I can only imagine that someone out there can feel their skin crawling at the mention of Merton and Seraphim Rose in the same sentence; frankly, this kind of thing would only prove my point. I've seen Orthodox Christians condemn Rose as a heretic, and I've seen Catholic Christians do the same with Merton. Both figures are undoubtedly controversial, and I wanted to explore a little as to why they are.
First, we have Thomas Merton in the West. A Trappist monk, Thomas Merton is known for being a brilliant spiritual writer, and his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain is sometimes cited as being a 20th-century version of St. Augustine's Confessions - in one interview with that famous Coptic monastic, Fr. Lazarus El Antony, he cites Merton's book as a crucial one in his own conversion process from atheism to Christianity. Merton writes on just about every topic a Catholic could ever want to read about with a simple yet incredibly profound style, and his appreciation of Eastern religions is often viewed as a shining example of ecumenism and mutual understanding between faiths.
So what is it that bothers some Catholics about Thomas Merton? From what I gather, opinions are quite mixed. His interest in Buddhism and other Eastern religions, while honourable in terms of interfaith dialogue, seemed to some to become more of an interest. Later in his life, he wrote that the man who had written The Seven Storey Mountain was dead. Some wonder if he gave up his Christian faith later on in life. Of course, these are all conjectures - Merton's writings remain spiritually rich, and his autobiography is considered a modern classic of religious writing.
Moving towards the Christian East, we meet with the singularly fascinating figure of Fr. Seraphim Rose. Coming from a tumultuous spiritual background of atheism as well as deep exploration and study of the same Eastern religions that fascinated Merton so much, Rose rejected it all and became an Orthodox hieromonk.
Though many of his writings are held in high-esteem, and his life and thought garner an intense following, some of his positions are considered highly suspect. The most famous of these is his theory of the "toll houses" that the soul travels through after death - a kind of different take on Purgatory, wherein demons tempt the soul on his way to heaven. Don't quote me on this - I am only going off of what I know.
My investigations into his life have brought me into contact with some very strong opinions on the man. Some Orthodox consider him a Gnostic heretic, while some consider him a saint. I decided to look into the patristic writings to see if there was in fact anything on toll-houses after death, as I had never heard of the theory before. I found nothing, other than a small quote by St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, which reads, "reflect on the dreadful reckoning that is to come, how the harsh keepers of the toll houses will bring before us one by one the actions, words and thoughts which they suggested but which we accepted and made our own"1.
Regardless of some of their more controversial ideas, theories, and the like, both Merton and Rose remain incredibly influential in their respective circles.
The way I approach either of them is the same way as I approach other writers - they are humans who make mistakes, err, etc. Origen is one of my favorite theologians of all time, yet he made some tremendous theological blunders - that doesn't mean I don't read him or ponder what he has to say. In the above cases, I find both men incredibly interesting. They are so opposite in some ways - both explored Eastern religion, and both reacted differently to it.
In that spirit, I keep reading. Confessedly, I am more interested in Rose than Merton, but perhaps that is simply because I love reading Eastern Christian spirituality. Either way, both present interesting lives and writings to be pondered.
1 - A Century of Spiritual Texts, 57