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When he was fifty-one years old, he had romance with a nineteen year old nursing student who most authors simply refer to as “M.” He also enjoyed sneaking off with friends and going out drinking. Only problem: at the time of these events, he was a Trappist monk living in monastery. Thomas Merton was not always as saintly as we would like to think and I do not believe that my friends Josemaría Escrivá or Thomas à Kempis would approve of his life, but what draws me to him, is that—unlike those two friends—I can relate to the humanness of Merton and the very real struggle that exists for us all. That is, the struggle between our desire to follow God and our desires to experience the joys of being alive, which often appear—and most likely are—sinful.
We are currently reading the autobiography about Merton’s early life: The Seven Storey Mountain. He wrote another autobiography which most are not so familiar with: The Other Side of the Mountain. There are some who say, because of the sins of his later life and his studies into eastern religions, that we should not study anything that he has written—he was clearly not the person he led us to believe, while others simply excuse him, and still others attempt to understand what happened. Mark Shaw falls into that latter group. Shaw wrote Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Released Him. During an interview, Shaw said of Merton,
“Becoming a monk was supposed to cleanse him of these sins, but from his own private journals, I knew this was not true. Instead, Merton’s failure to understand what loving, and being loved were all about caused him frustration, turmoil, and even depression. Beneath the mask of holiness, the plastic saint image promoted by the Catholic Church, was a sunken man who yearned for love while realizing he could never truly be one with God until he found it. Then, as I wrote in the book, the skies opened up and there was a gift, the love of a woman. It is no wonder Merton grabbed the chance to experience love despite the risks involved. And [“M”] taught him about loving, and being loved, opening up a path to freedom Merton never knew existed.” (Source)
I will never look for ways to justify my sins or anyone else’s, but I’m also not going to sit in God’s chair. He is the One who judges and he will judge us all. As Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” In judgment, either for eternal life or eternal death, Jesus will draw all people to himself, but what we have to remember is that even for those who are judged for eternal life, the path by which they traveled is never straight, not even for the greatest of saints.
So, what are we to make of this sinful saint and his not so straight path? In 1999, Nelson Mandela spoke at Rice University. “Following his speech, Mandela took questions from the audience, including one from a 12-year-old who asked him how he wants to be remembered. Mandela responded, ‘I never wanted to be regarded as an angel. I am an ordinary man with weaknesses. I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.’” (Source) Based on what I know of Thomas Merton, I think he would say, “Yes. That’s me too.” I also think that it is the best we can say of ourselves… but never use that as an excuse to sin. Keep aiming to be a saint.