Thomas Merton and the Language of Spirituality


Thomas Merton. Image via The Merton Center.

by Thomas Larson

When I was growing up, neither my child nor my adolescent selves nursed the Christian nipple. My ex-Catholic father was an atheist, and Sundays were spent, by my choice, singing (not worshipping) in a church choir. After I read, aged twenty or so, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I knew that if I was tempted by some velveteen faith, I need only reread that novel to keep me honest. The most frightening apostate fiction ever penned should disabuse anyone of holy orders. Joyce begins with portraits of the familial heaviness of his Irish Catholic family; he is religiously assailed further at school where, via sermons, he is enthralled by the Church’s vision of Hell; post-grad, he begins to escape his indoctrination and adopt the life of an agnostic via literature. There, he can cherish those theological conundrums and literary questions Catholicism dismisses.

Portrait‘s Chapter III is dominated by one of the most terrifying descriptions of Hell ever recorded. (It doesn’t matter whether Joyce heard it or he’s making it up: its rhetorical power is incontestable.) Father Arnall is giving an elegant Ciceronian pep talk to the boys, “my dear little brothers in Christ,” at a sermonic retreat. Joyce “quotes” Arnall’s mighty tableaux of Hell’s ceaseless fire and eternal stench, “the millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness.” For me, the Irish writer captures the pitiless scourging of the priest’s verbal lash. Arnall speaks of the fiery pains of Hell, here, their eternal intensity.

In this life our sorrows are either not very long or not very great because nature either overcomes them by habits or puts an end to them by sinking under their weight. But in hell the torments cannot be overcome by habit, for while they are of terrible intensity they are at the same time of continual variety, each pain, so to speak, taking fire from another and re-endowing that which has enkindled it with a still fiercer flame. Nor can nature escape from these intense and various tortures by succumbing to them for the soul is sustained and maintained in evil so that its suffering may be the greater. Boundless extension of torment, incredible intensity of suffering, unceasing variety of torture— this is what the divine majesty, so outraged by sinners, demands; this is what the holiness of heaven, slighted and set aside for the lustful and low pleasures of the corrupt flesh, requires; this is what the blood of the innocent Lamb of God, shed for the redemption of sinners, trampled upon by the vilest of the vile, insists upon.[1]

The Bible tells us that God in the mystery of his love and his punishment devised these horrors. But if they came instead from the human imagination, which seems more likely to me, I wonder why. Why would anyone, knowing love, knowing forgiveness, ascribe the “boundless, shoreless, and bottomless” “lake of fire in hell” to the worst among us as earned punishment? To punish Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot—I get that. Still, for the garden-variety sinner, the unrepentant unbeliever? I’m not sure I ever reasoned if it were possible to find constructive intentions behind Father Arnall’s word-painting of Hell’s agony. Surely Joyce, who seems to me to be parodying Catholic fears and deceits, wasn’t ascribing value to such a vision.

It never occurred to me that one might favor such a fate for the wicked until I read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Here is the monk, mid-book, on the value of the Father Arnall passages:

What impressed me was not the fear of hell, but the expertness of the sermon. Now, instead of being repelled by the thought of such preaching—which was perhaps the author’s intention—I was stimulated and edified by it. The style in which the priest in the book talked, pleased me by its efficiency and solidity and drive: and once again there was something eminently satisfying in the thought that these Catholics knew what they believed, and knew what to teach, and all taught the same thing, and taught it with coordination and purpose and great effect.[2]

Merton approves of Joyce’s writerly prowess as well as Hell’s existence. By approval I allude to the literary intersection of fact and fiction. Since Joyce has limned Arnall’s sermons so well (the fact), the depiction appears true (the fiction). Rhetorical sleight-of-hand makes Hell seem a smartly bureaucratic system for endless suffering when as factual truth—I don’t buy it. I say that with confidence because no one has been to hell and back and warned us of its agony other than myth dwellers and the characters of fiction and film. And yet, despite lacking evidence, these spinmeisters (throw Hieronymus Bosch in as well) do render Hell with blindingly terror-rich depravity. I trust such rendering, in Joyce especially. But, more important, Arnall’s rants convince me not of the actuality of Hell but of the sadism inherent in Catholicism, which scares the young and the vulnerable into submission.

How odd. Neither Joyce nor I believe in a place of eternal damnation. On the contrary, we recognize that literature’s prime function is to expose how people use such a deceit to wield control, to make what is not appear what is or might be. Merton believes, as does the united front of the Catholic fortress, that the more exaggerated accounts of Hell make Hell more certain to exist. If anyone needs proof, look at Bosch, read Joyce, watch Mel Gibson (or not). The artist knows the way. Representing Christianity’s prized tenets is the point. To think that a reader welcomes a writer’s criticism of a supernatural practice as proof of the supernatural itself is an interpretive sensibility I had never considered—until I’d read Merton.

Plenty laudatory has been inked about The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948 when its author was thirty-three and had, six years prior, joined the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to become a Cistercian monk. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong wish, which Merton, in the tale, slowly recognizes in himself and which, he says, his all-knowing God revealed to him in careful installments. His autobiography is a complexly onerous and highly unstable book. Overlong and self-obsessed (if not self-infatuated), performative and petulant, its four-hundred-twenty-three-pages sweep through Merton’s childhood and adolescence and young adulthood. The first half is studded with disclosures of his literary interest and flirtations of his religious concern (reading medieval mystics and Gerard Manley Hopkins—and praying) until, graduating from Columbia University in 1938, he hears the whispers of faith coming from a nearby Catholic Church. With the mystery of the Mass, he begins to accede to the creed. Merton’s self-realizations pick up dramatically as he converts, is baptized, enters the priesthood, and leaves his bookish friends and university teaching for the contemplative life. All this religiosity yields clockwork insights into his other calling, that of the writer and the writer’s spiritual potential.

I will not dwell on the book’s flaws—Merton himself said in 1967 that were he to revise the book, one of America’s bestselling religious books ever published, “I’d cut out a lot of the sermons, I guess, including the sales pitch for Catholic schools.”[3] I agree. Catholic righteousness barges into his prose like militarized police at a peace rally. About the monks, his claims border on pretension. At a Gethsemani liturgy he witnesses in 1942, the war in Europe and Japan newly joined, he notes that the “eloquence” of these ultra-pious men praying in a room in Kentucky constitutes “the center of all the vitality that is in America.” What’s more, the smitten Merton declares, such “is the cause and reason why the nation is holding together. . .. They are winning for [the country] the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.”[4]

Still, despite these pufferies, no reader can escape the man’s forthright love for Catholicism, a pull almost unthinkable during the Second World War what with malaise-ridden existentialists at his heels. In retaliation to Sartre and (godless) communism, Merton gets to faith via reason and revelation.

One of Merton’s reveals occurs during a visit to Cuba where the Catholic Church is predominant. There, as a novitiate, he feels so free that he writes “the first real poem I had ever written” and quotes it in the text. (Merton’s collected poetry will total more than one thousand pages.) At a Mass in the Church of St. Francis at Havana, during the Consecration, he watches a group of raucous children asserting “Creo en Dios,” I believe in God. The effect on him is like Beethoven hearing Mozart. Merton has “a realization of God made present by the words of Consecration in a way that made Him belong to me.” He goes on, “But what a thing it was, this awareness: it was intangible, and yet it struck me like a thunderclap.” And, “It was the light of faith deepened and reduced to an extreme and sudden obviousness.” Merton then boards the spiritual transport.

The reason why this light was blinding and neutralizing was that there was and could be simply nothing in it of sense or imagination. When I call it a light that is a metaphor which I am using, long after the fact. But at the moment, another overwhelming thing about this awareness was that it disarmed all images, all metaphors, and cut through the whole skein of species and phantasms with which we naturally do our thinking. It ignored all sense experience in order to strike directly at the heart of truth, as if a sudden and immediate contact had been established between my intellect and the Truth Who was now physically really and substantially before me on the altar. But this contact was not something speculative and abstract: it was concrete and experimental and belonged to the order of knowledge, yes, but more still to the order of love.

Another thing about it was that this light was something far above and beyond the level of any desire or any appetite I had ever yet been aware of. It was purified of all emotion and cleansed of everything that savored of sensible yearnings. It was love as clean and direct as vision: and it flew straight to the possession of the Truth it loved.

And the first articulate thought that came to my mind was:

“Heaven is right here in front of me: Heaven, Heaven!”

It lasted only a moment . . .[5]

Here is a spiritual moment, complicated and clarified in language. First, Merton, the witness, says that God presents himself by way of the spoken words of the Consecration. Intoning God in words produces God. Next, Merton, the literary analyst, says “light” is and is not a metaphor. It’s the “light” of faith, which doesn’t shine but does reveal. In addition, even though he “saw” with the “light,” what he saw wasn’t ocular. Same with the “heart of truth,” another metaphor. There’s no escape. Merton, the ironist, has to get at what happened in language as a way to say that it is something unlikely language can describe.

Last, Merton, the paradoxer, describe this “light” as that which he has always longed for and yet the “light” is purified of yearning: It flew straight to the possession of the Truth it loved. How does light fly? Poetically. I should say it flies or can fly only poetically. To get the Truth to what it loves requires language. (I say this from my passion for writing and spirituality because I hope I’m not too full of myself to realize that millions of people every day everywhere have spiritual moments of simian awe and terror that are non-language based or don’t require language, in passing or in retrospect, for such moments to be true.) This sharpest of memories produces in Merton a “first articulate thought”: This Is Heaven! I’m doing my best to track Merton’s writerly spirituality. He renders the reveal in prose, then says prose can’t handle it, then says that the very thing prose can’t handle must culminate in an “articulate” thought, that is, a worded one, though I suspect there are unworded thoughts, which, it turns out, is synonymous with Heaven—a word that names the place or defines the state that the spiritual insight gives birth to. For me, it would have been Literature. For Merton, it’s Heaven.

The jolt still sizzling, Merton will spend his days in prayer and contemplation, living in the light of that light, expecting/hoping it happens again by repeating the Mass as a priest (he took solemn vows in 1947) thousands of times. “The strange thing about this light,” Merton writes, “was that although it seemed so ‘ordinary’ in the sense I have mentioned, and so accessible, there was no way of recapturing it.”[6] And yet he has, at least once, captured the transcendent, not in living but in writing: Its “sudden obviousness,” revealed and, perhaps, unreproducible, is proof, I think, of its authenticity. For Merton, this unlocks a portion of the Catholic mystery. The way God works for the literary man—out of and back into language.

While the Catholic-rooted Merton grows through the rest of book, nothing compares to this dramatic soul-alarm in Havana. The whole story rises to and falls away from this apex, like the heroine’s climactic aria in a musical. Stephen Sondheim once said that in order to write a good song he needed to write the play so he would know the narrative trajectory in which, he hoped, the moment would arrive for his heroine to express her joy or despair in song. Perhaps the whole of Merton’s autobiography must exist for him, like a five-act play, to centerpiece his Havana revelation. Staking a heavenly claim reminds us that Merton’s Catholicism is spiritual because, ironically, its grasp comes but rarely.

I’m reminded of a sentence from his The Living Bread (1956): “As long as we are in this world, our life in Christ remains hidden.” What kind of a Christian are you if your life in Christ “remains hidden”? Such is Merton’s spiritual food: Mass in Havana is a breakthrough—he ate that day but the meal didn’t end his hunger. The spiritual life, according to Merton, is one of random tremors, of unpredictabilities. The individual’s constant supplication for grace suggests that grace is common. Not at all. What makes Merton interesting is that he is not saved by such insights. Like Augustine, sixteen centuries before him, salvation hardly curbs his dissatisfaction—or his need to write. Off to his room in the cloister he goes, to pray and study in silence and to write, so his “life in Christ” may be less hidden, despite remaining “in this world.” Is there any place more “away from this world” than Gethsemani, surrounded by an eight-foot running brick wall? Still, it, and our world, are not heaven. Heaven and its spiritualizing presence is almost entirely unavailable. And, as Merton surmised early on, seeking it outright means you can’t have it. I think the elemental question about Merton the author is, how might writing help him find that hidden “life in Christ,” even when he says it’s absent? Is this why he had to write—and publish—so much? Were his poems and essays and literary criticism and his Christian philosophy mere exercises in futility?

Some of the hundreds of Merton scholars see him, in order of standing, as a poet, a memoirist, an essayist, a letter writer, a diarist, a cultural critic, and only then either a contemplative Catholic or a Zen Buddhist. This ranking seems right to me. Multiple times he tells us in The Seven Storey Mountain that he wants to be, will be, a writer. While a student at Columbia, he and his classmates were all “furiously writing novels.” One of Merton’s is a “long stupid novel about a college football player who got mixed up in a lot of strikes in a textile mill.”[7] The writer/critic, Mark Van Doren, tells Merton, whose hermeneutic skills are impressive, to teach literature, at least, try it before monasticism. He reads medieval philosophy, lingers on St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, and writes his thesis on William Blake. He persists with his dream, declaring midway through his autobiography, “I wanted to be a writer, a poet, a critic, a professor.” He wants intellectual pleasures but suspects these will end in “spiritual disaster.” He blames himself for his appetites, one of which is “the gratification of one’s own ambitions” where he’ll be mired in “his own internal self-idolatry.” Merton’s dowdy self-assessment is that “Because I was writing for myself and for the world, the things I wrote were rank with the passions and selfishness and sin from which they sprang.”[8] In his early twenties, Merton submits a novel for publication but it’s rejected. Then, in Havana, he writes his “first real poem.” He pens more fiction, letters, a journal, and translates medieval French texts; even if he becomes a monk, he feels he’ll be a literary one like his cloistered hero-authors of the Middle Ages. Indeed, though he intensifies his religious persuasion in The Seven Storey Mountain, it’s also clear that the rigors of contemplation stalk him. Those rigors unsettle him, in part, because of his writing. (How else would we know this but via his work?) Were he a “true” contemplative, and not a life-writer sui generis, wouldn’t he have chosen abstract music as his song or have been “content,” as monks appear to be, with the silence of the monastery?

When he packs his bags for Gethsemani in December 1941, he burns his three and one-half novels. Still, he holds that writing “was born in me and is in my blood.”

I brought all the instincts of a writer with me into the monastery, and I knew that I was bringing them, too. It was not a case of smuggling them in. And Father Master not only approved but encouraged me when I wanted to write poems and reflections and other things that came into my head in the novitiate.[9]

And then, surprise, he submits his poetry to New Directions press, they publish Thirty Poems, and he, still a novitiate, receives a copy in the mail near the end of 1944:

By this time I should have been delivered of any problems about my true identity. I had already made my simple profession. And my vows should have divested me of the last shreds of any special identity.

But then there was this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister.

He is still on my track. He rides my shoulders, sometimes, like the old man of the sea. I cannot lose him. He still wears the name of Thomas Merton. Is it the name of an enemy?

He is supposed to be dead.

But he stands and meets me in the doorway of all my prayers, and follows me into church. He kneels with me behind the pillar, the Judas, and talks to me all the time in my ear.

He is a business man. He is full of ideas. He breathes notions and new schemes. He generates books in the silence that ought to be sweet with the infinitely productive darkness of contemplation.

And the worst of it is, he has my superiors on his side. They won’t kick him out. I can’t get rid of him.

Maybe in the end he will kill me, he will drink my blood.

Nobody seems to understand that one of us has got to die.[10]

In this excerpt, Merton sounds crankily sacerdotal and Dracula-ishly self-pitying. Somehow, he knows he’s on the verge of seismic Catholic self-expression. He will publish at least fifty books from his thirtieth to his fifty-third year, more posthumously. Merton makes the great discovery, as many artists do, that his I authorizes the “I” who appears on the page.[11] The writer, one I, gives birth to the monk, another “I.” Echoing the conflicted selfhood in Augustine, we have in Merton this self-versus-other tension, more expansively and more psychologically shaped. With Augustine, the religious persona is attested to; with Tolstoy, the religious persona is disputed; with Merton, the religious persona is a struggle between twin becomings. That which he wants to be and that which he is. Sometimes, he wants to be the writer and is the monk; other times, he is the writer and wants to be the monk. There’s no telling exactly who’s who. I recall Jean-Francois Lyotard’s perfect paradox: What I am not yet, I am—neither role is ever fully separate or fused.

I disagree that The Seven Storey Mountain should be prized for its religious/spiritual insights or its peaceable contemplativeness more so than its literary artistry.[12] That artistry and Merton’s eloquence make this autobiography disarmingly honest and adroitly aesthetic. At book’s end, Merton shifts to third person and dramatizes his Gethsemani-birthed ambivalence. Once the gate closes, he’s not sure: keep writing poems and articles for magazines or be a monk—the former his nature, the latter his choice. What should I, the author, do? What should “he,” the contemplative, do? How much should “he” retreat? To choose, Merton enlists the help of the Abbot, maybe to stroke his ego, maybe to nurse his vulnerability. The Abbot, in whom Merton wisely or unwisely backstops his fate, tells him, “I want you to go on writing poems.”[13]

Permission given, Merton the author makes the most of it. In addition to fashioning his “I” or Catholic persona on the page, Merton commands the Heavenly Father to speak as Merton instructs him to, with first-person authority and, as is God’s wont, with blistering intent. God (I) tells Merton (You), “You shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My mercy which has created you for this end . . ..”[14] The feeling is, Merton needs God himself to house a personality, which gives him orders, the grindier the better, to conform.

What’s phenomenal about The Seven Storey Mountain are these ironical points-of-view. The book swats at the Augustinian religious autobiography that hatches an obedient, abstinent, and saved individual. Merton’s not that man. His is not a record of argumentative exhaustion into faith. His is a new foray in life-writing: a self-aggrandizing author whose struggle is not with spirituality per se but with representing the spiritual struggle—seeing the light, living in the light, missing the light—in language. Such a talent is exercised by no other religious author before Merton. How dicey it is to think language can replicate Merton’s metanoia, “in which,” to quote Albert Stone, “the ordinary time-bound self is lost in union with God.” Obviously, I’m arguing, the time-bound self lost in union with God isn’t the “I”—contemplative, critic, Catholic—who wanders in and out of Merton’s pages. For me, testifying to this difficulty of being and representation gives Merton spiritual cred as a writer. He knows his work bridges transcendent experiences and the continued need to understand the worth of those experiences.

This is the agon. The literary Merton asks the saved Merton why at Gethsemani he, the literary Merton, needs to keep communicating—to himself and to his brothers and to us—who this saved Merton is. No wonder his prose fractures: It reflects the cracks in his personal and artistic psyche.

One legacy of the artist’s psyche is that few have followed Merton’s monasticism. Only a thimbleful of ascetics comprises the Cistercian line. His literary life, on the other hand, beacons millions. His searching meditations, his spellbound poems, his rapturous criticism draw devotees. However, I think the romance of his Kentucky withdrawal is the strongest impediment to people wanting to “be like Tom.” The author of The Seven Storey Mountain creates such a vibrant, perspicacious intelligence on the page that the hermit’s life Merton thought engendered his style is overstated. Removing himself from the world merely reconnected him to the world through books. Quilled, he was never truly alone. What else are books but temptresses. No wonder Merton hoped to leave Gethsemani, travel to Asia, and ensoul himself in Zen Buddhism. This 1954 letter to his Abbot gives an idea.

I am beginning to face some facts about myself. Yes, need for more of a life of prayer, greater fidelity, greater sincerity and simplicity in doing what God wants of me. Easy to say all that. It depends on getting rid of something very deep and very fundamental in myself. . .. Continual, uninterrupted resentment. I resent and even hate Gethsemani. I fight against the place constantly. I do not openly allow myself—not consciously—to sin in this regard. . .. I am not kidding about how deep it is. It is DEEP.[15]

An eremitical life is exemplary of nothing but preference. Would Austen, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, or Toni Morrison have been better writers had they been more Mertonesque? One need no religious values to value his literariness. This is what I mean when I say the good spiritual writer, who may “see” with the vision of a St. Teresa, achieves her value via the artist’s aesthetic, and not through dogged faith. If the reverse were true, then spiritual literature would have a pedigree and Merton would be one of thousands. But such a literature has not evolved and Merton is a rarity—and, if divine, a divine rarity.[16]



[1] A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, edited by R.B. Kershner. St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Page 119.

[2] The Seven Storey Mountain, Harcourt, Brace and Company: 1948. Page 211.

[3] Quoted in Thomas Merton: An Introduction by William H. Shannon, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1997. Shannon idolizes Merton but does provide a measure of critical insight:

The Seven Storey Mountain has many weaknesses: the narrowness of its theology, the smug sense of belonging to the “true” church, the frequent putdowns of other Christian churches, the brushing aside of Eastern religions as worthless, the sharp separation of the supernatural from the natural, the homiletic tone that interlaces the text with sermons and fervorinos, not unlike those Catholics were hearing from the pulpit on Sunday. If The Seven Storey Mountain continues to appeal to a whole new generation of readers, this is not because of, but in spite of, its theological stance. For today’s readers, the magnanimity of the writer somehow transcends the narrowness of his theology (62).

[4] The Seven Storey Mountain, page 325.

[5] Pages 283-285.

[6] Page 285.

[7] Pages 181-182.

[8] Quotations from page 231.

[9] Page 389.

[10] Page 410.

[11] In the Bible, I find it more than curious that the Almighty tells Jacob, “I am the Lord God,” expressing a rather Large Otherness, perhaps the onset of this split personality in literature. (Didn’t Richard Nixon assert on occasion to no one in particular, “I am the President!” as if we needed to be reminded of the fact that he actually was?)

I note, too, that Jesus utters just once, “When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he.” Most of the time his followers regard him as Son. Usually, he’s not self-referential but metaphoric: I am “the bread of life,” “the light of the world,” and “the good shepherd,” among other things. It’s safe to say that writing has this ability for any of us, gods or mortals, to don the mask: what we say we are we are, at least, in our own minds.

And yet, for me, Jesus remains a symbolic, mythical, nonindividual, despite so many who buy the Hollywoodization of his Crucifixion. That we should “believe in” him because he died a violent death for humankind’s sins, all seventy billion of us who have ever lived. Augustine is a much more authentic model of an individual, for he burdens himself—a claim as daring as those who report on Jesus—as the living embodiment of Christian humanity and Christian suffering. Whatever Christ is he is not the first Christian: Augustine is.

Finally, why do I say Jesus is a nonindividual? Claims to his historical personage will persist forever. For those of us who see individuality quantified and qualified by some documentary evidence, the autobiography or memoir (a signed painting or composition would also do) more than makes the case. Augustine’s life is authenticated by his writing; Christ’s life is hearsay. If I have to “believe in” one over the other, well, . . .

[12] Has anyone ever measured the number of converts because of this book? I wonder. How many enter the priesthood after reading a confession or autobiography? It’s possible that our culture allows, in many respects, a Merton-like inwardness among solitary types who are not pre-visited by a religion. I hope it’s obvious that as a nonreligious writer, I identify with Thomas Merton the author and not Thomas Merton the Catholic. Although what exactly that difference is, I’m still working out.

[13] Page 413.

[14] Pages 422 and 423, from which this quotation comes, form the most remarkable voice in The Seven Storey Mountain: Thomas Merton speaking God’s words in quoted italics directly to him, the author. The book’s final sentence: “That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

[15] Quoted in Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down: The Long Encounter Between Thomas Merton and His Abbot, James Fox by Roger Lipsey, Shambhala Publications, 2015: Pages 57-58.

[16] What would a definition of “spiritual literature” entail? It might begin with this quotation from Flannery O’Connor on Simone Weil. “Simone Weil is a mystery that should keep us all humble, and I need more of it than most. Also, she’s the example of the religious consciousness without a religion which maybe sooner or later I will be able to write about.”

About the Author:

Critic, memoirist, and essayist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart DiseaseThe Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a twenty-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader and the Book Reviews Editor for River Teeth. His website is