In a perceptive article titled “Merton’s Margin,” Maciej Bielawski identifies the grand paradox of Thomas Merton’s life, ensconced within the monastery within the Catholic Church, established as its mouthpiece or, at least, its informal and unofficial representative, defender of its institutions and traditions, while ever struggling to assert his own voice. Merton was always drawn to the polis, while acutely, even painfully, aware of the wilderness behind him, its freedom and autonomy, its space, always luring him. And yet Merton was never fully within the polis, the world, nor fully in the wilderness, while nevertheless speaking to or on behalf of both. Merton was always at the margin.
Bielawski describes marginality as resulting “from the sense of non-meaningfulness and lack of sense; it is the consequence of being brushed by death.” In Merton’s case, he lost faith in the world, in secular society, and discovered the possibility of monasticism in an age when hope, in a new post-World War West, encouraged a revival of not mere faith but of devotion in a generation of young intellectuals. This Merton embraced. But the sacrifice did not absorb or take into account his restless need for construction of self and purpose. There was not time. Instead, having decided on his path, he immediately began to chafe at the possibility of a wrong decision, and so he began to travel, restlessly, rebelliously, to the margins of whatever confined him. Bielawski puts it thus:
A worldly person becomes a monk, a monk becomes a writer, a writer becomes a hermit, a hermit becomes a lover and a traveller … Merton was stubbornly and instinctively moving away to the margin of everything that had at first seemed significant to him. He was doing so in the belief that he is searching for an absolute, unquestionable centre.
This tension makes the gifted writer like Merton a poignant searcher, an engaging autobiographer of the soul. Sometimes he is so intimate in his confessions and prayers that he seems saturated in unwavering faith, asking only for more. And yet having moved (and moved readers with him) to that point, Merton abruptly but subtly shifts and heads into the wilderness, the insecure, the margin.
Merton had touched upon the center, the Absolute, in his devotional life, or had he? As a reflex, he coils back from supposed light and seeks out darkness, death, ambiguity, at least in his private writings and in his hard dealings with monastic life. At the meaningless periphery or margin, Merton discovers or conjures a new center, a new angle on the Absolute, and wants to shift his life and mind from externals to that margin. More specifically, Merton wanted to station himself, like the artist, writer, or sage, to a margin that exempts him from complicity in society, the Church, monasticism, to speak purely, openly, and with wisdom. Bielawski compares Merton’s stance to those of classic writers: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka.
But he was destined not to stay there for long, for new margins, more attractive because newer, more isolating, like temptations to Saint Antony, rear their heads. Merton deftly negotiates his way out of all of them, all the way up to the absurd end.
Merton argues that God’s call to a person already summons that person to the margin of their previous existence. There, on the margin, faith is built or reconstructed. A new center is created. But even this margin, once it becomes a comfortable center, and its faith a comfortable faith, can be false. Conversion (the first call to the margin) cannot endure doubts, and the new struggle undermines the past, and requires purification. The centrality of God has moved to a new place, and the person is bereft of past centralities, past comforts. Now there are only new uncertainties. One must explore anew the meaning of life, existence, God’s purpose, what it means to live between the world and wilderness, between center and margin. Merton skirted along the fine border that exposed the Church and monasticism and theology as falseness, and eked out a persona that only revealed itself after his death.
Bielawski quotes Merton:
We are not justified by any action of our own, but we are called by the voice of God, by the voice of that ultimate being, to pierce through the irrelevance of out life, while accepting and admitting that our life is totally irrelevant, in order to find relevance in Him. … The kind of life that I represent is a life that is openness to gift; gift from God and gift from others.
Merton realized that his marginality, while leading him to different feelings and experiences, had no logic or rationale of its own. He lived dangerously, but not in the intellectual or even individual sense had he been a layperson. But then he would not have had or shred his many insights. Merton brought monasticism and eremitism to popular audiences and rehabilitated his religion’s spirituality. For himself, Merton required the margins in order to be honest. He gloried in the prospect that other people — but really referring to himself — would ever dare
to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk.