I recently started my annual re-reading of selections from 20th Century Catholic monk Thomas Merton's journals. For the past few years, I have kept gravitating towards volume six, which arguably contains the most controversial section of Merton's life. Also, having read nearly all seven volumes from cover to cover over the years, number six is the most thought-provoking and revealing of Merton's life and how he understood the world.
At the center of this volume is the illicit relationship Merton had with a student nurse during the spring and early summer of 1966. I remember being shocked when I first stumbled on these entries in the journal, but now I find that there is something so shockingly human about it all that my shock has become reserved for why we're so unwilling to accept and work with the complexities of love, sexuality, and intimacy.
Author Mark Shaw came out with a new book in 2009 addressing this relationship, and how love, sexuality, and lack of both profoundly affected Merton's life and his views on religion and spirituality. Given the discussions about fallen Zen teachers like Genpo and Eido Roshi, as well as the numerous sex scandals that have rocked monastic communities of various religious traditions in recent decades, much of what Shaw has to say is important.
As some of you may know, Thomas Merton was broad in his interest of world religions, and dabbled to some extent in Zen towards the end of his life. He was visited by the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, long before either were world renown figures. He read everything he could find on Buddhism, and was at a conference of spiritual monastics in Thailand when he was electrocuted by a fan and died in December 1968.
Of Merton's wild, fairly destructive young adult life, and his subsequent entry into the monastery, Shaw writes the following:
Becoming a monk was supposed to cleanse him of these sins, but from his own private journals, I knew this was not true. Instead, Merton’s failure to understand what loving, and being loved were all about caused him frustration, turmoil, and even depression. Beneath the mask of holiness, the plastic saint image promoted by the Catholic Church, was a sunken man who yearned for love while realizing he could never truly be one with God until he found it. Then, as I wrote in the book, the skies opened up and there was a gift, the love of a woman. It is no wonder Merton grabbed the chance to experience love despite the risks involved. And Margie taught him about loving, and being loved, opening up a path to freedom Merton never knew existed.
Anyone who reads the entries in Merton's journal about his time with Margie will immediately feel the profound struggle that went on for Merton between his understanding of the spiritual life and the manifestation of in the flesh love that was right before him. Although at times the way he words things sounds almost like a teenager in love, I really believe, like Shaw, that this was much more for Merton.
I have always found the deep split between the spiritual and sexual in nearly all religions, including Buddhism, very troubling. While it's possible to argue that Buddhism has less of this than Judeo-Christian traditions, I'm still convinced that there's a gap in the teachings that has lead to an enormous amount of confusion, condemnation, and suffering.
Merton took a vow of celibacy in a church that has has a long standing doctrinal split between sexuality and spirituality. The depth of sex scandals that have ripped through Catholic communities in recent years point to this split, and how destructive it can be.
But what if Merton had been a Buddhist monk? He still would have been breaking his vow. And yet, how does this vow square with a spiritual tradition built upon the awareness that everything in life is impermanent? In other words, what happens to a person who takes what might be viewed as a permanent vow (at least in this lifetime), and then discovers along the way that upholding that vow is causing more suffering than liberation?
It's too easy to say that Merton should have either dropped the relationship and kept his vow or should have left the monastery. This was no novice monk; by the time of his relationship with Margie Smith, he was a world renown spiritual writer who was, despite his independent, anti-authoritarian streak, considered to be an important asset by the Church. Walking away from the monastery would have proved to be very difficult, and returning to his vows as they were was impossible. The last two years of Merton's life, following the relationship, proved to be his most exploratory in a spiritual sense, and it's possible to argue that he may have been tossed out of the church at some point if he had lived longer. To suggest that the relationship with Margie had nothing to do with this late life spiritual journey would be a great spiritual denial in my opinion.
In writing this, I'm not arguing that vows of celibacy are wrong, or that breaking those vows should be done any time someone feels constrained by them. That's not my point at all. I do believe we should strive to uphold whatever vows we make in our lives as best as we can.
However, I'm also convinced that how vows manifest in life changes over time. And when it comes to sexuality and spirituality, how much clarity can most of us claim to have when our spiritual traditions are littered with prohibitions, shame, blame, and non-discussions about the intersection of the two?