Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with William Shannon, December 2, 2005

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


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00:00:07 - Merton's childhood and school experiences

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Partial Transcript: To begin at the end, Thomas Merton, I think, was a tremendous spiritual influence on people in the twentieth century.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon gives a brief description of Merton's life before entering the monastery, including his family and education. He goes on to provide further detail about Merton's process of applying and entering Gethsemani.

Keywords: Cambridge University; Clare College; Owen Merton; Ruth Calvert Jenkins Merton; The Great War; The Labyrinth (book); Vulgate; WWI; World War I; World War One

Subjects: Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Alcohol; Alcoholism; Artists; Baez, Joan.; Boarding schools; Christ; Christianity; Clare College (University of Cambridge); Conversion; Crucifixion; England; Europe; France; Immigration; Italy; Jesus; Latin; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Military draft; Oakham School; Rome; Stone, Naomi Burton; University of Cambridge; World War, 1914-1918.

GPS: Oakham School
Map Coordinates: 52.67093891632668, -0.7284636949460155
00:06:10 - Merton's young adulthood in America

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Partial Transcript: His guardian, Tom Bennet, ordered him to go back to the United States because he had apparently got a young woman pregnant.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon discusses a rumor that Merton's guardian Tom Bennet ordered him to go back to the United States because he got a young woman pregnant. He talks about Merton's love of Columbia University and the people he met there, especially Mark Van Doren. Shannon mentions that Merton then began searching for a return to the conversion experience he had in Rome, where he was baptized Roman Catholic at Corpus Christi Church.

Keywords: Catholicism; Corpus Christi Catholic Church; London Blitz; Mark Van Doren; Tom Bennet; WW2; WWII; World War 2; World War Two

Subjects: Baptism; Bombings; Columbia University; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Pregnancy; World War II

00:07:59 - The development of Merton's interest in monasteries

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Partial Transcript: He had a brief flirtation, for lack of a better term, with communism. Why would he have been attracted to communism?

Segment Synopsis: Shannon discusses Merton's attraction to communism and Catholicism during his time at Columbia, and mentions that Dan Walsh encouraged him to become a priest. He says that Merton also found inspiration from Huxley's "Ends and Means" which described asceticism in a way he found attractive, so he visited Gethsemani for a retreat in 1940 and loved it. Shannon also mentions that the Franciscans rejected Merton because of his past life, but then was encouraged by a teacher to try again and joined Gethsemani.

Keywords: Ends and Means (book)

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Asceticism; Cistercians; Communism; Franciscans; Freedom; Huxley, Aldous, 1894-1963.; Marriage; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Priests; Trappist (Ky.); Walsh, Daniel; War

00:13:35 - Merton's early writing at Gethsemani

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Partial Transcript: At that time, freedom to him meant the life of a religious, following the rule, doing what he was told. Obedience was very important to him.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon says Merton quickly began to question the meaning of monastic life in his time and monks' responsibilities to the world, which could make him very challenging, especially to his second abbot. Shannon says Merton's first abbot, Frederic Dunne, encouraged him to write, which led to the publication of "The Seven Storey Mountain," which established him as a great spiritual writer. Shannon also describes Merton's extensive correspondence with outsiders after the book's publishing.

Keywords: Frederic Dunne; Harcourt Brace (publisher); Sign of Jonas (book); The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton)

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Autobiographies; Censorship; Cistercians; Fan mail; France; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monastic and religious life

00:16:34 - Merton's understanding of God as a being in itself

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Partial Transcript: If you would, describe to me this. How Merton, this sort of searching, curious person, found the Gilson book and something in that really awakened him to this entirely new concept of God.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon discusses Merton's general approach to his religion, and says that Gilson was a very important influence on Merton's life, and discussed a concept of God that appealed to him: the concept of God as a being in itself, not receiving existence from anyone else, in contrast to every other being. Shannon says that this helped give Merton an intellectual understanding of God as part of the scholastic philosophy at the time.

Keywords: Aseity; Etienne Gilson; Scholastic philosophy

Subjects: Being; Christianity; Gilson, EĢtienne, 1884-1978; God; Literature; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Scholasticism; Theology

00:18:18 - What is conversion? / Conversion as an ongoing process

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Partial Transcript: This could be a very long answer, but just in a general way, what happens when a person goes through a conversion? What are they doing?

Segment Synopsis: Shannon discusses his thoughts on religious conversions, and says that conversion is a unique process for each person. He mentions that Merton's view on conversion placed a lot of importance on the idea that God is "the hidden ground of love."

Keywords: Catholicism

Subjects: Aseity; Christianity; Conversion; Death; God; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.

00:24:23 - Merton's view of the role of the monastery in the world

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Partial Transcript: Let's try and get one more--but I wanted to say something about that.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon discusses his views on the role of monasteries in the modern world, and defends monasteries as being more than just a place of prayer. He goes on to discuss Merton's feelings on the subject, and how he felt that monasteries should shoulder a greater responsibility in society.

Keywords: Abbey of Gethsemani

Subjects: Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); God; Lax, Robert; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and religious life; Prayer

00:27:51 - Trappist views of the importance of penance, sinfulness and grace

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Partial Transcript: --and whatnot, there seemed, particularly when Merton first entered, tremendous emphasis on penance and--you know, that just seemed so central--

Segment Synopsis: Shannon describes the emphasis on penance in Trappist life during Merton's early years in the community. He talks about how Trappist thinking has changed recently, and is more oriented towards grace and the positives of ongoing conversion. He continues by saying that Trappists now think more about their responsibilities to the world, and are less world-denying than they used to be.

Keywords: Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rance; Catholicism; Monasticism

Subjects: 17th century; Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Christianity; Conversion; Death; Grace; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastaries; Monastic and religious life; Monks; Penance; Sin; Trappist (Ky.)

00:31:06 - Merton's shift away from dualism

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Partial Transcript: And if you would, give the viewer a sense of sort of this dualistic view that Merton had when he first entered, of, you know, this good, that evil, you know, this dualism.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon mentions some of the criticism of Merton's "Seeds of Contemplation" in 1949, where reviewers thought there was too much of a dichotomy in the book between the secular and the sacred. He says that Merton shifted his views after that, towards an idea that all reality is centered in God, the world as an epiphany of God, the unity of the spiritual life.

Keywords: Seeds of Contemplation (book)

Subjects: Dualism; Genesis; Genesis 1 (Book of the Old Testament); God; Grace; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Nature

00:34:37 - Merton's use of the name "Father Louis"

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Partial Transcript: Why did he not write as "Father Louis Merton"?

Segment Synopsis: Shannon speculates that Merton wrote under a secular name at the direction of his publishers. He thinks that it was definitely important after he published "The Seven Storey Mountain," and mentions that he chose the name "Louis" after a French king.

Keywords: Father Louis; The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton)

Subjects: Abbots; Authors; Louis XIV, King of France, 1638-1715.; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Publishers and publishing; Secularism

00:36:08 - Abbot James Fox and his support of Merton

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Partial Transcript: Now we find ourselves with the abbot.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon describes Merton's second abbot, James Fox, who came from Conyers to succeed Frederick Dunne. Shannon says that Fox, a graduate of Harvard Business School, modernized the monastery and used his experience to restructure the monastery as a business, replacing the horses and wagons with modern machinery. Shannon says that Fox and Merton had very different understandings of the monastic life, but Fox was nevertheless important to Merton's growth. Shannon supports the idea that Fox was supportive of Merton with a number of examples, and claims that Merton's diatribes against the abbot in his journals were an exaggeration.

Keywords: Conyers, Georgia; Dom Frederick Dunne; Dom James Fox; Harvard Business School; Margie Smith; Monica Furlong; St. Anne's; Toolshed

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Abbots; Hermitages; Master of novices; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Modernization; Monastic and religious life; Peace; Relationships, Man-woman; War

00:42:21 - Merton's problems with Abbot James Fox

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Partial Transcript: So I think, think that, uh, Dom James had a monk there--

Segment Synopsis: Shannon reiterates that Merton's diatribes against Abbot James Fox in his journals were an exaggeration, as he knew the abbot was important to his own development. Shannon disagrees with the idea that Fox was a Machiavellian figure. He admits that Fox didn't allow Merton to go outside the monastery, to the point where all novice master meetings had to be held at Gethsemani, but insists that this was because Fox knew Merton so well, and if Merton left the monastery, he would try to travel all over the world. Shannon says that this doesn't negate all of the positive things Fox did for Merton's development as a person.

Keywords: Dom James Fox; Matthew Kelty

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and religious life; Novice masters; Solitude

00:45:42 - The power of an abbot / The shift to a flexible view of tradition

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Partial Transcript: Again, many people unfamiliar with the religious life who will be mystified by the power of an abbot, the importance of obedience.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon says that monastic obedience as a concept has shifted over time. He gives context for how the idea was treated when when Merton first went to Gethsemani, where rule-following was seen as obedience to God's will. Now, Shannon contends, obedience is seen as driven by conscience and when this comes into conflict with rule-following, it's better to follow your conscience, which has led superiors in monasteries to enter into dialogue rather than issuing orders. Shannon says this reflects a broader shift in religious life compared to when Merton first entered the monastery, which started around the time of the Second Vatican Council. Shannon describes how Merton grew more conflicted about the stricter aspects of tradition as he continued to stay at the monastery.

Keywords: Giuseppe Angelo Roncalli; No Man Is an Island (book); Pope John XXIII; Second Vatican Council; Vatican II

Subjects: Abbots; Conscience; Dialogue; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monastic and religious life; Obedience; Religious life; Rules; Tradition; Vatican II (Council) (1962-1965 : Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano)

00:53:55 - Merton's love for teaching and relationship with the novices

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned him as the master of novices. You can read in his journals, just the affection and empathy that he had for these young men.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon describes Merton's teaching style, and cites his previous teaching experience at St. Bonaventure University. He says that Merton had previously given regular lectures to the monks, before becoming master of novices and that he had great affection for them but didn't put up with nonsense. Shannon discusses how Merton didn't teach methods of prayer, but encouraged them to have a sense of freedom to find their own way in prayer, which was in contrast to the way prayer had been carefully orchestrated earlier in the monastic life. Shannon describes what a freeing experience it was to learn this from Merton.

Keywords: David Steindl-Rast

Subjects: Asia; Intercessory prayer; Master of novices; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and religious life; Prayer; St. Bonaventure (N.Y.); St. Bonaventure University; Teaching

00:57:23 - How did Merton find his way, and did this change through the years?

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Partial Transcript: This may be hard to answer--I'll let you be the judge. What did he use to guide himself?

Segment Synopsis: Shannon says Merton was helped spiritually by the tradition of the Benedictines, which the Trappists are a branch of, mentioning The Rule of St. Benedict specifically. He mentions that meditation and contact with people outside the monastery was also formative, as they helped him to realize broader responsibilities to the world. Shannon discusses how these influences shaped Merton's thoughts on war, which he advocated against publicly despite resistance from the abbot general in France.

Keywords: Abraham Joshua Heschel; Peace in the Post-Christian Era (book); Rule of St. Benedict; Saint Benedict's Rule

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Benedictines; Cistercians; France; Lectio divina; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Rabbis; Trappist (Ky.); War

01:00:47 - Censorship of Merton's work

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Partial Transcript: He seemed, for the most part, to be fairly mellow about the way he dealt with censorship. I mean, did he really rail against being censored?

Segment Synopsis: Shannon discusses Merton's relationship with his censors, saying that Merton accepted what the censors said, but occasionally went around them by writing articles in small journals. Shannon mentions that most of his works were eventually published, including with reports of reluctant approval from the censors. He says that Merton described himself as a duck in a chicken coop, he was not your ordinary monk, but that Merton did sometimes have to make changes like in his book "The Ascent to Truth."

Keywords: Dom James Fox; The Ascent to Truth (book)

Subjects: Authors; Censorship; Cistercians; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Pantheism; Publishers and authors; Theology

01:05:01 - Merton's legacy

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Partial Transcript: What is his legacy as a writer and a spiritual thinker?

Segment Synopsis: Shannon describes how Merton's writings ended up making him a spiritual director for both Catholics and people of different kinds of religions, and mentions that he popular Korea as an example. Shannon discusses how some people call Merton a "saint of our time," and that some people want him to be canonized. Shannon says he's received letters to that effect, but doesn't think it's appropriate or that Merton would be able to pass the process, and thinks that Merton himself would not have wanted it.

Keywords: Catholicism; John Stier; Monasticism

Subjects: Asia; Authors; Books; Buddhism; Canonization; Clare College (University of Cambridge); Korea; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Publications; Saints; Spirituality; Sri Lanka

01:09:27 - Merton writes autobiography and we find biography / The universal person

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Partial Transcript: There's a great line that you have--I believe I'm attributing this one correctly--in the introduction to "Silent Lamp"

Segment Synopsis: Shannon discusses how Merton wrote about the human condition, and how his approach was easy to approach for a multitude of different people. Shannon call Merton a "universal person" because he was able to reach beyond monastic life to the culture of the world, and discusses the implication of that.

Keywords: Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story (book); The human condition; The universal person

Subjects: Asia; Autobiographies; Biographies; Christianity; India; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Pilgrimages

01:13:32 - Merton's journals

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Partial Transcript: Why would he allow his journals to be published and read?

Segment Synopsis: Shannon thinks Merton wrote his journals with the intention to publish them. He thinks that Merton also wrote compulsively. Shannon mentions that Merton put the journals out warts and all because he disliked anything phony, including mentioning an adultery that occurred twenty-five years ago, which Naomi Burton Stone edited out.

Keywords: Catholicism

Subjects: Adultery; Authors; Journals (Diaries); Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and spiritual life; Stone, Naomi Burton

01:16:31 - Merton's love affair

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Partial Transcript: Going back to one of the things he wrote about that I'm sure shocked some people, his love affair and the impact it had on him.

Segment Synopsis: Shannon discusses Merton's 1966 love affair with Margie Smith, and how it affected his development as a person and as a monk. He mentions that Merton likely always intended to stay in the monastery, and in a later journal he called it "the incredible stupidity of 1966." Shannon finds it difficult to understand it, and Margie Smith has never said anything about her perspective on the affair.

Keywords: Margie Smith

Subjects: Hermits; Monasteries and religious life; Relationships

01:19:55 - Merton's role in society

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Partial Transcript: Well, one last question for you. Does a culture or a society need special people like Thomas Merton?

Segment Synopsis: Shannon thinks society needs people like Merton who will give a sense that transcendent realities of life exist. He says people need to be called back to reflection.

Keywords: Catholicism; Monasticism; Reflection

Subjects: Church; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Nation; Polarization

01:21:21 - Revelations in Merton's letters

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Partial Transcript: Anything that I've completely forgotten to ask you that you would love to talk to?

Segment Synopsis: Shannon says The Seven Storey Mountain presented a version of Catholicism that no longer exists, which viewed Protestantism as a false religion. He discusses a complaint Merton received from the wife of a minister he criticized in the book, and how Merton handled the issue. Shannon discusses the book he's edited about Merton's letters. Shannon says he constantly meets people, a Carmelite sister, for example, who have Merton letters no one's read yet.

Keywords: Carmelite Sisters; Catholicism; Lester Riley; The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton); Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters (book); Witness To Freedom: The Letters Of Thomas Merton In Times Of Crises (book)

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Bookstores; Carmelites; Correspondence; John of the Cross, Saint, 1542-1591; Oakham School; The Seven Storey Mountain (book)

GPS: Zion Episcopal Church (Douglaston, NY)
Map Coordinates: 40.76724375472153, -73.74350122327647