The troubled soul of monk Thomas Merton

Divine Discontent: The Prophetic Voice of Thomas Merton by John Moses, foreword by Rowan Williams (Bloomsbury Continuum, €25.00 / £20.00 hb)

Anthony Redmond

I think it’s true to say that the writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, is even more popular and relevant today than when he died in 1968 at the age of 53 years.

He was not alone one of the great spiritual guides of the 20th Century, but also a most prolific letter writer. His letters, those written by and to him, archived at the Thomas Merton Studies Centre in Kentucky, number well over 10,000.

John Moses is an Anglican priest and Dean Emeritus of St Paul’s Cathedral. In this utterly riveting and excellent biography he manages to capture the many diverse aspects of Merton’s complex personality and temperament.

There were so many dimensions to Thomas Merton. He was a philosopher, a poet, a contemplative, a social critic, a jazz lover, an environmentalist, an ecumenist with a deep love for comparative religions and Eastern mysticism. He was also a profoundly restless, vulnerable man who never ceased asking questions.

Commitment to God

John Moses writes: (and it’s worth quoting him at length): “In spite of the undoubted priority of God, Merton is a man of changing moods. There are times of deep frustration, self-pity, disgust, anger, contempt. He has a feeling of not always belonging: of being different from, distanced from, those to whom he is bound by the common life of his monastic calling. He experiences a great sense of powerlessness, and he is quick to select others as the focus of his discontents. There are touches – and more than touches – of self-deception, of self-righteousness, of wilfulness. These various aspects of his temperament and personality are more than mitigated by great intellectual curiosity, by a strong pastoral instinct, by an infectious good humour; and, running through it all, there is his unequivocal commitment to God, to solitude, to contemplative prayer.”

Merton was deeply interested in various forms of mysticism. He referred to Hinduism as “the oldest surviving culture in the world”. He was particularly attracted to the Bhagavad Gita. He explored the religious dimensions of Tao, Zen and Buddhism and he read the Quran with profound reverence.

In another direction, he conducted an extensive correspondence with Abraham Heschel, a Jewish rabbi and teacher, with Zalman Schachter, an Hasidic scholar and with Erich Fromm, the writer and psychologist. He had a deep appreciation of Judaism and Jewish traditions.

The book that really brought Merton to international fame was The Seven Storey Mountain which appeared in 1948 (published in England in a version heavily edited by Evelyn Waugh as Elected Silence, a fact not all readers realise).


“A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual

at all. No man can serve two masters.

Your life is shaped by the end you live for.

You are made in the image of what you desire.”

– Thomas Merton


However, his ideas and taste changed over the years and he gradually became embarrassed by the continuing popularity of The Seven Storey Mountain. Indeed, he described it as “the work of a man I never even heard of.”

In 1966, while recuperating from a spinal ailment in hospital in Louisville Kentucky, he fell in love with a beautiful 25-year-old nurse who was caring for him.

He referred to this nurse as “M” in his diary. Merton was 51-years-old at the time.

He finally decided to end the relationship and recommit to his vows as a monk. He burned all of M’s letters to him. One wonders what became of poor M who loved him.

In describing Merton, John Moses writes: “It may well be that some part of Merton’s fascination lies in the fact that he was so obviously a man who, while he could speak about God and present the claims of faith and prayer, was nevertheless a man who was wounded, compromised. And yet he is for many more impressive and more enduring because of his vibrant but flawed humanity.”

One is reminded in some ways of the spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, who was also vulnerable and wounded. He, too, was a deeply sensitive man to whom friendship was so important, but who experienced insecurity, loneliness and deep questioning.


I find myself in complete agreement with Merton when he said: “Christ is found not in loud and pompous declarations but in humble and fraternal dialogue. He is found less in a truth that is imposed than in a truth that is shared.” 

There is something very open and contemporary about him. He has a down to earth quality that never fails to appeal. He wrote in his Journal: “I have not always been temperate, and if I go to town and someone pours me a drink, I don’t resist another or even a third. And I have sometimes gone beyond the trivium perfectum (the perfect third.) A monk?”  I think this is great stuff. I’d say he was great company.

In 2015 the centenary of Thomas Merton’s birth will be marked, and it must be said that in preparation for that occasion John Moses has written a superb account of this complex and fascinating man and his ever relevant ideas