I recently started re-reading volume six of journals of the well known 20th century monastic Thomas Merton. To me, having read nearly all seven volumes from cover to cover over the years, this one is the most thought-provoking and revealing of Merton’s life, and how he understood the world. At the center of this volume is an illicit relationship Merton had with a student nurse during the spring and summer of 1966. I remember being shocked when I first stumbled on these entries in the journal, but now I find that there is something so shockingly human about it all that my shock has become reserved for why we’re so unwilling to accept and work with the complexities of love, sexuality, and intimacy.
Last year, author and biographer Mark Shaw published a new book entitled Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Released Him, which details not only the specific relationship in question, but also about how love, sexuality, and lack of both profoundly affected Merton’s life and his views on religion and spirituality.
During an interview Shaw gave last year, he took up some of the issues in the book, especially concerning Merton’s ever evolving, often conflicted relationship with Catholicism and the Church. On this, Shaw offered the following:
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 Margie taught him about loving, and being loved, opening up a path to freedom Merton never knew existed.
Instead of reading Shaw’s book, or pouring over interviews with him, I’d suggest going straight to the source first. Anyone who reads the entries in Merton’s journal about his time with Margie will almost immediately feel the profound struggle that was going on. It was as if Merton was caught between his understanding of the spiritual life and the manifestation of in the flesh love that was right before him. Although at times the way he words things sounds almost like a teenager in love, I really believe, like Shaw, that this relationship was much more for Merton.
I have always found the deep split between the spiritual and sexual in nearly all religions, including the Buddhism I practice, very troubling. While it’s possible to argue that Buddhism has less of this than Judeo-Christian traditions, I’m still convinced that there’s a gap in the teachings that has lead to an enormous amount of confusion, condemnation, and suffering. And I don’t think it’s necessary to be a monastic in order to experience these gaps – no one, I think, is really immune.
I have sometimes wondered what it would have been like if Merton had been a Buddhist monk? He still would have been breaking his vow. And yet, how does this vow square with a spiritual tradition built upon the awareness that everything in life is impermanent? In other words, what happens to a person who takes what might be viewed as a permanent vow (at least in this lifetime), and then discovers along the way that upholding that vow is causing more suffering than liberation?
Well, that’s an interesting tangent to consider, but the fact remains that Thomas Merton was dealing with the tenants of Catholicism, and not Buddhism. And he was no novice monk by the time of his relationship with Margie Smith. In fact, he had become a world renowned spiritual writer who was, despite his independent, anti-authoritarian streak, considered to be an important asset by the Church. Walking away from the monastery would have proved to be very difficult, and returning to his vows as they were was impossible.
The last two years of Merton’s life, following the relationship, proved to be his most exploratory in a spiritual sense, and it’s possible to argue that he may have been tossed out of the church at some point if he had lived longer. To suggest that the relationship with Margie had nothing to do with this late life spiritual journey would be a great spiritual denial in my opinion.
There’s something quite mysterious about taking spiritual vows. A few years ago, I took the lay person vows in the Soto Zen tradition during a ceremony called jukai. They are very much about embracing all of life, engaging with everyone and everything compassionately and with reverence. But how this looks day by day, moment by moment, isn’t always clear. And in some ways, I feel like I have little idea how committing myself to such vows has changed my life, and what I might do in it in the future.
I’m convinced that how vows manifest in one’s life changes over time. And when it comes to sexuality and spirituality, how much clarity can most of us claim to have when our spiritual traditions are littered with prohibitions, shame, blame, and non-discussions about the intersection of the two?
“Beautiful Scene” Daily Gratitude Blog
“Thomas Merton in the fields near the Abbey of Gethsemani” by Sybille Akers