Village historian to discuss Merton at library, describes Catholic monk as pursuer of social justice

The Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Dennis Sullivan may look like Walt Whitman, but he is speaking Tuesday about a 20th Century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.

VOORHEESVILLE — Dennis Sullivan discovered the work of Thomas Merton in 1958 and was drawn to the Christian Brothers — he stayed for a decade.

Next week, Sullivan hopes to teach others about Merton during a session at the Voorheesville library, basing his talk on a treatise he wrote on the Trappist monk’s life, writing, and philosophy.

“He’s arguably one of the most important spiritual writers of the 21st Century,” said Sullivan, who noted that, when speaking before Congress about a year ago, Pope Francis listed Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., social activist Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton as four of the most exemplary Americans.

Merton joined the Trappist order in 1941, where he would write “The Seven Storey Mountain,” which would become highly successful and would draw many young men to priesthood and monkhood, particularly of the Trappist order.

“It was said that people showed up with ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ in their back pocket,” said Sullivan.

A little over a year later, Merton published “Seeds of Contemplation,” a work that stated one’s relationship with God depended on how true that person was to his or her self. This was at odds with so many followers of Merton who wanted to be just like him.

“He had developed an extraordinary following,” said Sullivan, “He regarded that as a burden.”
The other paradox, said Sullivan, is that as Merton became more of an individual, he found himself connected more with the joys and suffering of the human race as a whole. In “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” a compilation of his journals, Merton stated he was connected to such sufferings as poverty and the threat of the Cold War, even though he was not actively part of the conflicts. However, it was eventually determined by the Trappist order that Merton should not be writing about such subjects.

Merton also had studied East Asian religion and philosophy in his youth. According to Sullivan, Merton’s study of religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism were an attempt to enlighten his Christian thinking. Merton became one of the leading proponents of a dialogue between Eastern and Western religion, and would eventually travel to Asia.

However, for some time Merton was unable to travel due to a conflict at the monastery. His superior, the abbot Dom James Fox curtailed his activities, saying his ruling reflected the will of God, which Merton responded with saying that the will of God came from both of them. According to Sullivan, this was an important moment because Merton was changing the relationship between abbot and monk, and thereby any relationship between a superior and subordinate.

Eventually Merton was able to go to Asia in 1968, meeting with various figures in Eastern religion, such as the Japanese author D.T. Suzuki and the Dalai Lama. However, while he was in Bangkok, Thailand, he grabbed a faulty electrical fan while leaving the shower and was electrocuted and died. He was 53 years old.
“He would have created his own mini-monastery,” said Sullivan, when speculating what might have happened had Merton lived past that trip, concluding that Merton would have formed a community of 20 to 40 people dedicated to solitude and contemplation.

Were Merton alive today, Sullivan infers he would have an interest in worldly sufferings. According to Sullivan, Merton’s primary initiative was to remove suffering no matter the circumstance, perhaps because someone needs money for food, rent, or health care, or perhaps because people lack the citizenship to get access to such things.

“Not that people deserve something, not that people have the right to something,” said Sullivan, “But because people need something.”

Merton did have his detractors. There are those who note his affair with a nurse during his time as a monk — an affair he eventually broke off, but not before being caught by his abbot. According to Sullivan, the relationship with this young and intelligent nurse “filled the hole” in his life.

“He sees in her someone who has responded to him, and to that no one else ever has,” said Sullivan, “because no one had ever reached into that hole in his psyche.”

However, what Merton is most often criticized for is his embrace of East Asian religions. In creating a new catechism in the Catholic church, said Sullivan, Merton was chosen as a figure whose life could be used to teach about the faith. However, two priests rejected the inclusion of Merton — not because of his affair, but because of his study of religions like Buddhism and Hinduism.

To this, Sullivan said that critics should read his journals and understand that — although Merton struggled with his self-identity — he was always seeking out a spiritual relationship. This, said Sullivan, includes meeting people’s needs.

“If I were a Christian today, I would feel caught in a great bind about how I might look to help people with needs greater than mine,” said Sullivan, “because great Americans like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton said that is the call of each human being.”


Dennis Sullivan, the Voorheesville village historian and columnist for The Enterprise, will discuss Thomas Merton on Tuesday, Sept. 20, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Voorheesville Public Library.

Sullivan’s treatise on Merton — prepared for a May conference of Christian Brothers and former Christian brothers at Manhattan College — is available at the library for patrons to read before the Sept. 20 discussion.

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