Garry Wills on Thomas Merton: Longform writing and the space for faith to breathe

Editor’s note: After a long absence, co-founder is back in our weekly rotation of features. LeBlanc has experience on the religion beat and is a veteran magazine editor. He will write once a week on religion news and trends in magazines, longform news features and mainstream book publishing.


Shallow Calls to Shallow,” an essay by Garry Wills in the April edition of Harpers, is one example of an encouraging trend: longform magazine coverage that treats religion as worthy of reflection and an essential piece of the American cultural fabric.

I find this trend encouraging as one who left the daily morning newspaper in Baton Rouge in 1989 and began editing a magazine for Compassion International. I have worked with magazines, in varying degrees, ever since.

In a time of increasing pressures for listicles and factoids, magazines at their best offer a place for the longer view. A magazine seized by one ideology can be just as dreary as an ideological website, to be sure, but when a lively mix of editors choose the material, a magazine has the potential to dazzle.

What makes this Harpers essay more remarkable is that Wills, who has spent most of his academic and journalistic career as a liberal Catholic, takes Thomas Merton down several levels on the hierarchy of liberal Catholic saints. He does this by devoting nearly 3,600 words to reviewing On Thomas Merton by Mary Gordon (Shambhala).

Merton left a durable record of celebrity for a man who entered a monastery at age 26 (in 1941) and remained a monk (though not always abbey-bound) until his death in 1968. Merton was a prolific writer. A brief biography on the Abbey of Gethsemani website says that “more than 60 titles of Merton’s writings are in print in English.”

Merton gained a following through his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), but he broadened his audience during the 1960s because of his friendship with popular musicians like Joan Baez, his opposition to the Vietnam War and his later interest in Buddhism.

Paul Elie considered Merton’s literary legacy in The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), which counted Merton in the esteemed company of Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Conner, and Walker Percy. No less a progressive icon than former Dominican Matthew Fox (an Episcopal priest since 1994) has endorsed the book-length theory that Merton was not killed by a faulty electrical fan in his room during a trip to Bangkok, but by CIA operatives in Southeast Asia.

Wills writes that the monk found a novel way around the typical restrictions of life at Gethsemani:

He was able to get such special treatment simply because he threatened to leave the Cistercians for a more contemplative life in stricter monasteries. In 1965, to keep him on the vast grounds of the abbey, the abbot approved a state of virtual secession within the monastery. Merton could live in his own hermitage, distant from the main house, where he asked that other monks not visit him. He said that he wanted more solitude, but he told the truth in his journal, that he wanted “all the liberty and leeway I have in the hermitage.” It gave admiring outsiders easier access to him and let him slip off the grounds to make unmonitored phone calls to them. Gregory Zilboorg, the first psychoanalyst who treated him, said, “You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying hermit.”

Willis devotes nine paragraphs to Merton’s sexual involvement with Margie, a student nurse who met Merton when she was assigned to give him a back rub and a sponge bath. These details have been reported occasionally since the late 1990s, after the final volume of Merton’s journals disclosed them. (Paul Hendrickson wrote in The Washington Post in on Feb. 13, 1999: “It was a kind of coup de foudre, as someone said: ‘love at first conversation.’”)

“Gordon is right to treat the six-month obsession with ‘M’ as trivial in itself,” Willis writes. “This was never Shakespeare’s ‘marriage of true minds,’ as exemplified by Abelard and Héloïse. Here deep did not call to deep, but shallow to shallow.”

Now, here is a major flashback to an earlier era in magazine writing. This commendable example of longform religion writing reappeared earlier this year on the website of Rolling Stone: “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a 20,000-word, first-person dispatch by Ellen Willis from the April 21, 1977, edition.

Apart from the occasional article by Robert Wright and those occasions when a rock & roll mystic consents to the Rolling Stone Interview (BonoBob DylanWarren Zevon), the voice of the rock & roll establishment is not the first place one looks for discourses on God.

This essay reflects part of her effort to understand how her younger brother, Mike, becomes an Orthodox Jew through the teaching of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, originally from New York.

Here is an exchange between Weinberg (Reb Noach) and Willis touching on themes that have grown only more intense in the decades since then:

“You don’t think men and women are basically different?”

Basically, no,” I said. “Basically, I think we’re all human beings.”

“One of the craziest ideas in this crazy modern world,” said Reb Noach, “is that men and women are the same. Men and women are two different species!”

I insisted that whatever the differences — and who could tell at this point which were inherent, which imposed by a patriarchal culture? — they did not require women to devote themselves to as many babies as chose to make their appearance. Reb Noach shook his head.

“Children are the greatest pleasure,” he said, “but people today are so decadent they prefer their material comforts to children.”

“It’s not just material comfort!” I protested. “People have a right to some freedom — some time for themselves — ”

“Decadence, Ellen. I’d have 50 children, a hundred. Every child is a lesson in love!”

“My parents aren’t decadent! They’ve worked hard to bring up three children — to educate us all — ”

Suddenly I found myself weeping.

“Ellen!” The rabbi’s voice vibrated through me, alarmed, caring, soothing as a touch. “I’m not condemning people! Who knows who’s better than who? I’m talking about actions. Mistakes, Ellen.”

I wasn’t sure why I was crying — except that if my middle-class family-centered parents could by any standard be accused of decadent behavior, then I was completely hopeless. My loss of control took me by surprise. I suppose it was my first overt symptom of culture shock.

Willis is not persuaded to become an Orthodox Jew and remain in Jerusalem, but she makes a serious effort at understanding her brother’s newly discovered faith.

How many people are willing to cross such cultural barriers today, in either direction? How often do you see editors give writers the space to deal with this kind of subject?

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