“The Sleeping Volcano” by Thomas Merton

Background:  Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is the most famous Catholic “spiritual writer” of this century.  But (like Paul and Augustine) he did not start out that way.  He was a child of artist parents, who died while he was still young.  Most of his early life was spent in New York with relatives.  His own artistic sensibilities moved in the direction of literature.  He studied at Oxford for one year (where he had a disastrous personal relationship and fathered an illegitimate child).  He returned to study at Columbia with Mark Van Doren, a famous teacher and literary critic.  While finishing his Master’s degree, he converted to Catholicism.  After graduating, he went to Bonaventure (his college friend, Robert Lax, was from Hinsdale; he had invited Merton to spend some time in the countryside on their breaks) to teach English.  While teaching at Bonaventure, Merton decided to become a priest and Trappist monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  This selection records Merton’s recollection of the time leading up to that decision.

The passage opens with Merton reacting to a suggestion from Baroness Catherine de Hueck (who had begun working with the poor in North America out of her Catholic faith) that he seek ordination to the priesthood (435).  What was his immediate reaction?  What did he mean about Bonaventure outliving its usefulness to him?  What was the role that “going to Harlem” (435-6) was playing for Merton at this time in his life?  What was the significance of hearing from Fr. Plassmann the suggestion (for a second time) that he consider ordination to the priesthood?  In his reflections on this suggestion (436) what is Merton really doing?

What do you think of Merton’s “abandoning” his class right before Thanksgiving?  What does this indicate about his state of mind?  Where does he go?  How does he get there?

The day after Thanksgiving he meets with his former professor and friend Mark (van Doren) in New York (437-8).  What does Merton think they are going to talk about?  What, in fact, does van Doren bring up?  What is Merton’s reaction?  Why was the discussion a “shaft” for Merton?

When he went to Friendship House in Harlem, what did Merton discover? (438)  What finally led him to consider becoming a Cistercian monk? (439)  Why does he still suffer “hesitation”?  What happens at the “grove”? (439-40)  What does he hear after his prayer to St. Theresa?  What happened after Merton’s conversation with Fr. Philotheus? (440)  How did Merton feel after that conversation? (441)  What role, if any, did the US entry into WWII have to do with Merton’s decision?  What did Merton do with the drafts of his writings? (442-3)  Why did he do this?

As he comes closer to the monastery of our Lady of Gethsemani, Merton claims to be free (444).  What does he mean?  Why does he think this is so?  What do you think of the interchange when Merton enters the monastery? (445)

How does this passage relate to the issue of the role of discovery in the intellectual journey?  Can you relate it to other selections from this step?