Reflections on Thomas Merton and Women

By Joyce Rothermel

Each year International Women’s Day is celebrated throughout the world (this year on March 8).  People gather to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women.

This year, we would like to share some of the thoughts and experiences of Thomas Merton regarding women and the feminine.  Thomas Merton lost his mother at age five.  He was raised by his father, who was absent much of the time due to his international work as an artist.  He had one brother, but they did not have a close relationship in their youth.  They lived with uncles, aunts and grandparents after their father’s death when they were still teenagers.

As a young adult, Merton was socially and sexually active.  He fathered a child in England while he was going to school at Cambridge.  He was bailed out by his guardian and transferred to the US. (The woman and their child were killed in the London bombings of World War II.)   

It was while he was in New York going to Columbia University that he was drawn to the Catholic Church.  He was inspired by Baroness Catherine Doherty, founder of Friendship House in Harlem, a place that provided help to people in need.  She said of Merton in a letter to the Abbot upon Merton’s death: “Fr. Louis (Merton’s religious name) in some strange and mysterious way I never quite understood, was in part my spiritual son.”  In 1963 she had written to Merton, “You know, of course, that I love you much in the Lord.  For it was He Who brought us together in Friendship House for such a short spell of time.  In a strange manner I feel like an older sister or even mother to you.  Why?  I cannot tell.  Maybe it isn’t even that at all—yet there is a bond.”

It is not until Merton began to write that his thoughts on women came to be known.  Seeking wisdom was at the depth of Merton’s insatiable reading, study, prayer and networking correspondence.  Hear the respect Merton has for the feminine in his writing: “There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all….  There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, …speaking as my sister. Wisdom.”

Merton acknowledged to his friend Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, General Superior of the Sisters of Loreto, one of the few women (and only American woman) invited as an official observer to the Second Vatican Council that, “Women have been left out.  Women have been left out of the Church for a very long time and it might be quite good if they got back in.”  In a letter to her while she was in Rome, Merton wrote, “It was not really a surprise to me that you were chosen as observer from the better half of the human race….”

In Merton’s study of church history, he learned of Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century mystical theologian who was not allowed to preach, teach, or write theology under pain of excommunication.  She has since become the mystic of our time.  Thomas Merton call her “one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices” and “the greatest medieval theologian.”

Another woman with whom Merton carried on a lengthy correspondence was Rosemary Radford Ruether who is still alive.  She is a theologian and feminist writer.  She was on the faculty at Howard University until 1976.  Ruether first wrote to Merton in 1966 two years before he died.  As a young theologian Merton treated her as a peer.  They dialogued about theology and Ruether challenged him on his vocation.  Ruether remains an advocate for women’s ordination, a movement among Catholic religious persons who affirm women’s capacity to serve as priests.

These are only a few of the women with whom Merton corresponded and wrote about during his years in the Monastery (1941-68).  One of Merton’s books that I would recommend to TMC friends is The Hidden Ground of Love:  The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns edited by William H. Shannon.  There you will find letters to Dorothy Day, Coretta Scott King, Ethel Kennedy and many other women who were touched by Merton’s compassion and wisdom.

Were Merton writing today, he would have a lot to say about the women’s movement, the burden women carry with the vast poverty and disparity around the globe, the indignity women experience as sexual objects and in violence toward women.   I think he would be a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and to the TMC projects, notably Stop Sexual Assault in the Military.

Joyce is a member of the Editorial Collective and a member of the Thomas Merton Center Board.

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