For a time, Thomas Merton was of the world. He was funny, brilliant, passionate, faithless, contemporary in his thinking, fluent in French, athletic, shallow, drank too much, smoked too much, dabbled in communism, loved jazz, and loved women. He unexpectedly converted to Catholicism in 1938 while attending Columbia University for his master’s degree, then inexplicably and quietly left the world behind forever when he joined the cloistered Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky at age 26 in 1941. Merton left New York a different man.
He wanted to gather up his disjointed existence and weave it into something less chaotic, more coherent, and more meaningful. He no longer wanted to live with “the abyss that walked around in front of [his] feet … ” He chose a life of deprivation and silence, entirely consecrating his life to God in order to settle his restless heart. It was, for him, a quiet rebuke to the modern world with its constant noise and distraction, emptiness, fake rebellion, and self-satisfied conceit.
Life in the monastery in the farmlands of Kentucky was the polar opposite of his bohemian lifestyle in New York. Merton now lived on the edge of civilization. He had only two sets of garments, slept on straw for a mattress and a pallet for a bed frame, ate bland food, shaved once a week, lived with 70 to 80 other monks (which swelled to more than 270 after World War II). He prayed every four hours, worked outside even in the winter, did hard manual labor, studied philosophy and theology, and did not speak to anyone except “spiritual directors” or the “superiors” in charge of the monastery. It was a difficult life with a myriad of deprivations. Merton took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and lived in silence as demanded by the austerity of his order. And he wrote. He wrote movingly, candidly, and beautifully about the spiritual life for the world to read and appreciate.
Merton became one of the most widely read spiritual writers of the 20th century. His first book, The Seven Storey Mountain published in 1948, was an autobiography of sorts. It was the story of his early life in France, England, and then America and his conversion to Catholicism. He did not flinch from writing about the broken parts of his life before his conversion. It was engaging, humorous, eloquent, venturesome, moving, and spiritually insightful. He pointed to something lost in the culture. It was a runaway bestseller, selling millions of copies over the years. It has been translated into at least 20 languages. He went on to write more than 70 books, along with countless essays, journals, letters, and reviews.
Many readers believe his most beautiful and deeply personal writing came from the journals he wrote leading up to his ordination to the priesthood. Some of his journals over this five-year period were compiled for his book The Sign of Jonas, published in 1953. The final chapter was titled “Epilogue: Fire Watch, July 4, 1952” and discussed his role as a temporary watchman in the monastery. He walked the levels of it that summer night, while everyone was asleep, to ensure there were no fires – one could engulf the building in minutes – from the many candles used, or a defective furnace, a faulty fuse box, or an electrical glitch. He described his solemn, silent journey – the sights, the people, the sounds, the history of the place, and even the smells – from the bottom of the monastery all the way up to the bell tower.
For Merton, it was not just a physical journey but a spiritual one as well, from descent to ascent to the mountaintop. His insights were haunting and poetic. To be a watchman was to be the monastery’s early warning system to alert the community to danger. To be a watchman also meant to be an intermediary, an advocate, perched on the rooftop between heaven and earth, leaning outward in order to best communicate with God. It was a powerful image and meditation on the monastic life. This experience, as you can read in the journal, brought him to a deeper relationship with God and a better understanding of his vocation and his place within his community.
One cannot read “Fire Watch” without being inspired by the poetry and imagery of Merton’s language: “Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars?” But to see his work in that context alone is a disservice to the breadth and range of his talent and teaching.
The writing of Thomas Merton was and is relevant because he asked his readers, in “Fire Watch” and elsewhere, to be alert, to pay attention to the small details, to contemplate God even in the persistent darkness, and to not fail to recognize the potential for ordinary human experiences to be theophanies or signs of grace, “life within life and of wisdom within wisdom.”