Thursday, February 21, 2008

The REAL Tragedy of Thomas Merton-Part One

Here is a rebuttal to the spurious claims of Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand on her audio lecture entitled "The Tragedy of Thomas Merton." I have decided to do this because her lecture is filled with inaccuracies that would make any researcher, scholar and seeker of truth and goodness blush with shame. I have labeled my rebuttal "The REAL Tragedy of Thomas Merton" because her writing reflects on Merton and therefore she is his "REAL Tragedy!"
If you would care to verify my writing and compare it to Von Hildebrands Lecture, I have provided page numbers from Merton's Book, "The Seven Storey Mountain" and a way to find her remarks through minutes and seconds of her talk. This way you can hear what she actually said and you can see how inaccurate she was during this "lecture." You can download her talk from for $1, which to my mind is highly overpriced. The edition of the book that I am using is , "The Seven Story Mountain" the Fiftieth Anniversay Edition - A Harvest Book - Harcourt Brace and Company - copyright 1948. I will also be using the book "The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton" by Michael Mott - Copyright 1984.
Dr. Von Hildebrand made very many errors regarding her version of Merton's life which can be verified easily by reading the books above and listening to her lecture. Please keep in mind that if it were not for Thomas Merton's openness and candor in his writings all of this would be moot.

I will do this in chronological order from the lecture.
3:54 Von Hildebrand says, "And already we notice a trait in him which is going to remain apparent during his whole life. His tremendous difficulty of putting up with defeat or humiliations."
My only comment on the above is that she is talking about a young man - Merton. If we look at the definition of humiliations we see that it is to "make (someone) feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect, esp. publicly : you'll humiliate me in front of the whole school! | [as adj. ] ( humiliating) a humiliating election defeat."(New Oxford American Dictionary)
I do not think that I have met one person in my life who enjoys humiliations! Does Dr. Von Hildebrand? I frankly do not see the relevance of this as a possible problem in the character of Thomas Merton.

Then there is her total misreading and misunderstanding of the incident when Merton was a young student in the Oakham school in England. The description below casts a great shadow of doubt on Von Hildebrand's sincerity and scholarship.

5:10 Von Hildebrand says, "And in the Seven Storey Mountain he has one sentence which I am going to quote because it's particularly striking and remarkable, in which he criticizes the thought of religious training that he received as a child." And now she quotes Merton. "Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers in order that we might become gentlemen." This is amazing. She says "he has one sentence which I am going to quote," yet she does NOT quote him. What she says in this portion of the lecture defies any semblance of honesty which as a Christian you would have thought Dr. Hildebrand would strive for. This part of the book is of course a reflection of Merton when he is older, and it is the height of sloppy research to not inform her audience that she did NOT quote Merton accurately or in its entirety! Here is the quote the way it is actually written in "The Seven Storey Mountain" and you will see how Von Hildebrand takes what is a wonderful spiritual insight of Merton's and twists it in such a way that for her becomes an indictment of his immaturity. This is found on page 81-82 of SSM and was written to explain the inaccuracy of the school chaplain Buggy Jerwood's exegesis of 1 Cor 13. Jerwood substitutes the word gentleman for love and so Merton rightly continues his logic to its rightful conclusion.
"The boys listened tolerantly to these thoughts. But I think St. Peter and the twelve Apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and subjected to unutterable contempt and finally nailed to the Cross and left to bleed to death in order that we might become gentlemen." So you can see that Dr. Von Hildebrand goes out of her way by misquoting Merton and then tries to say that Merton agreed with the statement! It was exactly the OPPOSITE! How can someone claim that they are quoting someone and then NOT quote them. How absurd!!!

15:45 Von Hildebrand talks about Merton's impulsivity. And this is partially true. Merton did appear to act impulsively at times. Of course this would mean that the element of space and time is fully developed in his Journals. In other words, he writes that he heard of something, then goes and explores it. This of course does not at all levels take into account personal reading on the subject, nor the element of time that may have elapsed. Sometimes it does appear chronologically, other times it is much more ambiguous. She complains that Merton got it into his head that he wanted to become a Catholic and in 6 weeks did become one. This of course leaves out much detail. There was time for reflection as he read the works of Gilson, Maritain and many others and of course he writes often about his thoughts and prayers regarding this. He did not come to the conclusion of being a Catholic overnight. Also, it does not say much about the priest of Corpus Christi who instructed him and baptized him. Yes, it did occur over a period of 6 weeks. Does Von Hildebrand think that Father Ford just allowed him to be Catholic as impulsively as Von Hildebrand thinks that Merton made this request? I think that Father Ford surely would have questioned him, found out what he was reading, asked about his prayer life and certainly got to know him during his course of study. Father Ford then came to the conclusion that Merton was ready for entrance into the faith - or he would not have allowed it! See pages 226+ of SSM. What right does Von Hildebrand have in asserting Merton's spiritual maturity as being somehow inadequate!

16:26 "You start saying to yourself - 6 weeks of instruction given to someone who knows NOTHING of the faith, was a risky business."
It is not true that Merton knew nothing of the faith. If you read the above section of the book you will see that he was doing much reading, praying and speaking to others about the fait, so it is untrue that Merton knew nothing of the faith! Think of what she is saying here, and then think of the missionaries since the time of the Apostles. Think of going into Greece or pagan Rome. These people were sometimes converted on the spot. The faith was explained to them, and then they were baptized. I think that you'll agree that Merton knew far more then a pagan in second century Rome. How about this passage from Chapter 2 of Acts, "Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day."

16:38 "Because he was pressing and because he was anxious to become a Catholic, well the priest gave in and after 6 weeks he was baptized and entered the church" about assumptions. I would love to ask Dr. Von Hildebrand how she knows this. If she cannot back it up with a quote or some other manifestation of fact, she should admit that it is only her opinion and stop talking so dogmatically about something that she couldn't possibly know. Time and time again, she makes Merton out to be a regular bully who is up against people who just can't say no to him. This may be true in Von Hildebrand's mind, but I doubt its validity in the real world.

20:00 "And then he met the Baroness De Hueck, this Dutch woman who had opened a house for black people in Harlem."
This kind of statement makes it sound like Dr. Von Hildebrand was either not very careful in her research or perhaps didn't really even read the "Seven Storey Mountain." Perhaps she was impulsive about writing her lecture - or maybe she thought that it would make her famous.
It says on page 375 - "The Baroness was born a Russian. She had been a young girl at the time of the October Revolution. She had seen half her family shot, she had seen priests fall under the bullets of the Reds...." The Baroness was Russian - not Dutch.

21:29 "As a matter of fact surprisingly Danny Walsh this nice, friendly, shy, little man, had said to him, and to my mind rather unwisely, "Thomas, when I first met you I became convinced that you had a religious vocation.""
Let's see who was right about this. Dr. Von Hildebrand is convinced that Merton should not have even been baptized much less admit to having a religious vocation. Yet, Dan Walsh, a man very spiritually mature, a Thomist scholar who knew Merton well said that he saw in him this vocation. And let's not forget that Merton was a Trappist Monk for 27 years before his death. So....who was right?!

21:55 "And he went there and made an application and was temporarily accepted as a possible candidate to entering the Capuchin order."
Another example of very careless research. On page 324+ Merton writes about his conversation and possible candidacy, but it was not with the Capuchin order. Merton wanted to be a Franciscan. It is true that the Capuchins are an offshoot of the Franciscans, but they are 2 different orders. Von Hildebrands confusion comes into play because after Merton left Father Edmund, a Franciscan, he went over to Seventh Avenue to the Church of the Capuchins. All I can say is that if Von Hildebrand was one of my graduate students and handed in her lecture as a thesis, I would have to fail her due to all these inaccuracies.


Hilary said...

"I do not think that I have met one person in my life who enjoys humiliations! Does Dr. Von Hildebrand? I frankly do not see the relevance of this as a possible problem in the character of Thomas Merton."

Yes, I do know such people: St. Faustina, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross (who, when a crucifix told him to ask for a reward, asked to be despised). Humility is the special mark of sanctity, and part of humility is a willingness and in some people even a desire to be humiliated by others. If Thomas Merton lacked humility, that is extremely relevant because it indicates a serious and dangerous failing in spirituality, as anyone deeply read in Catholic spirituality must know.

~Cephas~ said...

I thought I responded to this, but do not see it so forgive me if you get 2 similar responses. My first comment is that you have never met the above Saints have you? You are basing your response by way of their writings and writings about them. All the ones you've mentioned had great humility, but your faulty assumption is that they were born that way, enjoyed humiliations and craved for more with nary a complaint. If I know anything about the spiritual life is that people grow and mature in it. Your assumption that they always and forever enjoyed humiliations lacks credulity. At the point that Von Hildebrand made this comment, Merton was not yet a Catholic or even a practicing Christian. I was basing my comment about enjoying humiliations based on that. Also, you are confusing someone who accepts and relishes humiliations for the good of their souls and someone who enjoys being humiliated. One is a Saint the other a person with psychological pathology. If you've read any Merton whatsoever, then you probably realize that Merton possessed great humility. Yes, he wrestled with it at times, but nonetheless it was there.