Thomas Merton, Sainthood, and Writing About One’s Own Life

I find Thomas Merton’s journals both inspiring and intimidating. They inspire me by opening all my senses to the world in front of me, and especially to the natural world. They intimidate me because they make me feel like a shallow, half-hearted Christian. I do not have the focus nor the courage of Thomas Merton.

But in his journals, Merton is always complaining of the same thing about himself! One of his most famous confessions goes like this:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that is I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem  to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

On September 1, 1949, Merton was a young monk seeking sainthood in a Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky.  I was just an infant not yet ready to explore the world of a 100-acre dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania.

For Merton, the question was, “How can writing help me in my quest for sainthood?” Putting down on paper what he has become as he evolves spiritually is his goal: “It may sound simple, but it is not an easy vocation.”

To be as good a monk as I can be, and to remain myself, and to write about it: to put myself down on paper, in such a situation, with the most complete simplicity and integrity, masking nothing, confusing no issue: this is very hard because I am all mixed up in illusions and attachments. These, too, will have to be put down. But without exaggeration, repetition, useless emphasis. To be frank without being boring: it is a kind of crucifixion. Not a very dramatic or painful one. But it requires much honesty that is beyond my nature. It must come somehow from the Holy Spirit.

A complete and holy transparency; living, praying, and writing in the light of the Holy Spirit, losing myself entirely by becoming public property just as Jesus is public property in the Mass. Perhaps this is an important aspect of my priesthood–my living of my Mass: to become as plain as a Host in the hands of everybody. Perhaps it is this, after all, that is to be my way to solitude. One of the strangest ways to far devised, but it is the way of the Word of God.

Now that’s intimidating–the memoirist compared to Jesus!

To write is to make oneself public and transparent and yet through this means will come both solitude and the best chance Merton sees for sainthood.

Wow. Does anyone else find this both exhilarating and daunting? Can writing a memoir be an act of purgation? Should it be? Merton at his best comes very close to this goal. So honest. So real. So humble. So enraged by the right things. So kind. So eager to learn.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Spiritual Memoir and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Thomas Merton, Sainthood, and Writing About One’s Own Life

  1. namwmemoirs says:

    Shirley, I love Merton and I love your post too. Somehow Merton seems to tap into the lesser qualities of being human, but with a kind of compassion and urge toward self-forgiveness as a path, seeing in himself the failings of all humanity. He seemed to suffer a lot, knowing of his imperfections, yet he worked all his life to find a path of forgiveness, compassion, and love, even moving out of the total Christian view into Buddhism and other wisdom teachings. When I read him, I feel peacefully connected to being on the path.
    Memoir writing invites us to open the pages of our hearts to layer after layer who we are and are not, to the possibility of becoming. Someone I know says that all memoir writing is a spiritual path, that memoir writing helps to transform us in ways we could not have imagined when we started.
    Thanks for sharing Merton with us today, and your own reflections about him.
    –Linda Joy

    • shirleyhs says:

      Beautifully expressed, Linda Joy. Thank you. I too believe memoir is a spiritual path and that it takes us into broader and broader connections as we go down deeper into the truths of our own nature, our own failings, our own desires.

  2. Katie Boyts says:

    Thomas Merton… daunting and inspiring indeed. He has often had me pondering the act of writing as a calling and what it means to speak to God on paper, where others can hear that conversation. Thanks for this post! It is a good mulling topic for my Labor Day.
    I’d be curious about your thoughts on the Mother Teresa private writings?

    • shirleyhs says:

      Katie, I haven’t read Mother Teresa’s private writings. I’ve read some of the commentaries on them, however. I’m not surprised that a deeply spiritual woman had doubts. It’s actually oddly comforting to know that. Do you agree? Have you read her journals?

      • Katie Boyts says:

        Yes, I found them comforting as well. Comforting and motivating… that doubt should not halt action or service. Certainly there’s layers of discussions to be had about them. In particular I found it an interesting point that she had asked they not be shared and yet they were. Though it makes me sad that her wish was not respected, I found them inspiring and helpful.

  3. Loretta Willems says:

    Shirley,
    I have always seen my journal writing as “before God, a form of prayer, a seeking of that utter transparency that Merton speaks of. But my journal is utterly private, “going into one’s closet” prayer. Merton’s sense making public that very private communion as an offering, a sacrifice to God, puts a very different light on what confessional memoir can be, something that is the opposite of narcissism.
    I will never be a confessional memoirist like Merton, but his meditation and prayer do help with the feeling of vulnerability and violation of privacy as my words go out into the world wide web.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Yes, Loretta. This way of framing the act of sharing our transparency before God and others takes away some of our shyness, or fear, or ego concerns. It is a way of viewing the public telling of one’s story that deserves serious thought. That is not to say that the potential for self-deception is not there. Rather, it offers a really high goal for self-sacrifice without self-loathing, for honesty and courage.

  4. My first reaction to your post, Shirley, is “our writing about our lives as an offering or sacrifice to God should be no more daunting than the prospect of living our lives as an offering or sacrifice.” So having said that, I think the role of the memoirist is to truly believe that your life may, indeed, be a candle in the darkness, an inspiration or a prayer for another. I think this can only happen with the vulnerability and honesty that is scary. AND, as Mary Karr suggests, “becoming the antagonist of your own story.” Tall orders for all of us.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Yes! So good to see your thoughts here again, Brenda. Yes, if we are living our faith, following our spiritual path, our writing about it should be no more difficult than the living. And yet, sometimes the writing takes us into deeper water than we have consciously lived. And then we have to choose how far down we can go and still surface. I wish I could say I have experienced this kind of depth, but I am beginning to understand the process more as I see it in Merton and in Mary Karr and others.

  5. Johanna says:

    Only a few people, other than Jesus Himself, have left us a map for the landscape of the ascending spirit–and daunting it is! And yet it is so much needed and sought, often in so many wrong places in our world of today. In our world that has glamourized ugliness in everything from childrens’ toys to music and art, has reduced politics to the narcissistic greed for power, and thrown out human love onto the public marketplace only to disappoint as a radical indulgence in sex and brutish self gratification, we hunger dearly for altruism and the kind of love which will help our spirit to rise. It is Love that calls us in the beautiful discoveries of St. Augustine, and in the naked self giving of a Mother Theresa or a Thomas Merton. But each of our lives, insofar as we feel called to share them in writing, are the living Scripture being written in our time, and provide the grit in which God writes His Eternal Love Story. It is His story ultimately–no wonder we feel lost and incapable sometimes, limited creatures that we are. And still, we have that thirst–that thirst for something–Someone–Who transcends all that we know. I am amazed in the response to my memoir ‘Graffiti On My Soul’ that so many readers who have no faith background reach out to share and delight in my personal experiences of God. Purgation or gift? It is both.

  6. shirleyhs says:

    Thank you, Johanna, for this insight as only a former nun can reveal it. Your deep understanding of memoir as a pouring out of the self in service to God and others show that you fully comprehend what Merton is saying. I love the idea of God using our stories as grit. Reminds me of the time in the gospel of John when Jesus, who never published a book about himself, writes in the sand. No one knows what he wrote. Yet the crowd who was about to stone a woman for her adultery, dispersed.

  7. You ask such important, hard questions. I think anything attended to mindfully, and especially writing, can be a spiritual discipline. Purgation, a purging, can be part of writing. But often, it seems, in order to work for others, writing must transcend the mere feeling or expression of emotion that that implies (with its connotation of uncontrolled vomiting) by bringing to bear what the writer in the present has learned. This is the whole point of Gornick’s The Situation and the Story.

    Purgation, to me, implies raw unmediated emotion. And while there is a place for that, especially in nonfiction the writer at her desk in the present must usually be in a different place or it seems to the reader she has not learned or grown. And that’s just painful to read. Merton, I think, does not purge so much as reflect and struggle to be conscious. He is sharing but I wonder if he is really purging. Have you read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet? Very deep, very spiritual, too, but not purging—rather, the fruit of conscious struggle like Merton’s writings.

  8. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Richard. You reward my questions with a wonderful opportunity for dialogue.

    I agree with you completely about not vomiting up emotion on the page–unless used only as therapy and then destroyed. Merton is not doing this here or anywhere in his journals.

    My choice of the word purgation, perhaps, was not the exact word for the thought. What I was thinking of was a stripping away of layers of false self-hood; purging, yes, but through scrutiny and clarity rather than through expulsion of guts.

    I have read Rilke, twice. It’s probably time to read him again.

    What Merton seeks is similar, yet different, I think. He wants to be a saint, and he is willing to place his own body (of writing and of life) on the cross for all to see. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t benefit from some of the understandings of this passage some of my readers (above) have.

    Come back at me, if my spewing forth 🙂 conjures a thought.

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