As I prepare my paper on Merton for our Mystical Theology conference in the summer in Durham I found the blog/website of Dom Eudes Bamberger OCSO at the Abbey of the Genesee in New York http://www.abbotjohneudes.org/recent.php . Many of you will no doubt be familiar with this remarkable monk and his work but for those of you who are not I recommend this site highly. Bamberger worked closely with Merton and on the site is a remarkable testament of their time together ( http://www.abbotjohneudes.org/DCTM&Prayer.pdf). I have included some of the extract as it will give you a flavour of the nature of their relationship. Merton's ability to 'dissemble' is brought out very clearly and explains why some readers have difficulties with Merton. Do read it and form your own opinion. Having spent the last few weeks working on Merton again I must say how every time I do he comes more clearly into focus.
We must also be grateful to Bamberger for the work he has done on Evagrius and Cassian (two more areas of study of mine at the moment) and again the site has some extracts from this work too. So we salute a remarkable gentleman who seems to be as productive as ever in ripeness of years.
'Merton not only met us in the classroom and for private discussion, he also worked with us in the fields and forests. In those days he had not as yet developed the bone problem that later resulted in surgery on his spine. I recall how energetically he wielded a hoe working in company with a group of us juniors. During that same period of time (1952-1955) he would take a group of us simple professed out to the woods outside the cloister enclosure where a former tool shed had been adapted to serve as a hermitage where he had permission to stay and do reading and some of his writing. As we set out on one such occasion I remember his quoting a passage from the Scriptures that took up the theme of escaping into solitude. I am not sure of the precise passage, but recall distinctly the flavor of his exhortation. It is captured by the following text from the prophet Jeremiah: "Flee and save your soul, be like the wild ass in the wilderness." (31:6), upon which proclamation we scattered, in the adjacent fields and woods to spend time in silent reflection and prayer.
On a later occasion, having had considerably more contact with Fr. Louis so that we knew one another better, he invited me to join him at his newly constructed hermitage so as to participate in a meeting he had arranged with a Hindu monk, member of a monastery in India who was visiting him. The three of us had a protracted exchange concerning various religious matters. Naturally one topic we covered in some detail was Hindu belief and monastic practice as well as our own. The discussion proceeded in a friendly climate that Merton was adept at creating. However, his contribution at times was too sympathetic and yielding; giving the
impression he had no objections to certain Hindu beliefs that are clearly not acceptable to Catholic teaching. After the Hindu monk left us to return to the abbey I pointed out to Fr. Louis that his comments and manner went too far at some point. He could give a false impression as to the Catholic teaching. He readily replied: "Sometimes you have to go along with those guys", making it evident by further comments and his whole manner that he did not at all agree with the Hindu position on the matters that are objectionable for a Christian; rather, he was making himself agreeable by dissembling any disagreements. This kind of accommodation does not seem honest to me or even productive in the end. Merton, at an earlier time, had intended at Cambridge University to qualify for the British diplomatic service. Had he pursued that course with application he surely could have competed with the best! Americans have not always agreed with this feature of the English style. Michael Mott has commented on this persistent tendency to adapt himself to others in ways that could be misleading. This tendency to accommodate himself without a serious commitment to the impression he made was operative in more subtle ways and in a variety of situations as his diaries and some letters clearly establish.
However, this incident was the only one of its kind involving a point of faith that I, at any rate, witnessed. There was no such equivocating when I was with him at an encounter with Sidi Abdesalam, the Sufi master from Algeria. Fr. Louis invited me with two or three other monks to join in a meeting to discuss prayer and spiritual experience. The conversation was cordial, open in spirit, and without any equivocal statements by any of us. Merton was a capable, reliable, and facilitating presence. On another occasion, Fr. Louis expressed to me in private sharp criticism of a prominent priest friend who visited at the Abbey with a group of Protestant ministers for his excessively liberal behavior at a liturgy with that group. My impressions were that the tendency to make himself agreeable to others had strong roots in Merton’s character, a tendency that contributed to his friendly manner as well as to his strong sense of sympathy for human suffering. This trait in my opinion, played a prominent role in Merton’s increasing contributions to causes of peace and justice.
It happened some few years later, on an occasion when I was free to spend the day alone, I took the customary path to the more distant hermitage. As I proceeded on my way I traversed a wooded area and observed Fr Louis walking alone. I remained partially hidden by the trees not far away from him. Due to the disposition of the trees he did not see me till I was rather nearby so that I could clearly perceive by his features and his preoccupied way of walking that he was burdened , preoccupied with some quite distressing matters in his thought. As I drew nearer he suddenly noticed my presence and abruptly altered his whole manner and features. He greeted me with a warmth of expression and smile that characterized his customary behavior in the presence of others, displaying but briefly the embarrassment he felt at having allowed something of his darker interior self to be observed. This dividedness was so well concealed in
daily life as to remain unrecognized by even close associates in and outside the monastery. Nor do biographers give prominence to the considerable suffering it created for him or recognize the role it played in what was to be a crisis in his life some time later. The circumstances are quite involved, and I found myself at the height of the situation dragged into the matter. Before discussing the events associated with this scene, another happening made me further aware of a feature of Merton’s ways that contributed to further knowledge of his character.
As I recall that scene in the woods, I associate it with a statement Merton made some years later in a letter he wrote to me concerning a discussion we had shared the day before. The meeting we had was occasioned by events resulting in a rather acute inner crisis for him. When in the hospital for surgery on the spinal problem he had become emotionally involved with a young student nurse. He remained in communication with her after returning to the monastery following convalescence. Predictably these activities became known to a brother in the community who brought it to the attention of Dom James. The abbot upon learning of the phone calls engaged Merton to break off their relationship. Shortly after this happened, I, knowing nothing of these events, received a letter sent to me by a priest I knew through earlier professional contact. He expressed concern for Merton’s well-being having been consulted by some layperson who sought his help for the monk acting in so irregular a manner. This is some of the background that led to my being asked by the abbot to speak with Fr. Louis so as to be of some assistance this situation. At his same time, another related circumstance resulted in my being brought into the situation and occasioned my intervention by way of a confrontation rather emotionally charged.
The day after this initial discussion, he wrote me a letter to give his reflections on our exchange. He begins his observations in the following terms:" Our talk yesterday has been fruitful in this: it has suggested some helpful perspectives anyway." But he soon qualifies this statement in a way that gives the unfounded impression that I had implied he was previously without inner conflicts: "Anyone who thinks that I was whole and consistent before simply does not know me." However, as he copied this letter into his diary (cf. "Learning to Love", 106, 107), he makes a further comment, the result of more reflection on my criticisms and advice with a quite positive decision:" However, there is no harm in taking seriously his (Fr. Eudes) advice . . . I’ll accept the fact that it is perhaps a much bigger problem than I realized. And try to work it out." Subsequent course of his behavior reveal the results of his efforts in this direction that led to his inner resolution of this crisis...'