LIGHT AND SHADOW
American-born Wangaratta priest and theologian Robert Whalley has contemplated the words and works of 20th century monk Thomas Merton for decades. Their distinctive stories reveal parallels in life and faith.
The life and work of Wangaratta priest and theologian Robert Whalley.
TYPE the word ‘juxtaposition’ into an on-line etymological search and the answer will show it’s of seventeenth century French origin. It derives from Latin ‘iuxta’, which means ‘beside, very near, close to, near at hand’. It is thought to stem from ‘yeug’, a hypothetical Proto-indo-european root word meaning ‘to join’, from the Sanskrit word for yoke.
Its arcane source is evident in various synonyms – of combination and association, apposition and comparison, of contrast and connection – and in numerous ways these have come to point in life to parallel experience and expeditions in faith by American Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton and American-born Australian priest Robert Whalley.
Rob grew up in a California family and was pursuing a liberal arts degree at university during the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ in San Francisco. He later went to graduate school, entered a seminary in Berkeley and became a lay minister in university chaplaincy. For almost 20 years he has lived in Australia – the past 10 in Wangaratta - where he shares a house with long-time friend and fellow priest John Davis. Among fine pictures on the cream walls of the hall is an unexpected, arresting image of Indiana Jones, the movie character, who all but muscles out of the frame. Just across the way stands Wangaratta’s Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral, the great Arts and Crafts Gothic-style church in which Rob was ordained deacon in 2009.
His prized, original poster for the film Raiders of the Lost Ark – with actor Harrison Ford, then 39, in the title role – was a gift from a friend, a cinema manager, when the movie was released in 1981. It was the first in a series of four through which archaeologist Henry Walton Jones, Jr., an American Ivy League university professor, quests for extraordinary things which possess inherent and inestimable power for good. In Raiders, Jones’s 1936 mission is to find and keep safe from Nazi hands the ‘Ark of the Covenant’, the chest which God commanded Moses to cause the Israelites to make, and in which the prophet was directed to place the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.
The Bible’s Old Testament book of Exodus recounts God’s words: ‘They shall make an ark of acacia wood…(and) overlay it with pure gold; inside and outside shall you overlay it…and you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you. …And you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold…and put (it) on top of the ark …there I will meet with you…and speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel’. >>
“I was always interested in the possibility of God,” says Rob. “The changing light in the morning, the rhythm of breathing, the fact of our flesh, the sad and amazing and fragile and magnificent world we see face-to-face every day, all seem to me very plausible reasons to believe in a creation made, met and mingled in a conscious and continuing act of love.”
“I read a lot of psychology, sociology, literature and poetry in my 20s, but it was spirituality and the search to understand religion and holiness, to touch this love, that really attracted me. I studied T. S. Eliot’s poetry and shared his attraction for both Buddhism and Christianity. But when he wrote that a Westerner would be better served by looking at the mystical tradition of his own civilisation, rather than exploring Eastern sources of knowledge and wisdom, I decided to become an Anglican.”
Rob was born not long after Japan surrendered in the face of the United States’ unprecedented atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, precipitating the end of World War II in the Pacific. He was the younger of two children whose parents, he believed – as he came to understand something of life – were “clinging somewhat listlessly to middle class aspirations”. “I lasted three months in the seventh grade,” he recalls. “Just before I became a teenager my folks lost a lot of money, moved to a new neighbourhood, left the tennis club and almost divorced. Then my brother moved away and my mother’s father died of cancer. None of this was talked about openly and I feared it was all my fault. I dropped out of school and became one of those hidden adolescents trying to figure out the answers without understanding the question. I masked being painfully shy by being excessively articulate, moody and formal, and I read voraciously.”
At 18 he took a tertiary entrance exam in which he scored high on words but low on numbers. He attended occasional classes on various campuses while helping in the family printing business before graduating from the University of California with a bachelor’s degree in cultural studies and “a lot of classes in modern literature”.
“The 1967 hippy ‘Summer of Love’ happened in San Francisco, less than an hour away, when I was 21,” Rob says.
“While I never wore flowers in my hair I did smoke a certain amount of weed. Years later President Clinton said he never inhaled. I seldom exhaled.”
He jokes that he spent his 20s making up for his teens and his 30s making up for his 20s. “But there’s some truth in there,” he says. “I had been such a scared kid and self-concerned teenager that I became both a romantic and a bit of a roisterer. This was an era when a university professor suggested that students should be graded on how many identity crises they had in any given year. I would have quickly graduated with distinction if that had happened.”
It was at about this time that Rob became aware of the life and works of American monk, poet and mystic Thomas Merton for the first time. The choirmaster at his church in Fairfield – just east of the lower Napa Valley, north east of San Francisco – gave him a book which had a few short selections of Merton’s.
“It contained one of his last essays, called ‘Day of a stranger’, and it spoke to me,” Rob says.
“I was 22. Then I read The Seven Storey Mountain about a young man trying to get all the experience out of life that he possibly can… It gave me the heart of him, the aspirational and romantic quest of religion.”
It was an encounter similar to that which influenced Los Angeles Catholic auxiliary bishop Robert Barron. He recalls that as a teenager he was working with his brother in a bookstore in Illinois during school holidays.
“There was this tattered book and the manager decided to get rid of it,” he says.
“My brother threw it to me and said I’d be interested because it was written by some Trappist monk. In my 16-year-old confidence I said I didn’t want to read a book by some Buddhist. And he answered by saying: ‘Trappists are Catholics, you idiot’. The book in question was The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s wonderful, beguiling, delightful autobiography – the story of how he moved from being a ‘worldling’ – a man of the world in every sense… to being a Trappist monk.”
Bishop Barron relates that he was entirely caught up in the
romance and drama of Thomas Merton’s story – “…basically the story of a man falling in love with God”. It was praised as a contemporary version of The Confessions of Saint Augustine, a fifth century theologian from what is modern-day Algeria who had led an entirely worldly life until he encountered God. Leading English writers – Catholics Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh – offered plaudits (although Waugh was not uncritical). Greene said The Seven Storey Mountain was “a book one reads with a pencil so as to make it one’s own”. That it was written by a sharply intelligent monk from an abbey in rural Kentucky also sparked the interest of many young Americans in the prospect of monastic life.
Thomas Merton was born in 1915 in a small village deep in south western France. His father, Owen Merton, was a New Zealander and painter. His mother, Ruth Jenkins, was also an artist, an American from a wealthy Long Island family. Within 12 months the Mertons had moved to the United States where the boy grew up and a brother, John Paul, was born. Ruth Merton died in 1921 and in 1925 Owen Merton, with his elder son, returned to France, where 10-year-old Thomas was enrolled in a French private school for boys. In 1928 father and son moved again – this time to England. Thomas, who had been baptised an Anglican as an infant, was sent to a small preparatory school near London and later to Oakham School in rural Rutland. In 1931 his father died and one of his old colleagues from New Zealand was appointed guardian. Thomas was just short of 16. The young man also had a significant trust fund.
Two years later he entered Cambridge University’s Clare College as an undergraduate. Rob Whalley says it was a time of “riotous living” for Merton. It is said by some biographers that he drank and played the field and fathered a child, and that his guardian effected some legal settlement with the infant’s mother. Thomas went back to New York the following year and in 1935 was enrolled as a sophomore – a second-year student – at Columbia University. He edited its 1937 yearbook and became art editor of the university’s Columbia Jester before he graduated and began studying to become a master of arts. He faced the prospect of a promising literary career. But something moved him. In 1938 he was received into the Catholic church, taught English at Saint Bonaventure’s – a Franciscan university in upstate New York – yet was turned down when he sought to become a Franciscan brother. He instead became an oblate – a voluntary associate of the Friars Minor, one who takes a rule of life. Yet in 1941 he found his calling entirely in another place – in rural Kentucky at the Abbey of Gethsemani among a community of Benedictine ‘Trappist’ monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. “It was a medieval foundation,” Rob Whalley says. “The French monks who founded it (outside Louisville in the late 1840s) brought with them mediaeval agriculture and a pious strain of being sinners. With the Franciscans you’ve got this sort of childlike trust in opening up the resurrection life, of living life with utter faith in the glory of God’s new creation. What you find with the Trappists is what you see with the early (Christian) desert hermits: people who are fleeing from a fallen world in order to pray for it in solitude and in penitence.”
So how did Thomas Merton, the ‘ wordling’, the gregarious intellect, take to it – and particularly the prospect and practice of contemplative life?
“I would say for probably the first years of his monastic career he was ‘super monk’,” Rob says.
“He was a convert, so he was very penitential; he was very pious and very sentimental, and suddenly he became a bestselling writer. He went to his abbot and more or less said: ‘I think I should write a memoir’. The abbot said: ‘It’s not our Trappist tradition’. Merton responded: ‘I think I should write a memoir basically influenced by James Joyce, Saint Augustine and T. S. Eliot and a number of other people’. And the abbot said: ‘That’s just so far from our tradition that it may be a gift’.”
The book was The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948. It went on to sell more than a million copies. The abbey, not Merton, received the royalties. It has remained continuously in print. Thomas Merton went on to write Seeds of Contemplation, The Sign of Jonas, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and other titles among more than 60 books and hundreds of poems and articles. >>
The following year he was ordained priest. Rob Whalley says it was a calling to which Merton responded for deepening reasons. “…One of the dynamic qualities of the monastic tradition, especially with the Trappists, is that it’s designed to bring you into ‘the dark night of the soul’; to bring you into a place where all your ideas of God fall short and the only thing you can do is shut-up and listen. And so it becomes (a place or point) where you’re allowed to be renewed, or you consent to be renewed, or reborn even, by God’s grace, in a way that is beyond your conception. …It’s to realise that you are a virginal moment in time, a place that can be a new manifestation of creation. Merton went through this.”
In 1962 New Seeds of Contemplation was published – the 1949 content and title reworked. It was a book, Rob says, in which Merton deconstructed and reconstructed his earlier understanding of the contemplative journey in the apophatic tradition of Benedictines – of “being without light”.
“Apophatic and cataphatic are two streams of theology throughout the church,” Rob says.
“(One is cataphatic) – that we can talk about what God is with the light of reason. (But the other) is that there’s always a point where God is beyond our reason – beyond what is light to us. Where we see God in light there is also God in darkness. So if there’s a God in love there’s a God in anger, in gain and in loss, in knowing and of unknowing, so you can come to the ‘cloud of unknowing’: where you can finally give yourself to God – to a God who is beyond what you could ever know. And Merton found that to go beyond what he knew was to find the world renewed in a way that he had never expected.”
This sense of rebirth led Merton deeply into explorations of Zen Buddhism, Eastern psychology, Christian mysticism and dialogue across faiths: here was a contemplative Catholic engaging with the world – with readers and leaders, Orthodox and Protestant, Muslim and Buddhist. Some think that he wandered from Christianity, but Pope John XXIII recognised this profound capacity to engage and to hear by giving Merton one of his Eucharistic stoles, and the Dalai Lama welcomed talks with the monk from rural Kentucky. These were elemental acknowledgements of Merton’s acute ear – the contemplative habit of listening.
But death took him unexpectedly, just shy of his 54th birthday, when he was attending a conference of Benedictines in Thailand in December 1968. He was accidentally electrocuted. It was the twenty-seventh anniversary of the day on which he entered Gesthemani abbey.
Rob Whalley first designed a program called ‘The Merton Centre’ when in seminary in Berkeley in the 1980s. At its heart was the means for people to gather together “to find out what mattered most”. Rob rewrote the template in the 1990s when a university chaplain in San Francisco and at St Peter’s Eastern Hill and RMIT University, in Melbourne, in the early 2000s, offering formation, education, celebration and transformation. These elements are now part of a program he’s developing in Wangaratta, centred at Holy Trinity Cathedral, and offering opportunities for spiritual friendship. He’s also working on a book draft which has reached “far too many pages”.
“The essential gesture of being human is to take a voyage without a plan to survive,” Rob says.
“It is to take that sense of a journey when life turns a corner and you don’t know what in God’s name is coming up ahead.”
It is another way of expressing what Thomas Merton discovered: to go beyond what he knew and to find the world renewed.
Information about Rob Whalley’s program can be found at https://themertoncentre.org.
words Jamie Kronborg photos Marc Bongers, Robert Whalley and Merton Legacy Trust
NOW AND THEN / Rob Whalley’s prized, original poster from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark was a gift from a friend, and (inset) Rob riding a pony during his California childhood.
JOURNEY / Rob Whalley (right), studying theology as a postgraduate in seminary at Berkeley, first read the work of influential American monk, poet and mystic Thomas Merton ( left) when he was 22. (Photograph of Thomas Merton used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University (Kentucky, USA)).
AT HOME / Rob Whalley (fourth from left) with Bishop John Parkes, Archdeacon John Davis and clergy, after Rob’s ordination in Wangaratta in 2009.