Listening to a Literary Monk: Balancing Writing with Silence
Thomas Merton chose to live on the margins. As an isolated Trappist monk, he joined a strict and austere religious order as a deep and profound act of cultural resistance. He entered the Abbey of Gethsemani on December 10, 1941 at age 26, a newly confirmed Catholic and recent graduate of Columbia University with a Master’s degree in literature.
The young, disillusioned Tom Merton traded his active, secular, literary life for a different kind of existence altogether—one of celibacy and prayer in quiet, peaceful monasticism in the backwoods of Kentucky. He basically renounced the perilous and mutilated world with its spiritually vacant values as he perceived it at the time.
The following decade would witness a second world war, the mass carnage caused by atomic bombs, totalitarianism, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the United States’ increasing dependence on materialism.
Thomas Merton, born of two artist parents and from a privileged background, gave up his material possessions to drop out and be an obedient, devoted monk. And by taking such a drastic course, he assumed he would put down his pen and paper forever, for writing was not part of the Trappist tradition. His former writer-self, the side of him that had tried in vain to write the Great American Novel, and the side that wanted to be popular and recognized as a respected man of letters among his intellectual friends, would naturally disappear in the monastery, or so he thought.
But seven years later, his obscurity ended. He became an international, bestselling author with the publication of his acclaimed autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948.
From that point forward, his literary fame skyrocketed. By the 1960s, his writerly output was astonishing—over 40 books with many bestsellers among them. From behind the walls of the monastery, he worked constantly to keep up with current events via personal letters to a wide range of correspondents. Merton wrote to a friend about the “air of absurdity” surrounding America and how the “country was going nuts” not only with the war in Vietnam but also with its radicalism and war protesters setting themselves on fire.
His cultural resistance and social protest continued not through demonstrations and marches as he wasn’t permitted to participate, but through the written word.
For the last twelve years, I’ve been immersed in the life and thoughts of Thomas Merton. As a writer myself, I’ve tried to understand his remarkable literary trajectory.
One of the reasons that I, perhaps, ended up writing memoir for my first book, though it was never my original intention, was because, like Merton, I needed to do some major interior cleaning-out. I needed to find out what held at the center for me when the world and America no longer made much sense. It was as if I needed to sweep away years of accumulated debris and piles of falsehoods. The act of writing served as the powerful leaf blower to get down to the bare asphalt of the soul.
As I began working on “my project” things further fragmented and fermented internally. I heard echoes of the Sixties in myself. Just as in Merton’s earlier and more youthful form of contemptus mundi, there was much to dispute and protest in the 21st century.
I felt, and continue to feel, a strong impulse to drop out and move to my own slice-of-the-pie sanctum somewhere, and to write ever-so-quietly in my journals for the rest of my days. I want to grind the inner and external noise to a halt. To detox from all devices. To turn off the news streams, at least for a few months, in order to replenish and rejuvenate from the droning talking heads, the same-old propaganda assaults, the endless daily damage control required by the current White House.
As brokenness and alienation have seemed to engulf us, I’ve tried to make sense of warring political parties and a political climate in which a U.S. president has been publicly described as a “pussygrabber,” a narcissist, and a disgrace.
Absurdity and chaos abound. Men horde assault rifles and randomly murder innocents. Mentally ill, disillusioned young men fire at school children. Nuclear war has become a real fear again, as it was in Merton’s day and throughout the Cold War. Fewer and fewer people want to tear themselves away from their cell phones long enough to engage in real conversation and dialogue. America’s “greatness” is in question.
And another question is: what, as a writer, should I do?
My first book, We Are All Poets Here, will be released in late November, yet I’m at an existential crossroads, similar to Merton’s back in the 1940s.
I’m fighting myself over this tendency of wanting to withdraw at exactly the time I should, as a new author, plan to be more visible.
There is moral courage in dropping out as a writer, but so, too, is there moral courage in staying in—to passionately pursue the real. To stay in the game.
By the dawning of the turbulent 1960s, as Merton himself later admitted, he no longer recognized that prideful, judgmental part of himself that had first joined the Trappists. He carried out voluminous correspondence with poets, thinkers, and writers from all across the map in many different religions, countries, and cultures.
As I evolved into being kind of a Merton guru, my admiration for his beautiful and biting prose kept increasing, as when I came across his Auschwitz poem found in his poetry collection Emblems of a Season of Fury, 1963. The poem, “Chant to Be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces,” contained savage political irony. If it was spiritual fluff I wanted, I knew I had come to the wrong monk.
By the time Merton made his surprise sojourn to Alaska in autumn 1968 (which is partly the focus of my book), he had reached a new level of spiritual maturity. At the same time, though, he was mentally exhausted by the sheer force of his intellect and literary craftmanship. Part of his inner conflict toward the end of his life was how to balance the relentless writing with the need for an even purer solitude and contemplation than the monastery had provided for his previous 27 years.
How to take a step back from his non-stop writerly duties and responsibilities as a designated spiritual master while remaining socially, politically, and culturally informed? What would Alaska teach him?
During the last few years of Merton’s life, and as he prepared to embark on his trek to California, Alaska, and Asia in 1968, in that “year of everything horrible,” he began to turn the lens full circle back to his interior life’s journey.
The best form and act of resistance, Merton believed, was to not live on myths and illusions and lies. It was, first of all, to speak truth to yourself.
He wanted to travel even deeper into his interior self, away from the illusions of being an internationally famous monk, teacher, and a spiritual cause celebre.
He was less and less interested in external results, in his big-shot reputation, and in what the intellect was forever butting in to say. Or in what negativity the latest news headlines injected.
Translated as a writer into today’s terms, it didn’t matter how many op-eds you published, or how many blog readers you attracted, or how many bestsellers you wrote to capture the attention of grassroots political activists, and the power elite and establishment.
The time for making political statements through poems and essays, for trying to create real political change and to raise the social consciousness was for Merton receding. It was time to take a step back.
The Trappist Superstar was growing weary of words.
In one of his poems, he said, “I will try to be my own silence.”
Today, when the world is everywhere encroaching, when we are being assaulted on all fronts by media fatigue and obfuscation, it’s interesting to ponder that, as a writer, my best form of resistance and protest might be to put down my pen and paper, and not to contribute more words and loud talk-talk-talk.
Though I have a first book about to launch, and I will need to turn my attention to the whole self-centered social media marketing machine, the book talks, updating my author’s web site, etc., maybe the best course of action right now is to first sit in silence. Sit in silence awhile. Allow whatever more important truths I might feel and see to be made manifest.
Lately, I’ve joked with my friends about my new, daily motto: I don’t know anything about anything anymore.
I still haven’t broken up with the monk. I continue to examine Merton’s literary life from many different angles. As Merton said in one of his journals, “One must get along without the security of neat and simple, ready-made solutions. There are things one has to think out, all over again, for oneself.”
Like him, I feel a deep urge to drop out from conventional living in order to give more serious focus to developing right relationships and practices, and to care more about honest, authentic community.
And in the precious time I have left to write, to sit in silence longer to allow all the good to rise up and be heard.
Kathleen W. Tarr is the author of the forthcoming We Are All Poets Here (VP&D House), a blend of memoir and biography, a story about the struggle for spiritual clarity in confusing, chaotic times that involves Alaska, Russia, and Thomas Merton. In 2016, Kathleen was named a William Shannon Fellow by the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) and was a Mullin Scholar at USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (2011-2013). She is a contributor to the international anthology honoring Merton’s legacy and centenary, We Are Already One, (1915-2015) Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope (Fons Vitae Press). Her work has also appeared in the Sewanee Review, Cirque, Creative Nonfiction, and Tri-Quarterly, and will soon be anthologized in Merton and World Indigenous Wisdom (2018). For five years, Kathleen served as the program coordinator for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Low-Residency MFA Program in creative writing. She lives and writes in Anchorage and occasionally teaches for 49 Writers.