Does Merton Matter Anymore?

By Ginny Cunningham

On June 3, Jennifer  Rubin, an opinion writer at The Washington Post, listed the investigations that she believed should take place should Democrats return to power in the mid-term elections. Among these are:

“Hearings on presidential war-making powers, including the executive branch’s claim to nearly unlimited military powers and any assertion that a first strike on North Korea or Iran could be authorized without a congressional vote.

A deep dive into corruption and misuse of taxpayer funds at the Environmental Protection Agency under Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Robust oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, including the family-separation policy of this administration. . .”

Who among The NewPeople readers cannot name one or several issues whose management under the present administration causes rage and/or despair. Presidential norms and practices have either been obliterated or are on the chopping block. Five hundred days in and we are terminally weary, wondering where interior peace can be found and seeking understanding and insight about the human condition amid the noise of 24/7 cable tv?

Members of the Thomas Merton Center are luckier than most, for our namesake’s words are perhaps even more resonant today than they were in the 1960s. In the letters, journals and books that were written by and about him can be found:


  1. Prophetic insight that is frighteningly pertinent today.
  2. A voice that transcends the rabble.
  3. A reminder of the consequences of speaking truth.


Merton may have been observing our own time when he wrote in 1961, “There is a lot of disordered animal vigor in the U.S., a huge abundance of it still, rambling and incoherent, discontented, baffled by its own absurdity, and still basically seeking something. I think the search has almost been given up.” Or this: “I observe with a kind of numb silence the inaction, the passivity, the apparent indifference and incomprehension with which most Catholics, clergy and laity, at least in this country, watch the development of pressure  . . . It is as if they had all become lotus-eaters. As if they were under a spell. As if with charmed eyes and ears they saw vaguely, through a comatose fog, the oncoming of their destruction, and were unable to lift a finger to do anything about it. . . May God deliver us from the consequences of all this.”

Merton took pen to paper. Though he’d chosen the contemplative life, his voice—channeled through countless letters, journal entries and books—gained a global audience. Monastic authorities censored his writings and even silenced him for a period. His books were burned in Louisville, Kentucky. He suffered brutal criticism from those—Catholic authorities among them—who defended the nuclear build-up and war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, he continued writing on faith, contemplation, non-violence, joy, courage, solitude, social change, racism, justice, and the Christian in a post-Christian world. From a post-Christian perspective, Merton asked how we defend and foster the highest human values: “the right of man to live freely and develop his life in a way worthy of his moral greatness.” He wrote of the need to “to protect man against the criminal abuse of the enormous destructive power which he has acquired.”

Merton wrote what he was driven to write. He lived as he felt called to live. And then he died at age 53. He didn’t, as the myth suggests, fall out of a shower into a fan with faulty wiring. The shower was in another room and photos of his body taken immediately after his death are inconsistent with a fall. What actually happened? How did he die? Why? And why does a myth about the manner of his death persist?

Perhaps Merton would decline an investigation. He had grappled with the challenges presented by monastic life. He addressed through his writing the issues that faced and continue to challenge humankind. He was faithful in his search for truth and always seeking greater unity and a more transcendent understanding. The Thomas Merton Center could not look to a finer model.


Ginny Cunningham is a local independent writer and member of the Thomas Merton Center.

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