Julie Leininger Pycior is Professor of History at Manhattan College. She received a Summer Stipend for “Radical Pilgrims: A Comparative Biography of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.” She shares her reflections on Thomas Merton, on the occasion of his centenary, as seen from the perspective of her research supported by the Louisville Institute.
LI: How did your project engage Merton’s legacy?
JLP: The Louisville Institute Summer Grant was of central importance for my article “We Are All Called to Be Saints: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Friendship House,” which was published in The Merton Annual. The grant greatly facilitated my ability to utilize the Merton archives at Bellarmine College and Columbia University, and the support made it possible for me to travel to the northern Ontario town of Combermere to use the archives and conduct oral history interviews at the community founded by one of Merton’s spiritual mentors, Catherine De Hueck Doherty.
LI: What did you learn about Merton that surprised you?
JLP: Before studying Merton I had the idea that a monk’s life was akin to a spiritual retreat, with many long stretches of walks, prayer, and spiritual reading; but I learned that the monastic schedule is a crowded, rather rigid one, and that monasteries are self-supporting. It was fascinating to discover how Merton navigated this world, finally retreating to a hermitage, even as his writings brought in much income for his community.
I was overwhelmed by the extent of his writing and came to the conclusion that he was a compulsive writer. The quality of his writing, moreover, was such that I never read a sentence of his that could be edited for syntax — not even his many private journal entries.
Also, I was surprised — awed — that Merton’s best friend, Robert Lax,would agree to a long-distance interview from his hermitage in Patmos, Greece, where he recorded answers to the questions I submitted. It was great to learn that he and Merton, as Columbia undergrads in the 1930s, admired Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker, and that in the 1950s Lax helped out there and gave a presentation there.
LI: How did encountering Merton’s work/legacy change you?
JLP: Oh, my. As a college student his Sign of Jonas was one of the seminal works that introduced me to adult Christian spirituality expressed in a clear, conversational but inspiring style. Then, in my late twenties, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander showed me how a person could believe in Christ not in spite of intellectual curiosity but because of it. Ten years later his Asian Journal showed me how to reconcile the seemingly un-reconcilable: belief in Jesus as the Way, on the one hand, with respect for other beliefs — and no belief — on the other, for this book demonstrated that the Christian call actually demands being lovingly open to the convictions held by those of other persuasions.
A decade later an epiphany involving Merton’s letters brought me to my Merton/Day book project. Unable to sleep one Christmas Eve, wracked by doubts about religion, my thoughts turned to these two spiritual sojourners. I ventured downstairs,pulled off the living room bookcase a collection of Merton letters, and turned to those written to Dorothy Day. As they began to touch my heart, I found myself drawn to our little crèche and found myself kneeling before it. Through the window behind this simple cardboard stableshone a bright, solitary star. My doubts were not so much answered as trumped: overwhelmed by something greater.
LI: What lessons can we learn from Merton for shaping the life of faith in 2015?
JLP: I address that very question in “Legacies,” the final chapter of my current book project, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and the Question of Belief in a Time of Crisis. The “time of crisis” is the 1960s, but the book’s final chapter deals with the crises of our own time as tackled by visionary people influenced by both Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, from peace activist John Dear, SJ to journalist Bill Moyers.
Also, several of my Huffington Post blog posts have drawn on Merton’s life and work, as in the essay “The Nuns, the Vatican and Straight but Crooked Lines,” which concludes:
For all the Catholic Church’s complicated convolutions, its foundational teaching is simple: love God, love your neighbor. But simple does not mean easy. “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” Dorothy Day reminds us, quoting Dostoevsky. “Our real journey in life,” Merton observed, “is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action.”
Morgan Atkinson received a 2006 grant for his project “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton.” Through his Louisville-based company Duckworks, Inc., Atkinson writes and produces films that examine issues affecting communities and culture. Below he reflects on his two film projects exploring the life and legacy of Merton.
I have had the great good fortune of writing and directing two documentaries on Thomas Merton. The first, “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton” was completed in 2006 and was broadcast nationally on PBS. The support of a grant from the Louisville Institute was an indispensible aid in completing this program. My most recent program, which debuted this year on what would’ve been Merton’s 100th birthday, is entitled “The Many Storeys and Last Days of Thomas Merton” (forgive the seeming misspelling as a tip of the hat to Merton’s classic, “The Seven Storey Mountain”).
The earlier program examined Merton’s spiritual evolution over the course of his adult life. It revealed the birth of a very narrow spiritual view that fortunately matured and deepened over the years. The most recent program considers Merton’s last year of life and his momentous trip to Asia to engage with a wide variety of spiritual seekers including the Dalai Lama. In both programs I sought to give the audience a good sense of Merton’s humanity, humor and commitment to the life of the spirit. That is certainly what made him so appealing to me when I first stumbled across his writing in my mid-20s. Merton’s passionate embrace of the spiritual life and the manner in which he expressed it jolted me out of a malaise in which I had dismissed anything related to spirituality as pietistic white noise. Now, some 40 years later, I find that the witness of Merton’s life and his best writing still inspires me, and many, many others. He expressed his spiritual search in timeless terms so that people today find it relevant to their own lives. His willingness to expose his own frailties, doubts and fears inspired me to keep the faith no matter how dark the night or shattering the fall. Though he led me to an institutional religion his wry and often caustic observations regarding church life also helped me place it in a proper perspective. For Merton each of us is called to a daily search for a deeper union with God. Religious institutions can help along the way but when it comes down to it “it’s every monk for himself” (as he observed in Asia shortly before his death). Again quoting Merton, “The gate of heaven is everywhere.” It is in the sanctuary, in the street, in every corner of our troubled world. Merton’s example calls us to joyfully embrace our humanity, dive deeply into a spirit-filled life while opening that gate of heaven as wide as possible.