December with Thomas Merton – week 3

By December 1958 Merton was noting his 17th anniversary in the monastery. By now Merton is much more questioning and at times restless with his vocation. He ends up going into town – ironically he notes this is a kind of ‘retreat’. Seeing what life looks like outside the monastery walls, Merton qualifies his earlier entries about being in the monastery for ‘nothing’ by stating: ‘really I am here for everything. Being out “in the world” would really be nothing and an awful waste. The “waste” of one’s life in a monastery is the fruitful thing; or at least it is for me.’

Looking around him Merton is appalled:

‘The overwhelming welter of meaningless objects, goods, activities – the indiscriminate chaotic nest of ‘things’ good, bad and indifferent, that pour over you at every moment – books, magazines, food, drink, women, cigarettes, clothes, toys, cars, drugs. Add to this the anonymous, characterless,”decoration” of the town for Christmas and the people running around buying things for no reason except that now is a time which everybody buys things.’

[FG: incidentally not of course happy about Merton’s reference to ‘women’ as ‘things‘]

And Merton too buys ‘things’ – a pile of paperback books and two or three magazines; the rest of the time he goes to the library where he is trying to sort out pictures for his book that incidentally never got published, on Art and Worship. Merton, and George, who was driving him, stopped here and there all of the way back and got home so late that Merton had supper in Bardstown he writes,

‘Walking up and down in Bardstown outside Krogers, in the cold, saluted by man, woman, and child. I thought that never, never could I make sense of life outside the monastery. I am a solitary and that is that. I love people o.k., but I belong in solitude. It was so good to get back and smell the sweet air of the woods and listen to the silence.’

Bardstown in the 1950s