Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Catholic Boomer Death Watch. Part 1: The Diminution of Thomas Merton



I first came across the idea of a baby boomer death watch fifteen years ago on the Internet. The participants of a discussion were complaining about how the baby boomers---my generation---had ruined the world. These folks couldn't wait for us all to die out! One responder even linked readers to a website called “Die Boomer Die.” With a subtitle proclaiming “there is no political left or right, there is just failed baby boomer leadership,” this site featured two doomsday watches: the number of days until boomers turned 65, and the number of days until the last boomer died[1].

A few months ago, I spent time in some fairly toxic regions of the world wide web. As a Pauline working in the new evangelization, I have a legitimate reason to immerse myself in media. But I also regularly cruise the internet for relaxation---a digital cocktail after a hard day's work. Or two. Or three. Once I get going, stress relief can turn to mindless consumption and toxic exposure. Not so cool. One night, after a nasty hangover followed by an honest examination of conscience, I formed a resolution. I would commit to practicing mindful media consumption all instead of just part of the time.

I started by committing myself to Pauline programs: I joined My Sisters, a spiritual mentorship community. My Sisters provides community, prayer, discussion, and meditation including twice-weekly live interactive videos that can be accessed afterwards if you miss the live feed.[2] I jump-started my mornings by watching a daily live video segment of Ask a Catholic Nun, a Pauline broadcast that offers reading and reflection on the day's liturgical readings.

This kind of activity lead me to comments, links, and references that dropped me into a corner of the virtual world inhabited mostly by younger Catholics. It was there that I made the unsettling discovery that Catholic millenials, GenX-ers and GenY-ers have their own version of the boomer death watch. A recurring theme among younger Catholics is the dissing of the baby boomer generation.

It is inevitable that younger generations will look critically at their elders. As my sister Marguerite says, when you are young you look around at the horrors in the world and wonder why they are allowed to continue. Don't the older folks care?  Fixing the problems of society seems easy in the idealistic flush of young adulthood. It takes experience to realize that good intentions and beer-fueled dorm talk will not do the trick. And Catholicism is currently suffering a severe crisis of trust and engagement.

I am not unsympathetic to the notion that boomers have a lot to answer for. We came of age during a time of economic prosperity, when jobs were plentiful and health care, sick leave, and pensions still were very much a thing. We were ready, willing, and enthusiastic participants in the sexual revolution. Young boomers felt liberated by The Pill: the women because they could experiment sexually just like guys had always done, and the guys because … well, liberated women! Our generation was always on the march---for civil rights and free speech, to protest war, to get rid of in loco parentis[3] at university.

And, in the Catholic world, we grew giddy with the rapid changes to liturgy and Catholic life that followed hard on the Second Vatican Council.

I remember the tremendous upheaval that followed the first implementations of liturgical reform after Vatican II. We youngsters had no patience with our elders who were reluctant to respond at Mass, or to sing, and who grieved the loss of the Latin mass and the Baltimore catechism. We watched with excitement as our leaders and teachers brought experimental liturgies to the parishes, and situational ethics to the classroom. Then came the massive dissent by both religious and laypersons against Humana Vitae---the encyclical that reiterated the Church's prohibition against artificial contraception. It was a chaotic time, and as a grade school and then high school student I relished all the changes.

What goes around, comes around. The pendulum has now swung back; the current generation of Catholics has no patience with our boomer excesses. However, I can't help but feel that the Church of the 60s and 70s has become a scapegoat for the crises of today.

Take Thomas Merton, as an example. Merton was an indelible presence on the Catholic landscape from 1948 when his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, came out, to his death from accidental electrical shock in Thailand in 1968.  Thomas Merton, whose religious name was Father Louis, published 70+ books on spirituality, literature, poetry, social justice, and monastic history from inside a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. The Seven Storey Mountain, which remains his best-known work, chronicled his journey from agnostic hipster, to Catholic convert, to Trappist monk. It was a sensation in the Catholic world and fueled an influx of young men entering monasteries in the post-war United States. His death, twenty years after its publication, came at a Bangkok Conference of Benedictine and Trappist monks just after he delivered a paper titled “Marxism and the Monastic Perspective.”

The publication of Thomas Merton's autobiography and his death in Asia twenty years later book-ended two poles of Catholic cultural life that spanned the Second World War to the Second Vatican Council. Merton was an enthusiastic convert and young Trappist delighting in the Faith and in the Catholic culture that in 1948 seemed unassailable from the winds of change. But by 1968, priests and religious had begun what would become a mass exodus from the consecrated life. Merton himself came to be embarrassed by The Seven Storey Mountain because of what he thought in the more ecumenical atmosphere of the 60s to be a simplistic, overly-enthusiastic Catholicism that smacked of triumphalism. He became interested in Buddhist monasticism and Zen thought, exchanging letters with eastern spiritual leaders and monks. He became involved, through correspondence, with the civil rights and the peace movement in this country. While Catholic priests and religious were second-thinking their vocations and leaving for lay life in droves, Thomas Merton stayed, wrote books and journals, and carried on a correspondence with spiritual and cultural figures from across the globe.

However, unknown except to his abbot and a few friends, Merton also became caught up in the sexual confusions of the time. In 1966 he fell in love with a young nurse who took care of him during a stay in a Louisville hospital. For six months, this celebrated spiritual writer, who was the public face of Catholic monasticism, carried on a reckless relationship with “Margie Smith.” He snuck out of the abbey to phone her, he arranged secret meetings with her, he toyed with the idea of marriage. His journals of this period reflect his conflict of mind and rashness of action as he struggled with the impact of this relationship on his vocation.

Because Thomas Merton designated in his will that the journals from this time not be published until 25 years after his death, his public did not know the cause of the crisis he alluded to often. When the journals were finally published, he did come under fire; but ultimately his reputation survived the revelations. The journals contained no explicit reference to sexual consummation, leaving his readership free to put the most charitable interpretation possible on how he lived out his vocational and moral crisis. In recent years, it has been revealed that Thomas Merton's relationship with the young nurse was in fact consummated physically, at least twice. This has caused another flurry of notoriety and re-evaluation of his life and work.

C.C. Pecknold is one of the younger Catholic writers I began to follow in my newfound explorations of Catholic social media. In April, The Catholic Herald published his article “Thomas Merton's illicit affair and the weakness of 60s Zen Catholicism”. In it, Pecknold reflects on that six-month affair and passes judgment on Merton's status as a spiritual figure in post-World War II, post-Vatican II Catholicism. He admits that he never liked Merton even before the latest revelations: "His introduction to Augustine's City of God is almost laughably bad," he writes. With none of the reverence that my generation held for Merton's life and work, Pecknold concludes that his importance, if any, lies in how he represents the spiritual weakness of the Church during that tumultuous period. “But it seems like an important window into a Catholic icon of sixties optimism —,” Pecknold writes, “an icon which was morally and spiritually depleted enough to seek solace in the 'round hull of hips'[3] when what the world really needed was a new, doubtless very different, Bernard of Clairvaux.”

I can't dispute the legitimacy of the article's insights, and I do love that Pecknold ends his article with the always-timely advice, “Pray for the souls in purgatory.” But I did find myself shocked by the cavalier manner in which Pecknold seemed to diminish a figure who was one of the seminal influences of post-Vatican II Catholicism. For me, Merton was a key contemporary writer who complemented the saints and earlier spiritual masters I devoured on my return to the Church after a period of atheism. His writing is indeed a window into that period of time, but in a way that I think is valuable to understanding the Church's modern trajectory in America. To dismiss Merton's work is perhaps to dismiss all of the tortured efforts of Catholic writers and thinkers to deal with the massive changes that overtook western civilization.

I appreciate Pecknold's point of view even while I disagree with it. He is a thoughtful writer, and I continue to read him regularly. But what really got to me were the comments his article elicited on his Twitter feed. His readers let loose a torrent of  discourtesy that condemned Merton's sexual lapse and minimized any of his anguish in no uncertain terms. Today's Catholics, along with many older Catholics who, like me, are happy to see the pendulum swing back to traditional practices and educational modes in the Church, have no patience with the slack we boomers cut Merton and his peers. I may not be speaking for every boomer, but many of us who lived through that chaotic time are grateful for Merton remaining  faithful to the Church while so many others were exiting the priesthood, the religious life, and the Catholic Church itself.

A critical eye is good, and we should not put our heroes on a pedestal. Still, I am sad that Thomas Merton's legacy is under fire. It seems like part of the Catholic boomer death watch, the young folks waiting for us oldsters to die off. Once we're gone, they can remake the Church without the confusion and chaos they see as the sole legacy of the 60s and 70s. Dissent itself comes from the ideological right rather than the left these days. An increasing number of radical traditionalists---or “rad-trads” as they are called and call themselves---dispute the legitimacy of Vatican II and the Popes who followed it, including and especially Pope Francis himself.

C.C. Pecknold is not of that group, I  hasten to say. None of the contemporary writers I read fit in that category, which borders on schism. But it is out there. In spades.

How useful is it to blame my generation for the current state of disorder?  There is bathwater, and there are babies. Some precious insights into the Church and the modern world were hard won during the tumultuous times of the 60s and the 70s. In my next chapter of Catholic Boomer Death Watch, I will talk about how some of the babies are being thrown out with the bathwater, and why that troubles me.

I look forward to yet another retrospective on Merton in another twenty years or so. I believe his work will stand. And with it, I believe some of the results of the intellectual and theological struggles of that time will prove themselves of lasting value.


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Rae Stabosz made her Promise to be a Pauline Cooperator in 2003. She loves being a part of the Pauline Family. She and Bill Stabosz, her husband of 50 years, have six sons, three daughters, thirteen grandsons and eight granddaughters. She retired in 2007 from the University of Delaware, where she was a technology and media specialist for 27 years. Rae is co-founder and past president of The Society of Catholic Scholars of Delaware, and proprietor (since 2004) of the Pious Ladies Bookmobile.



[1] The “Die Boomer Die” site is still around, but hasn't been active since 2007.
[2] I am behind in my participation, and suffer the usual social guilt from my failure. Having a regular spiritual practice is like going to the gym: I love it when I commit to it, but oh how easy to miss one session and then allow inertia to take over.
[3] “in loco parentis”, Latin for “in the place of a parent”, refers to institutions taking on some of the responsibilities of parents. My generation got rid of curfews and single-sex dormitories, and also started the free speech movement on campuses. The current generation seems to be going backwards, petitioning universities to control who can and cannot come and speak on campuses, depending on their opinion on current issues.
[4] Reference by Merton to his illicit rendezvous with "Margie Smith."





6 comments:

Anonymous said...

If it is any consolation Merton is still well read in our centers. Our bookcenters present us with off-media perspectives that are enlightening. The young adults we meet are still very much middle of the road and devoted Catholics. Sr. Margaret

Rae Stabosz said...

Glad to hear that.

Anonymous said...

Pecknold is just another sinner s8nn8ng.

Maryann Toth said...

Rae, As a fellow baby boomer, I found your post very interesting and look forward to your next chapter.

Athelstane said...

How useful is it to blame my generation for the current state of disorder?

Speaking as a Gen-X Catholic of a more traditionalist bent, I was at one point forced to consider some overlooked facts, and they can be summed up in a sentence: The reform project that swept the Church in the 60's was not a Baby Boomer project. They were either just kids at the time, or just knocking on the door of young adulthood. Baby Boomers did not call the Council. Baby Boomers did not overhaul the liturgy. Baby Boomers were not the theological and spiritual figures (like Merton) that dominated the day. Baby Boomer Catholics were not running parish councils, schools, or universities. The very first Boomer priests were not ordained until 1971, and did not start becoming bishops until the late 80's at the earliest. If any generation has a key responsibility, in fact, it is none other than the "Greatest Generation." You know: the one that gets all the accolades.

All that said, it's also true that it is Baby Boomers, lay and clerical, who lead the Church in America today, and have been leading it for the last few decades - and they are the last generation for whom the Council, and all the changes that swept through the Church in the 60's, will be a living memory. You are stamped by that time in a way those of us who come after simply are not. The enthusiasm for Merton is, I think, a case in point.

The fact that Merton stumbled in sexual sin should not annihilate the value of all of his work - I will even admit that from time to time in reading him, I come across insights that pleasantly surprise me. Still, reflection can never be completely divorced from witness. We do not expect spiritual masters to be perfect, and some (Augustine? Ignatius?) have notorious pasts. But I do think that Chad Pecknold is not wrong in thinking that the fact that his stumble came so far into (as opposed to before) his spiritual career can't help but color how coming generations are going to receive and perceive his work.

Marguerite said...

The Council was hijacked by the times. Greatest generation, boomers, Gen X or millennials, all would have been swept away by the times. Yes, awful consequences have ensued. But what was in the air in those times was the just cause of civil rights and a profound but misguided conviction about changing the liturgy to make it more relevant and thus more exciting. I've only read Seven Story Mountain, but if Merton's Asian stuff is considered faithful to doctrine, then I think he will remain an important figure in the Church. Remembered not quite as a saint, but as a worldly man transformed by Jesus.