Monday, November 5, 2012

Two Controversial 20th Century Monastics of East and West

Thomas Merton
Seraphim Rose
In my explorations of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in the 20th century, two monastic figures really stand out to me, and both for the same reason.  In the West, I think few figures court such divisive opinions as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton; likewise, in the East, one can see the same kind of reactions and strong opinions surround Fr. Seraphim Rose.  Interestingly enough, they actually engaged in correspondence - read it here at Monks and Mermaids.

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


  1. As you know, Merton is one of my favorites. His writings speak of the struggle of the modern day soul. His writings are lofty, yet simply profound. He is one author I can pick up and am taken to another level again and again.

    His goal was to establish a common thread with the Eastern/Oriental religions. I think that was quite common at the time with many orders. He always remained faithful to the Church and her teachings. When he said the author is *dead* that wrote the Seven Storey Mountain, I believe spiritually he could be talking about the inner man...the one dies and becomes reborn in Christ.

    Unfortunately, he decided to have his private journals published 25 years after his death and many may have been scandalized by his blunt honesty about many things. He continually struggled with obedience, being in community, being a Cistercian (he continually discerned if he was being called to the Carthusians instead), and also the fact that he allowed himself to become emotionally involved with a nurse that took care of him when he was in the hospital. He did, in fact, remain faithful to his vows despite his many struggles.

    There are too many gems in his writings to be discarded as a whole. One would have to be firm in their faith and appreciated the wisdom he was enlightened with. My spiritual life, for one, has been greatly enriched by his words.

    I am getting to read *Despondency* by Gabriel Bunge. Have you read him yet?

    Sorry for the rant : ) Great post.

  2. Hi Theresa,
    Don't be sorry at all! I think your comments can help people better understand why Merton is viewed as controversial and yet remains such a respected spiritual writer. I love some of his works for sure, always have.
    I have heard the name of Gabriel Bunge before, but am not familiar...who is he?

    God bless you Theresa,

    1. Gabriel Bunge was a Benedictine monk that became Heiromonk in the Orthodox faith. He is most known for his writings on Evagrius. The other book he wrote that I have is Dragon's Wine and Angel's Bread. I think you would like him : )

      Don't mind all the typos above...I think faster than I type. I love your blog and the great service you share in your knowledge of some of the great spiritual writers of the East and West. It is very unique in that sense and much appreciated.

  3. I"m just one step removed from both Fr. Louis Merton and Fr. Seraphim Rose. My high school band director (who had a great influence upon me) was in Merton's English class when he left for the Trappists. I met the last person Fr. Seraphim ever baptized.

    Fr. Seraphim might, or might not, have been wrong about the toll houses; it's a theme that goes through Orthodox ascetic writing and some liturgical texts. But he was still a man of great personal holiness who died a faithful child of the Orthodox Church, and in the odor of sanctity.

    It is not insignificant that the now Abp. Lazor Puhalo, who engaged in printed polemics AGAINST the toll-houses, venerates him as a saint. There even a photo on line of Abp. Puhalo censing Fr Seraphim's icon.

  4. Jack,
    Wow, that's really cool. :)

    As for Puhalo, I found a few books of his at a local used bookstore and saw his writings against Rose, and have seen the picture of him censing Rose's icon as well. I almost picked up the book of Puhalo's on Icons, but didn't when I saw his polemics against Western art, which to me were downright ridiculous. Turned me off the book altogether unfortunately...

    Thanks for your comment here, very interesting to read it!


  5. One time I met Fr. Lazor, as he was then, and offered him a bag of toll-house morsels, calling it "a confection popular in certain Orthodox circles." My dad asked in when he was converted. Fr. L said, "I was raised Orthodox." Dad replied, "I didn't ask you when you became Orthodox. I asked you when you were converted." He said, "When I went to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and saw the Holy Fire descend."

    Western religious art is one thing. Traditional iconography--and there are western forms thereof--is another. I like Salvador Dali's "St. John of the Cross"--the one that shows a crucified Christ looking down upon the Sea of Galilee--but I would hate to see a church decorated in that style.

    1. That's fair enough. I just find as much beauty in Western art as I do in Eastern. Both speak to me in different ways.

  6. Sometimes some of our people seek to dogmatize the tradition of the "toll houses". The essence of the tradition expresses that at death we face everything that Christ did. We too face death, hell, and all the powers of darkness that seek to destroy man, with the same victory. The emphasis is that at death we enter the greatest spiritual battle, which depending on how close we are to God at the time can be lengthy. There is no floating on a cloud up. Just like the master we are in the battle.

    1. Ric,
      This is interesting to know - I suppose really when we die, we'll know for sure. Have you read Hans Urs von Balthasar's thoughts on Christ's descent into Hell? You might find them very interesting in light of your comments here.

      Pax Christi friend,

  7. It is noteworthy that Eugene Rose studied Buddhism in his academic life, found it wanting, and became Fr. Seraphim--while Thomas Merton become Fr. Louis, and then started flirting with Buddhism.

    1. Hi Jack,
      That's basically what I thought too...though both have their controversial aspects.


    2. Jack,
      By the way, I've been meaning to ask - are you Catholic or Orthodox? Just curious, I think you mentioned before, but I can't remember. I wanted to address your question about why I don't refer to Orthodox saints as "St. _____". I thought it would make a good post.

      Pax Christi,

  8. Merton came from a heterosexual background and heterosexual over indulgence; Fr. Seraphim Rose, while a young man in San Francisco, had a male lover. Both went on to "reject" sexuality. Merton, I believe, did break his vows with that nurse in Louisville but repented of it. Merton was pro-Vatican II and championed the destruction and then the transformation of his abbey church into a modernist, almost Protestant looking church. Fr. Rose had a deeper respect for tradition.