The Legacy of Thomas Merton
An Interview with Br. Patrick Hart, OCSO
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Meg: Who were some of the people on the board of trustees?
Brother Patrick: Especially helpful were Naomi Burton Stone and Jay Laughlin. They were both in the publishing world, so they knew what was out there and what needed to be published. They also had a feel for the pulse of the reading public. They knew what would be of interest. While he was alive, Merton would listen to Naomi and Jay, even though he had ideas of his own that they didn’t always agree with. They published many of his writings. Whenever he got an inspiration to do something they could say whether or not he should go ahead.
Meg: How did Merton come to start writing once he had entered the monastery?
Brother Patrick: The abbot at the time was Dom Frederic Dunne. He told Merton that he wanted him to write. He said something like, “Just write of the beauties of the monastic life. Let people know that we exist.” That was the beginning. So Merton started writing these little pious lives of the saints, the holy monks and nuns of the so-called Golden Age of Cistercian monasticism. Not all of these works have yet been published. We’re still finding some of them hidden in the archives. But such writing showed that he had a gift, and he was exercising his skills as a writer, doing it every day.
Meg: Did he do all that himself, or did he have help? How did he do it?
Brother Patrick: He did it pretty much single-handedly. He would have typists, some of the young monks. I once asked one of them if he was really serving as an editor, and he said, “No, we were just typists.” You didn’t have to change anything Merton wrote. Naomi Burton, who was an editor at Curtis Brown, likewise said that she didn’t have to change very much at all. It’s true that Bob Giroux made some changes in the opening pages of The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton had started out with a pious homily and Giroux said that that could come later. What they settled on was a perfect beginning, about his being born in the foothills of the Pyrenees at the time of the Great War. It was a good opener.
Meg: Of all the people you know, people who knew and worked with Merton, who is the most interesting?
Brother Patrick: Well, the one that I knew and enjoyed the most was Jean Leclercq. He often came to Gethsemani, and then I would meet him also at Kalamazoo, the headquarters of Cistercian Publications. He wore his scholarship very lightly, and he was interested in everything, including ecumenism, so he was a kindred spirit for Merton. Merton appreciated him, although Leclercq was very outgoing and much more optimistic. Merton tended to be more pessimistic about the future, so Leclercq would cheer him up, tell him that things were getting better, not worse.
Meg: Through his journals Merton gave us a method for reflecting on experience. Do you feel that he became a resource for persons striving to be contemplatives? In other words, was he a prototype for contemplatives?
Brother Patrick: I would say so. First of all, he didn’t feel that the contemplative experience was simply for monks and nuns in their cloisters or hermitages. It was for everyone—for Christians everywhere and for all people. No one was barred from that. He popularized the whole idea of contemplative life in his book The Climate of Monastic Prayer, which later came out under the title Contemplative Prayer. He wanted to show that it’s basically something for everyone, not just limited to certain kinds of people who are enclosed, living a certain lifestyle. So I think that he did reach out. But also monks and nuns who were especially interested in the contemplative life could identify with his search.
Meg: How did he get started doing journals? Was that just something he had always done?
Brother Patrick: He did it from the time he was a young boy. We don’t have the earliest ones; they were apparently destroyed a long time ago, although there are some distant relatives in New York who claim to have some of his early journals. But he kept journals at the monastery and we discovered those. Of course, when I was general editor of all the journals I was trying to get to the early ones, like the Cuban journal and the one from the time he taught at St. Bonaventure College. They had been given to Mark Van Doren. They were all just handwritten. When he left St. Bonaventure for Gethsemani, he gave some away and these were passed down to friends. Eventually they all came back either to Gethsemani or to the archives at St. Bonaventure, so we were able to use material from some of them when we published the collected journals.
Meg: Do you see an evolution in his journals, any major changes in outlook?
Brother Patrick: Yes, yes. Certainly he was always able to write well and he had a fantastic memory to recall things clearly from the past. But his style improved over the years, no question about it. He was aware of this himself. He was criticized a few times for being too world-negating, especially in his early book Seeds of Contemplation. So he revised it and the whole thing came out as New Seeds of Contemplation. It was much more world-affirming. So he did listen to his critics. One of them was Dom Aelred Graham. They became very good friends before Merton’s death. Graham helped him arrange his trip to the Far East.
Meg: Do you keep a journal, Patrick?
Brother Patrick: I do not. I don’t consider myself an author. I’m actually more comfortable editing other people’s work than writing or keeping a journal of my own. I’ve kept a few journals when I was going on a trip, like the one to Patmos, and when I went to the Holy Land I did an Israel Journal, but in general I don’t keep one. I just don’t have the time or the inclination.
Meg: Has your experience of being a monk and working so many years in the shadow of Merton been difficult, or has it been harmonious and compatible with being a monk yourself?
Brother Patrick: Well, I’d say both. The work has had its ups and downs. There were decisions that had to be made, some of them agonizing, such as whether we should publish all the journals or start editing them, cleaning them up. Merton himself had said in one place that the journals could be published either whole or in part. The trustees felt that if we were going to publish the journals they should be total and that we shouldn’t be taking things out or editing them, trying to improve on them. So we decided to publish them just as they were. That was a decision that I had to struggle with. We had to reveal certain things that I probably wouldn’t have revealed if it had been entirely up to me. Merton was so forthright and honest about his foibles and his failures as well as his successes.
Meg: I’m sure you got criticized for doing that.
Brother Patrick: Well, there were a few people who objected, but a lot of people are grateful that we decided to publish everything from the journals, including many priests who said, “If only I had seen these years ago.” But there were some difficult periods along the way. Of course, I myself was not a trustee, so I had to follow the document of the Merton Legacy Trust. But I’ve always been encouraged by the men who were my abbots. Both Abbot Flavian Burns and Abbot Timothy Kelly were very supportive throughout the entire period. In fact, Timothy was here just recently from Rome and said he was glad we had gone ahead and published the journals just as they are. He said, “It’s the honest account and I’m glad they were published in that way.”
Meg: Of course, Merton himself had a public, didn’t he? But he didn’t shield himself from anything or anyone, right? That is just who he was, isn’t it?
Brother Patrick: Yes, he was just very transparent. I think his emphasis was that he wanted people to know him just as he was, with all the foolishness as well as the so-called successes.
Meg: Do you think he’ll ever be canonized a saint?
Brother Patrick: It’s been suggested by some people, but I don’t think that this would be the time. It would be very expensive because he wrote so much. Besides, he was so honest in his journals about his problems. I think that it would make people in Rome uneasy, you know, the people who are involved in this kind of thing. There is no strong movement to have him beatified. Anyway, his gifts were really as a writer; his gifts to us are in the works he left behind him.
Meg: Do you, however, think that he serves as a kind of Bodhisattva, like those Buddhist figures who help people on earth from another realm? Is he something like that? Is he with us only in his writings, or does he himself come with them, somewhat like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who said she would spend her heaven doing good on earth? Is Merton doing the same thing?
Brother Patrick: Well, you know somebody wrote that Merton recently appeared in some place as a reincarnation of some Tibetan geshe or something, and this rumor was circulating on some college campuses. It’s hard to know what to make of such things. Of course, it might put a stop to all this talk of possible beatification if he was discovered living somewhere in India as a reincarnate geshe!
Meg: Let me ask a broad but basic question. In a nutshell, what do you think is Merton’s legacy for monasticism? What does it bring monks and nuns today?
Brother Patrick: Maybe that you have to trust your inner life, your innermost self, as you appear before God. Merton was always very strong on this idea of living from the deepest self, the true self, rather than the empirical ego or the external self, the social self. This means that you live as you stand naked before God. I think that’s what he would say. He would tell us to listen from the heart and to live a simple, honest life, united to God and one another.
Meg: Do you think that the monastic world, monks and nuns, “caught” the fire of Merton as well as did the outside world? Or do you think that the laity caught it better than we did?
Brother Patrick: I really don’t have a way of answering that with certainty. I do know that in each monastery there’s a little group of Merton devotees. He doesn’t attract everybody. There are only certain people who gravitate towards Merton. Perhaps he does have more of a following among dedicated lay persons. We Cistercians have lay associates—perhaps you Benedictines have them too—people who gravitate around the retreat houses of our monasteries and try to live the contemplative life as well as they can, in their own state of life as they go about their work in the world. They have a way of incarnating the monastic values into their lives, especially lectio divina. I know they’re very faithful about reserving time both morning and evening for this kind of prayerful, meditative reading. I think this is a great blessing. These are perhaps the people whom Merton affects most.
Meg: Which book by Merton has been the most satisfying to you in all your years of working with his writings?
Brother Patrick: Well, if a person comes in and asks, “What of Merton should I read or learn from?” I always say, “Read Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.” That’s the one where I think the full range of his ecumenical interests comes through most clearly. Here’s a powerful passage from that book: “If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians.” That’s from page 12 of that book and is a passage I use a lot. Later on, of course, he was getting interested in the Far East. Some people have been criticizing him, saying that he had given up the Christian faith and become a Buddhist, but that’s not so. When he was in Calcutta he said, “I speak as a Western monk who is preeminently concerned with his own monastic calling and dedication.” He also said that he had left his monastery to travel to Asia not just as a research scholar or even as an author, which he happened to be, but as a pilgrim anxious to obtain not only information or facts but to drink from the ancient sources of monastic vision and experience. That shows he was interested in deepening his own Christian commitment as a monk and learning as much as he could from others. I think he succeeded in that.
Meg: I think so too. Could you say what by Merton is not already discovered or recovered or available?
Brother Patrick: Well, I was recently appointed general editor of a new series, the Monastic Wisdom series. Cistercian Publications and the Liturgical Press have formed an alliance, and the first volume in our joint venture is going to be Merton’s Cassian and the Fathers. This will be from his lecture notes for the classes he was giving to our novices in the 1960s. Patrick O’Connell has edited them. They’re a wonderful resource, again showing Merton’s roots, his love of the early Christian monastic movement. There’s also much that he wrote on the Rule of St. Benedict. I’m very glad that all this is going to be published.
Meg: Patrick, do you think Merton himself would be pleased with all his legacy?
Brother Patrick: Well, he’d be embarrassed by it, but secretly happy. But you have to be able to see all sides of him. Some of the people in the peace movement thought that we were not sufficiently portraying Merton as a peace activist. He was that, but there was a whole other side to the man, as in the book that I most enjoyed editing, The School of Charity. This dealt with the life that he considered the most important and that he was closest to, the monastic. His letters on the monastic experience and on spiritual direction are the main themes of that book. And another volume of his letters, The Hidden Ground of Love, is also very good. It’s a big one and contains his letters to Abdul Aziz that I talked about earlier. I think if Merton had had a choice of a spiritual director in the Sufi tradition, it would have been Abdul Aziz.
Meg: Is there some part of Merton’s story that no one has asked you about and that you would like to share? Sometimes we interviewers don’t ask the obvious.
Brother Patrick: What I really wish is that he had lived longer, long enough to have been able to absorb his whole Asian experience. The Asian Journal would then be a different book from what we have. We editors had to make a book out of it, Naomi Burton, Jay Laughlin, and myself, but it would have been a different book had Merton lived to flesh it out some. All we had were some jottings here and there. After all, he was on a trip and was moving very fast. To get a full appreciation of what he was doing he would have needed a couple of years to look back on it, to reflect on it and see the real value of it. For the same reason, perhaps The Seven Storey Mountain came out too soon.
Meg: That wasn’t a very ecumenical book either, as he later admitted.
Brother Patrick: Right. If written later on, I think it would have been a much more ecumenical book. And he then could have brought his life up to date, or revealed some of his mid-life crises and some problems that he went through, things that people often ask about. That would have made a wonderful book, one that would show people what it was like to have lived through all the changes. It’s one thing to die young in a monastery. So many of our monks that are being beatified died at about 35 years of age. I’d like to see some of the beati live to be 80 and 85.
Meg: And the maturity, what would that look like?
Brother Patrick: Yes, we look at things so differently now. People are always asking what would Merton say about the war in Iraq. Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t be approving. How can we say that this is our God-given vocation, to patrol the whole world?
Meg: What would he say to the Vatican today? What do you think?
Brother Patrick: I don’t know for sure. But he and Pope John Paul definitely agreed on one thing: both of them criticize capitalism as well as communism. In other words, it isn’t just communism that’s the problem. The evil is in our own hearts and in our consumer society. We have plenty of things to be critical of in the capitalistic world. In fact, one of our monks was with a group visiting the Holy Father recently and an attendant told the pope that this man was a monk of Gethsemani. “Oh,” said John Paul, “that’s Merton’s monastery. I just quoted him last week.” I wish that monk had had the presence of mind to ask the Holy Father where he had quoted Merton, but he didn’t. But the pope had long known about Merton because of the Polish connection. They were publishing Merton’s books underground in Poland during the communist regime. And they continue to bring out his books in Polish—all seven volumes of the journals, for example. The Germans and the Poles are the ones bringing out the whole story in translations. And the one-volume abridgement of the journals, The Intimate Merton, has been very popular. That’s a manageable book, giving the whole story in one volume. It has been picked up and translated into many languages: Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, etc. It’s used a lot in schools.
Meg: I’d like to conclude this interview with a cluster of questions about dialogue. Having known Merton from the inside and all the dialogue work he did, what advice do you have for those of us active on the board of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue?
Brother Patrick: Well, you should continue the good work you have begun. It’s important to let other people know about the beauties of the Asian traditions so that we can learn to work together, especially for peace and a sound ecology. There are all sorts of areas where we can be united, including friendship, encouragement, and especially the life of prayer. There’s no reason why people can’t pray together. You know that from your own contacts.
Meg: I do. But I think Merton is the one who moved the conversation out of the realm of dogma and into a focus on experience, especially the experience of prayer.
Brother Patrick: That’s what I would say. That is the thing. The differences in doctrine, the things that separate us, will always be there, but let’s concentrate on what unites us as human beings so we can come to some breakthrough and see things as one. I don’t think a full breakthrough will come about in our lifetime. We have to be realistic. First, let’s learn to live together in joy, peace, and happiness.
Meg: Why do you think interreligious dialogue might be especially appropriate for monastics and contemplatives?
Brother Patrick: I think it’s because we go below the surface. We may not be that hung up in the externals of liturgy and dogmas and so forth. We at least try to live on the level of lived experience. If you’re Roman Catholic you certainly subscribe to the dogmas, but without articulating them at every possible moment.
Meg: You were present as a monk there at Gethsemani when we held two major Buddhist-Christian dialogues at your monastery, and I know other people come there for similar activities. How does that feel from the inside?
Brother Patrick: Well, I came to the monastery and was trained in “the School of Silence.” I believe that people of different religious traditions can sit together in silence. There’s a way of communicating just by silence, not always by speaking. There’s much talk nowadays about how we’re supposed to be dialogical communities. Well, at Gethsemani we were steeped in a different tradition. It was a pretty silent community when I entered half a century ago. Only after I had been there about fifteen years was much speaking permitted, so it was very quiet. But you had lots of time for prayer and reflection and reading, and dialogue cuts into the time for those things. You have just so much time. I think of all the books that are in our library that I would love to read someday, and I know I’m not going to get to them. We have just so much time in our short lives and should concentrate on the essentials. I think that Merton, from his perspective, would have stressed the essentials.
Meg: And would have urged us not to stray from the silence but to dialogue through the silence, right?
Brother Patrick: Yes. Br. David Steindl-Rast once put it so well. He said you speak out of silence, until dialogue itself comes out of the silence, flows from it. I think that may have been the secret of Merton’s success too, because he had long, long periods of silence. Although some people seem to think he was having one social gathering after another, there really weren’t that many, and especially not in the earlier years. I think that’s why he was able to write so well about silence and reflection.
Meg: Well, Patrick, if you had the time and energy to write a book (although listening to you now, I think you probably just want to read a book!), what would be the topic, the title, and the audience?
Brother Patrick: Well, if I really had the gift to write a book, I’d like to write one around the theme of changing our own lives to become more God-centered, more Christ-centered, but also more people-centered. I don’t believe in making a big distinction between the two. They go together. Living the Christian life and the monastic life means reaching out toward others rather than just doing it in isolation. There was some saint, perhaps St. Catherine, who said we go to heaven together or not at all. I agree with that. We do it together.
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