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Thomas Merton: Something of a Rebel continued

Rebels Change the Course of History

Here Thomas Merton delivers his final address in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968. Hours later, he died.

Photo Courtesy Gethsemani Abbey Archives

“HE WAS SOMETHING OF A LEGENDARY FIGURE among the old boys of his generation and he was clearly something of a rebel.” These words, written on March 3, 1942, by G. Talbot Griffith, headmaster of Oakham School in the Midlands of England, were part of a letter sent to the Catholic Bishop of Nottingham in England to be forwarded to the abbot at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. It was one of several letters of reference required by canon law before the 25-year-old Thomas Merton could be accepted as a novice into the Gethsemani community.

Ten years earlier Thomas Merton had completed his studies at Oakham. Ten years is a short time in which to become “a legendary figure.” It may well be that the reason he became a legendary figure was the reputation he acquired as “something of a rebel.”

Merton may have doffed the rebel’s cap when he first entered the monastery, but not for long. Through much of his monastic life, and especially in his later years, he continued to be “something of a rebel.” Editor Paul Wilkes reports that Joan Baez, the American folksinger and social activist, visited Merton in 1967. Reflecting on that visit, she remarked: “He was a rebel. And I imagine [this] man tucked so far away [in a monastery] gave priests and nuns and other church people the courage to take steps they wouldn’t otherwise have taken.”

The word rebel can also take on a milder, but still strong, meaning: “resisting accepted conventions.” In this sense rebel can be used to describe people who ask questions about established ways of doing things. They may do this because they have an insight into reality not shared by those who are content to do things “the way we have always done them.” They may see, for instance, that certain accepted ways of doing things have lost their original meaning and need to be rethought. They refuse to be stuck in past practices that have lost the power to meet the needs of a very different present.

Rebels can change the course of history, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Rebels are often prophets. But, of course, there are true prophets and false prophets. It is only time that eventually distinguishes the one from the other.

In what ways was Merton a “rebel”? Most especially in his refusal in any aspect of his life to be bound by a past that was static and lifeless. This does not mean that he lacked a strong sense of tradition. On the contrary, tradition was very important to him, but tradition as something living and vibrant. He refused to be content with the status quo when it no longer nourished the human spirit.

Merton did not rebel against Christian faith, yet he refused to accept it unreflectively, for he knew that it would influence his life only to the degree that he made it truly his own. Merton did not rebel against authority, yet he questioned a blind, unthinking obedience, whether in the monastery or in state or Church. He did not rebel against the monastic life; yet in his later years he saw the need of major reforms if monasticism was to survive as a viable force in contemporary human society. Jean Leclercq has said: “Merton was a free man. A very good Trappist, he joined with joy and swallowed everything—at the beginning. After a few years he started asking: ‘Why that?/Why this?’ Not to destroy, not even to criticize, but just to try to justify.” And where he could not justify, he looked to change. He was not afraid to enter into uncharted waters, when he believed that this was the way to go.

—From the author’s Preface,Something of a Rebel

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