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The Gift of Thomas Merton

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | April 1985

I have been reading Michael Mott’s recent bi­ography of Thomas Merton, and remembering the strong and continuing influence that Trappist monk exerted on many of us who read him first in 1948, when the autobiographical Seven Story Mountain was published. I was 18 at the time and in college. I had a strong interest in 19th-century English novelists, and in American and English his­tory. I was taking courses by Perry Miller, who was a brilliantly original reader of the 18th- and 19th-century New England Puritan writers and preach­ers — but whose own religious life (he once told me) was “more a matter of reflection than faith.” I can still hear him saying those words; I can still see the twinkle in his eyes — the detached and wry look, and too, the intellectual pride that a particu­lar man knew to flourish in himself.

It was Perry Miller who told us to read Seven Story Mountain — pressed it upon us with obvious conviction. I can recall my first effort to comply, and my distinctly mixed response — admiration for a lyrical writer and skepticism with respect to his message. I was, at the time, all caught up in the promise of another kind of message, that of psy­choanalysis, and kept wondering whether the au­thor of this book (at 33, some 15 years older than I was at the time) ought not have sought a psychia­trist’s help — a way of “working out” all the ob­vious troubles described in the book.

As I give the foregoing account I feel embar­rassed and ashamed, and yet I am not so sure Mer­ton himself didn’t confidently expect, as he pen­ned his account of his still young life, such a re­sponse from people of my (American, bourgeois) generation — for whom psychoanalytic psychiatry was a newly arrived secular preoccupation, to say the least. He himself had done some reading of Freud and other psychological theorists, and later in his monastic life would have a sad and fearful and all too instructive encounter with one of them, the far from modest, the singularly tactless, the thoroughly smug Gregory Zilboorg. I note, now, my anger at Zilboorg’s arrogance and considerable stupidity in his approach to Merton — instructively reported in the Mott biography. (Merton had been having grave spells of self-doubt, if not despair, and a meeting with that well-known psychoanalyst was arranged.) Yet, I wonder whether (as a young psy­chiatrist) I would have regarded Merton all that dif­ferently; and even today, I struggle as I read of Merton’s life, or that of other Christian writers — struggle to keep at bay one or another all too con­fident psychiatric formulation meant to explain why it is a given person acts as he or she does.

In Merton’s case there was plenty early child­hood sorrow. His mother was an American artist who married a New Zealand artist, had two sons, Tom and John Paul, and soon enough got sick with cancer. Merton was only four when she died. He had a major and persisting memory, all his life, of a rather aloof, but intensely scrutinizing woman who apparently kept a journal of sorts, in which she re­corded the baby Tom’s various activities and small, day-to-day achievements: his first word, his first moment standing up, his first steps — the memora­ble victories so many of us parents have learned to witness with awe and remember with powerful nos­talgia.

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