet. The Romantic repudiates the world because it does not measure up to his expectations; the prophet does so because it does not live according to the law of God. Merton, as monk, was both Romantic and prophet, but never in equal proportions, and his Romantic notions of monasticism are relegated in great part to his early days as a monk. The longer he stayed in the monastery the more mature became his attitude toward monasticism.

Finally, in connection with the Romantic aspects of his vocation, Merton's becoming a monk was a way, as he himself suggested in The Sign of Jonas, of insuring himself that life was not going to pass him by, that he was going to confront it head-on and consequently come to a satisfactory conception of what it was all about. This seems ironical, that a man should go to a monastery to confront life, but Merton was not being any more ironical than was Henry David Thoreau who told us and Merton quotes this statement with obvious admiration and approval: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach me and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Merton had underlined all but the first eight words of the quotation. Thoreau went to the woods of Walden to live deliberately, Merton, to the woods of Kentucky.

The whole idea of becoming a monk is to simplify your life, to rid it of all the distracting paraphernalia which comes courtesy of the twentieth century, and reduce it to its simplest terms. This accomplished, a man devotes the major portion of his time grappling with life's largest questions God, love, death, eternal life the questions which we all dutifully assure ourselves that we are one day going to get around to, when we have time. The monk makes time. He makes a deliberate effort to insure that his life is "uneventful," that is, lacking in inane busyness, divertissement, so that he will ever be open to life itself. Merton was particularly sensitive about the issue of the simplicity of monastic life. For him the chief reason for pursuing the religious life was to find God, and anything which would hinder that discovery would of necessity have to be considered antipathetic to the religious life. It was a matter of total commitment. In the uncompromising fervor of the Trappist way of life Merton found the kind of total commitment he was looking for. He concluded that the Trappist really meant business, as he did, and in retrospect he saw it as providential that he did not become a Franciscan. The Franciscans were good and earnest people, no doubt, but Merton conjectured that life among then might be altogether too comfortable, too bourgeois. Where would be the sacrifice in such a life?