Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Elena Malits, November 4, 2005

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Merton's impact on the Catholic community

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Partial Transcript: Who is Thomas Merton?

Segment Synopsis: Malits describes Merton and his importance over the decades because of his influential biography. Malits recounts her first interaction with "The Seven Storey Mountain." She talks about how Merton got inside the Catholic psyche in the 1950s and then in the 1960s he wrote about social issues, race and world religion. Malits remembers when she learned of his death while in graduate school in New York.

Keywords: Karl Barth; The Seven Storey Mountain (book)

Subjects: 1950s; 1960s; Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Autobiographies; Catholicism; Death; Libraries; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; New York times; Newspapers; Obituaries; Race; Trappist (Ky.); Twentieth century

00:03:49 - Merton's years at Columbia University

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Partial Transcript: Going back to where, in my program, they'll first be introduced to Merton, it's this young, pre-conversion break in New York City. Describe for me what you would have found if you met this person.

Segment Synopsis: Malits says that she only ever knew the young Thomas Merton, from when she did some graduate study at Union Theological Seminary, across from Columbia University, where they ate at some of the same places. Malits speculates that editors may have removed some of Merton's humor from his autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," because it was inappropriate for a monk and says that Merton was a lot of fun, and belonged to the most interesting social group in his class at Columbia.

Keywords: The Seven Storey Mountain (book)

Subjects: Columbia University; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monks

GPS: Union Theological Seminary
Map Coordinates: 40.81200401972081, -73.96185713068941
00:07:33 - Merton's personality

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Partial Transcript: Is jazz a good metaphor for Merton's personality?

Segment Synopsis: Malits describes how Merton was interested in jazz when he was in high school in England, and that continued at Cambridge and then at Columbia University. She says it's also a good metaphor for Merton's personality because of jazz's complexity, but that Merton never used it as a metaphor for himself.

Keywords: Metaphors

Subjects: Columbia University; Jazz; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Music; University of Cambridge

00:09:12 - Merton's interest in communism

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Partial Transcript: He had two conversions of sorts, one sort of a flirtation and then one a lifelong, deep, multilayered conversion in the '30s--one was to communism, and one was to Catholicism.

Segment Synopsis: Malits talks about Merton's book "The Seven Storey Mountain" and its description of the early 1930s at Columbia, and how everyone was talking about communism. She says that Merton understood there was something good in Marxism that made people critical of society, which he liked, but did not identify with Russian communism.

Keywords: Owen Merton; The Seven Storey Mountain (book)

Subjects: 1930s; Catholicism; Columbia University; Communism; Conversions; Great Depression; Marxism; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Russia

00:12:37 - Merton's conversion to Catholicism

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Partial Transcript: I think his interest in Catholicism obviously is much deeper, but I wouldn't say it begins at Columbia.

Segment Synopsis: Malits says Merton's interest in Catholicism didn't begin at Columbia, but when he was eighteen years old spending time in Rome on his own. Malits thinks Merton's interest in Catholicism began with Catholic art, especially in smaller churches in Rome. She thinks most conversion stories begin with an earlier experience and then a return to it at a later point in life, and for Merton that interest re-emerged at Columbia University.

Keywords: Dan Walsh; Edward Rice; Owen Merton

Subjects: Byzantine art; Catholicism; Christ; Columbia University; Conversions; Italy; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Mosaics; Religious art; University of Cambridge

00:20:27 - Religion is not supposed to be comforting

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Partial Transcript: I'm going to say something, and if this is fair to say, would you say it in your own words?

Segment Synopsis: Malits says that Merton did not believe that religions should give comfort, and felt that an authentic life with God and other human beings required risk-taking. She says that, for Merton, the depth of reality was a place of darkness and insecurity, the unknown, and that this aligns with the views of many mystics, who say that the importance of a discomfort that leads you to the happiness of contact with God.

Keywords: Catholicism; Monasticism; Night schools

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Christianity; Evening and continuation schools; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Mysticism; Novice masters; Teaching

00:25:48 - The centrality of writing for Merton

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Partial Transcript: Let's talk about how writing was just so central to Merton.

Segment Synopsis: Malits describes Merton's writing process at the monastery. She goes into his compulsions to write, which were regulated by the lifestyle of the order. Malits mentions how Merton wanted his writing to be distributed posthumously, and his feelings as someone who was both an author and a monk.

Keywords: Addiction; The Sign of Jonas (book)

Subjects: Death; France; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monastic and spiritual life; Monks; Prayer; Publishers and authors; Wills; Writing

00:30:36 - Merton's early reaction to life at the monastery

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Partial Transcript: Okay, we're, we're in the--in the monastery now.

Segment Synopsis: Malits talks about Merton's decision to make a retreat to Gethsemani while he was at Columbia, and his positive experiences there. She says that this experience helped push him to enter it permanently. Malits discusses how "The Seven Storey Mountain" was written during the early romantic phase of his relationship to the monastery and that later Merton became more critical.

Keywords: Second Vatican Council; The Seven Storey Mountain (book); Vatican II

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Correspondence; God; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monks; Peace; Religions; Retreats; Rome; Vatican II (Council) (1962-1965 : Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano)

00:34:26 - Merton's evolving sense of penance

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Partial Transcript: Something that I've always been struck by, puzzled with, not always been comfortable with, was the notion of penance and the centrality of it in the Trappist life at this time, and how Merton seemed to feel, "Yeah, this is what I need and give me a lot of that penance, too."

Segment Synopsis: Malits describes how Merton's feelings on penance changed over time. Malits mentions that, in Merton's later years, he moved away from bodily discipline and towards the discipline of listening to other people.

Keywords: Second Vatican Council; The Today Show (television); Vatican II

Subjects: 1940s; Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Fasting; Listening; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Opus Dei (Society); Penance; Prayer; Silence; Television; Trappist (Ky.); Vatican II (Council) (1962-1965 : Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano)

00:38:57 - Merton's need for self-expression

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Partial Transcript: You said, earlier, that--that you would have liked to have been able to talk or to be around this--the mature Merton because of his--you know, just fun and interest and engaging ways.

Segment Synopsis: Malits describes how Merton went through a typically strict early conversion phase, where he denied himself everything including writing. She says that "The Seven Storey Mountain" was not initially his idea, but thinks it's a good thing it happened because Merton was a very expressive human being, and might not have survived monastic discipline without writing as an outlet. Malits describes how, when she joined the Sisters of the Holy Cross, she thought she would lose her mind and what saved her was being asked to teach a class on art, which fulfilled her need to communicate. She says that Merton's experiences with this helped him later adopt a milder view of penance, as in his book "The Waters of Siloe."

Keywords: The Seven Storey Mountain (book); The Waters of Siloe (book)

Subjects: Art; Autobiographies; Convents; Conversion; Creativity; Emotional health; Expressive behavior; Mental illness; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and spiritual life; Penance; Self-denial; Sisters of the Holy Cross; Writing

00:43:44 - What is the monastic life trying to accomplish?

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Partial Transcript: Many viewers of this will wonder, you know--they'll hear about penance, they'll hear about some of the, the customs and, and usages that went on in the monastic life and they will say, "What are they trying to accomplish?"

Segment Synopsis: Malits describes monastic life through the lens of several different traditions and their origins. She says that Merton understood the need for monastic life to change during his time, the importance of Vatican II. She says a sign of those changes are that the monks at Gethsemani today wear blue jeans and no longer rely on sign language to communicate.

Keywords: Rule of Saint Benedict; Second Vatical Council; Vatican II

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Cistercians; Communication; France; Jesus; La Trappe (Abbey : Soligny-la-Trappe, France); Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monastic and spiritual life; Monastic orders; Penance; Sign language; Vatican II (Council) (1962-1965 : Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano)

00:46:41 - Merton's idea of leaving the world

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned, in this phase of his life, the early fifties, the rather unhealthy notion he had of leaving the world. Talk about his notion, what would you deem--and I think he came to deem--as this sort of unhealthy leaving-the-world notion?

Segment Synopsis: Malits discusses discourse about monastic life in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the divide between viewing religious life as pulling away from normal life, and things like Vatican II saying that it should instead embrace the world. She says that, in Merton's case, he argued that Jesus was part of the world of his time, and that things like war, slavery, and racism should be rejected but an openness to the full experiences of the world should be maintained.

Keywords: Catholicism; Second Vatican Council; Vatican II

Subjects: Gospels (Books of the New Testament); Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and spiritual life; Racism; Religious life; Slavery; Vatican II (Council) (1962-1965 : Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano); War

00:50:42 - Merton's early spiritual limitations in "Seeds of Contemplation"

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Partial Transcript: But I'm trying to also create the picture for the viewer of this Merton in--in 1950, of the--the--the limited human being.

Segment Synopsis: Malits discusses how Merton's writing changed throughout his life. She says that his early works were intellectually and spiritually immature, more interested in giving things up in accordance with the limiting principles of 1940s Catholicism and that Merton became more expansive in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in "New Seeds of Contemplation."

Keywords: Catholicism; New Seeds of Contemplation (book); Seeds of Contemplation (book)

Subjects: Authors; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Spirituality

00:52:59 - Merton's uncategorizable politics

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Partial Transcript: Sort of talk about the way he was able to work both sides of the street there.

Segment Synopsis: Malits discusses Merton's reluctance to be labelled as a conservative or a liberal, and how he resisted categorization and wanted to be able to value all points of view. She also talks about how his stances could alienate portions of his readership, particularly with regards to his stances on things like commercialism, the military, and the war in Vietnam.

Keywords: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (book); Faith and Violence (book); The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (book); The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton)

Subjects: American society and culture; Antiwar movements; Commercialism; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Military; Politics; Taoism; Vietnam War; War

00:55:52 - Why Merton valued solitude

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Partial Transcript: I'm going to assume the role of a--of a critic and someone who's just mystified by the whole interest in a guy like Merton and say, "Well, how is solitude not an evasion or a hiding from life and from people in general?"

Segment Synopsis: Malits discusses why someone like Merton would want to spend so much time in solitude, away from the activities of the world, and how he struggled with it himself. She mentions that Joan Baez had to visit him at Gethsemani because he could not be out protesting on the front lines.

Keywords: Catholicism; Monasticism

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Antiwar protests; Daniel Berrigan; God; Joan Baez; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Prayer; Retreats; Silence; Solitude; Vietnam War

01:00:58 - Merton and the realness of the self

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Partial Transcript: You had an interesting quote in here, and it, it goes back to the writing addiction--where you say, "Thomas Merton wrote sometimes to assure himself that he was real."

Segment Synopsis: Malits explains the quotation "Merton wrote to assure himself that he was real," from her book. Malits explains that she meant is that Merton spent so much time in solitude without conversation, that he can begin to doubt not just the writing, but the self who is writing. She also says that all of Merton's writing can be seeing as autobiographical.

Keywords: Faith and Violence (book); Talk therapy; The Seven Storey Mountain (book)

Subjects: Journals (Diaries); Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Psychiatry; Psychology; Writing

01:04:50 - Was Merton an egotist?

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Partial Transcript: Does it take a certain sort of--I can't think of the right term, but--not egotism, but who does he think he is, to say a culture or a society needs someone like me on the margins?

Segment Synopsis: Malits describes criticism of Merton, which calls him an egoist, including the New York Times. Malit's discusses what she thinks about this criticism, and her views on Merton's ego.

Keywords: Catholicism; New York Times (newspaper)

Subjects: Antiwar protests; Ego; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monks; New York times.; Vietnam War

01:06:58 - The meaning of Merton's dreams

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Partial Transcript: I don't know if this is something you can talk about very concisely or easily, but you talk--it really interested me where you talked about Morton Kelsey's analysis of Merton's dreams, and how--what it reflected in him.

Segment Synopsis: Malits describes a conversation she had with Morton Kelsey about the dreams Merton describes in "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander."

Keywords: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (book); Morton Kelsey

Subjects: Dream analysis; Dreams; Kelsey, Morton T.; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and spiritual life; Religious psychology

01:09:23 - Merton's gifts were also his burdens

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Partial Transcript: This is something I've, I've always thought about Merton, you know, that he may well be right about what he is prescribing with, you know, the need for silence and things like that, but his way is so difficult, so ivory-tower in some way and so unnatural for the modern person.

Segment Synopsis: Malits discusses how contemporary people may be put off by how different Merton was: his lifestyle, his perspective and his lack of action. She mentions that Dorothy Day occupies a similar position. She discusses how people separate the art from the artist.

Keywords: Burdens; Zhuang Zhou

Subjects: Art; Authors; Chinese; Day, Dorothy; God; Languages; Literature; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Talent

01:14:17 - Why did Merton leave the world

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Partial Transcript: Merton came to think of his call to leave the world as simultaneously a religious declaration of belief and a form of political non-cooperation.

Segment Synopsis: Malits discusses the preface written for the Japanese version of "The Seven Storey Mountain," made twenty years after the original book, where Merton talks about how he has changed since then and how he has not changed. She says his original desire to escape from the world was a protest against injustice, but this insight is the sort of thing that can only be seen in hindsight.

Keywords: Day of a Stranger (book); The Seven Storey Mountain (book)

Subjects: 1960s; American society and culture; Commercialism; Development; Growth; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and spiritual life; Nature; Prefaces; Protests; Racism; War; Writing

01:19:54 - Conversion is a continuing process

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Partial Transcript: This is right in keeping with his commitment to continuing conversion.

Segment Synopsis: Malits talks about Merton's thoughts about conversion as a continuous process.

Keywords: Contemplation in a World of Action (book)

Subjects: Conversion; Ethics; Maps; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and spiritual life; Mysticism; Prayers; Spiritual life; Travel

01:25:53 - Solitary life requires struggle and doubt

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Partial Transcript: Skipping back a little bit, you quote Merton in the book saying, "The hermit all day and all night beats his head against a wall of doubt."

Segment Synopsis: Malits describes the way Merton talked about the solitary life of a hermit, who believed it inevitably required struggle and doubt.

Keywords: Catholicism; Monasticism

Subjects: Eremitic life; Gandhi, 1869-1948; God; Hermits; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Prisons; Procrastination; Silence; Solitude

01:29:18 - Merton's love affair

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Partial Transcript: Jumping into one of the, I guess, more sensational aspects of his life as a hermit, describe in general terms the love affair that he had, and the impact that it seemed to have on him as a person.

Segment Synopsis: Malits says Merton's love affair was unexpected for a hermit, but not unique. She describes the relationship and how Merton came close to leaving the monastery, but ultimately chose not to, and how that influenced him going forward.

Keywords: Love affairs; Margie Smith

Subjects: Catholicism; Childhood; Death; Eremitic life; Hermits; Hospitals; Journals (Diaries); Loneliness; Louisville (Ky.); Love; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Parents

01:34:32 - Merton's interest in East Asia

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Partial Transcript: Merton's interest in the East was not a whimsical or trendy thing that, "Oh, it's the '60s, I think I'll take a shot at this."

Segment Synopsis: Malits mentions that even in "The Seven Storey Mountain," Merton describes reading some Eastern religious texts while at Columbia and that in the 1950s he was already corresponding with D.T. Suzuki and others in India and Burma, so Merton spent a decade reading about the East before he began writing about it. She describes how at the end of "Zen and the Birds of Appetite," Merton talks about his correspondence with Suzuki as a search for the commonalities between Christianity and Buddhism. She also mentions that in the 1960s, no Christian or Catholic scholars were writing about religious traditions of East Asia and Merton predated Vatican II, and the idea that God reveals himself in all religions.

Keywords: D.T. Suzuki; Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki; Interreligious dialogue; Second Vatican Council; The Seven Storey Mountain (book); Vatican II

Subjects: 1950s; Asia; Buddhism; Catholicism; Christianity; Columbia University; Correspondence; Hinduism; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Spiritual life; Vatican II (Council) (1962-1965 : Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano); Zen

01:39:43 - Merton's relationship with Abbot James Fox

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Partial Transcript: Jump back in time a little bit, and describe Abbot James Fox and the, the tension that existed between Merton and Fox, but how it was a healthy tension in many ways.

Segment Synopsis: Malits says she never met Abbot James Fox, but the tension between him and Merton was readily apparent. She discusses how Fox had been in the military and lacked a literary education, and that he and Merton disagreed in both practical and theological terms. Malits discusses how their disagreements sometimes helped keep Merton stable mentally.

Keywords: Dom Flavian Burns; Dom James Fox

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Abbots; Death; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Military; Monastic and spiritual life; Theology

01:42:51 - Rumors about Merton's death

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned the trip to the East and his death; I'm going to have that aspect discussed. But you mentioned in our e-mail correspondence, the rumors surrounding his death and whether there was any reality at all to them.

Segment Synopsis: Malits says she first heard rumors of Merton's assassination when she was giving a talk in Cleveland in the 1970s, but she soon realized how widespread the ideas were. She says that since Merton was the most identifiable Catholic anti-Vietnam War advocate, he could have been a target. Malits mentions that Dorothy Day's pacifism was more radical, but Merton had a much larger audience. She talks about how the circumstances of his death were mysterious and the monastery decided not to pursue investigation. She says Mott, a Mertion biographer, doesn't think there's substance to the rumors, but they persist and that Merton did have an FBI file, like any socially active Catholic in the 1960s.

Keywords: Central Intelligence Agency; Rumors

Subjects: Antiwar protests; Asia; Assassinations; Autopsy; Biographies; CIA; Cleveland (Ohio); Conspiracy theories; Day, Dorothy; Electric shock; Electrocution; FBI; Fans; Federal Bureau of Investigation (U.S.); Government; Heart failure; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Mott, Michael; Vietnam War

01:48:15 - Merton's visit to Polonnaruwa

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Partial Transcript: Where--the, the final integration, and how that is the goal of a spiritual, spiritual journey.

Segment Synopsis: Malits talks about Merton's response to an an article titled "Final Integration," and how it related to his thoughts on the idea of integrating aspects of the self. Malits mentions an anecdote about Merton visiting a Buddha statue in Polonnaruwa.

Keywords: Final Integration (article); The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (book)

Subjects: Asia; Buddha; Death; God; Integration; Journals (Diaries); Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Polonnaruwa (Sri Lanka); Psychology; Self; Statues; Travel

GPS: Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
Map Coordinates: 7.94108252144449, 81.01334983675217