Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Merton and Me

It’s not unusual for me to be asked why I became a rabbi, though it seems to me that as I get older (I’ve now been an ordained rabbi almost half my life) I’m asked that question less frequently. There is no one easy answer -- most decisions we make are a product of a confluence of factors.

In the fall of my senior year at Georgetown I had to fulfill an English distribution requirement and signed up for a course on contemporary American short stories. I’m not sure why I chose that course but it probably was because it fit my schedule. Among the stories we read for the course were two by J.D. Salinger: Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Salinger, particularly in these two stories, used a lot of ideas and allusions from Eastern religions, especially Zen and Taoism. Our professor thought that we would get more out of reading these stories if we also had some background on Eastern thought.

And so we found ourselves reading The Way of Chuang Tzu and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Both of these books were written by Thomas Merton, an author of whom I had previously heard but about whom I knew little.

I became thoroughly captivated by Merton and his writing style, and sought to read more of his works. I think it was not until that point that I realized that this great writer about Eastern religions was actually a Catholic and a Trappist monk to boot!

The next Merton book I read was his Secular Journal, so-called because it was written before he joined the monastery and indeed while he was trying to figure out what to do with his life. It is interesting to me that I came across Merton just as I was graduating college and figuring out what to do with my life. Should I apply to law school, look for a job as a newspaper reporter, take the Foreign Service exam? Or maybe there was something else.

It would surely be an exaggeration to say that I became a rabbi due to reading Thomas Merton, in the same way that Merton writes of another monk who said that Merton became a monk because of reading James Joyce. But Joyce did have a role in Merton’s awakening to the role of spirituality in his own life, and Merton played a similar role for me.

Merton died in 1968 under circumstances that to this day have never been fully explained. As a cloistered monk, he almost never left the monastery, but he had been invited to lecture at a conference of Catholic and Buddhist monks in Bangkok and had been given permission by his abbot to do so. Shortly after his lecture he went to take a nap and was found dead some hours later in his room, with an electric fan that had a short-circuit lying across his body. Because Merton had written some controversial things on peace and on racism, because he was friendly with Dan and Phillip Berrigan, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and the then-recently murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, there was speculation that he had been murdered. But there is no proof.

Though Merton died in 1968 books by him continue to be published. He left behind volumes and volumes of his journals, thousands of letters, unpublished articles and lectures. (For many years his job at the monastery was teaching monks-in-training and there are tapes of his classes as well as his class notes.) And so over the years I continued to accumulate books by and about Merton.

In 1996 I was living in California and decided I needed some time off from the active rabbinate. Since I was single at the time, I wound up spending almost a year as Scholar-in-Residence (a position that they created for me) at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. New Claurvaix had been founded as a daughter house of Merton’s abbey, Gethsemani in Kentucky, and some of the monks I met at New Clairvaux had known Merton in the 1950s and 1960s.

One of the things I admire about Merton is his openness to various forms of religious life. Merton was born in France to an American mother and a New Zealand father, both of them artists. He split his childhood between England and Queens, New York, and after a year at Cambridge got his bachelor’s and then master’s degrees at Columbia. He always had a lot of Jewish friends and in later years was regularly visited at Gethsemani by prominent rabbis. (Cloistered monks almost never travel -- though this rule is enforced less strictly now than it was in the past -- and anyone needing to meet with Merton had to go to Kentucky to see him.) Merton, through his friendship with Rabbi Heschel, played an important role in the development of Vatican II and the Catholic Church’s new positive attitude towards Jews and Judaism.

In December of 2003 I was invited to give two lectures on Judaism to the monks of Gethsemani. We traveled there from Louisville, about an hour away, where we were visiting Keleigh’s relatives, and we stayed in what is known as the “family guest house.” The regular guest house is where people stay when they are making a retreat; the “family guest house” is for those who are friends or relatives of the monks. The accommodations were fairly spartan but it was awe-inspiring to stay where Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Berrigan brothers and Martin Luther King had all stayed on their visits to Merton at Gethsemani. The morning after my second lecture we were taken by jeep to Merton’s hermitage, which is not accessible by road and is normally off-limits to all but the monks. We noted that there was a little plaque by the front door which said “Shalom.”

Merton has been my constant companion in my spiritual journey, and I want to close by sharing a prayer he wrote in his book Thoughts in Silence:

"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 if 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."

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