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Wednesday, December 3,2008

Believing Thomas

Author, professor lead local interest in literary monk

by Bill Castanier
Born in France to free-spirited parents and raised in a bohemian lifestyle, Thomas Merton had a child out of wedlock and was a self-proclaimed womanizer and carouser as a young man. At 26, he found God, became a Trappist monk and is believed to have never left God’s graces.

Or was he still tempted by the flesh?

That’s the supposition East Lansing author Mark Shaw is making in his book-in-progress, which offers somewhat of a revisionist look at the monk’s life. Shaw is exploring an “affair” Merton began in his 50s with a student nurse half his age while hospitalized for a bad disc. The relationship is well documented in Merton’s journals and letters, in which he refers to the nurse as “M,” which were published nearly 20 years after his death.

Shaw’s book, “Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free,” scheduled for a fall 2009 release, looks at the affair as a pivotal point in the monk’s life.

Shaw stresses that Merton’s life was about conflicts and paradoxes. He was the most public persona of a contemplative monastery, writing more than 70 books and thousands of articles, essays and poems during his 27 years as a monk. In addition to being one of the most respected writers of his time, Merton was a moneymaker for the abbey and possibly their best recruiter; the number of monks at Gethsemani in rural Kentucky went from about 80 to more than 200 during his time there.

Like Merton, Shaw also experienced a conversion. A successful defense attorney who specialized in murder cases, Shaw said after a longtime marriage came to an end he was left wandering Colorado and California. Like Merton, Shaw, an ordained Presbyterian minister, found the church. He discovered Merton in 2005 while studying for the ministry and was tantalized by his life. “I assume there is something of a suspicious nature in my soul left over from my criminal defense days, but my main reason was more curiosity than anything,” Shaw says.

Shaw, who has also written books on Larry Bird, Melvin Belli, Jack Nicklaus and Mike Tyson, said he feels blessed to have landed in the Lansing area. Since relocating here last January, he said he has run across some interesting people.

For instance, Shaw’s wife, a Michigan State University librarian, put him in touch with MSU Professor Rudy A. Bernard, who was a novitiate at Gethsemani from 1949 to 1951, while Merton was there. Bernard recalls Merton as being an unassuming man, outgoing and almost jocular “who needed to be the center of attention.”

Bernard, who left the Abbey before taking his final vows, attended lectures by Merton, and he got to know him better than most, since he was bilingual and translated for him.

Bernard recalls a time his parents came to visit, and his dad drove his car right into the fields where he, Merton and other monks were working. “Merton just laughed,” he says.

Merton was a social activist during the tumultuous ‘60s, writing books and articles against war. He also was a proponent of radical Catholicism, as practiced by Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement. Toward the end of his life, Merton explored Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism.

Shaw sees the conflicts in Merton’s life as strengths. He also believes that toward the end of his life, Merton was coming to grips with these conflicts, including his feelings for "M," a young nurse with whom he fell in love late in life.  To Shaw, it is clear that Merton was in love with M, but he ultimately chose to go back to God and the abbey. “Merton needed to experience love before he could choose between secular love and the love of God,” Shaw said. “When Merton finally discovered true love, he could be free for the first time in his life.”

Shaw said Merton’s life has been explored in all aspects, but this affair is a notable exception. Shaw said there are scores of Merton scholars who could have written this book who avoid the topic out of respect.

Last week, Shaw and Bernard talked animatedly about Merton and M. The two are involved in an International Thomas Merton Society chapter, which Shaw helped organize in Lansing. Bernard cautions Shaw about interpreting Merton and M’s relationship as a sexual one. Shaw disagrees. He believes the relationship was sexual based on the letters Merton wrote, but he agrees that is might not have been consummated. Only M knows that answer, and she isn’t talking. Although he thinks he could locate her, Shaw said he would respect her wishes of anonymity and will not pursue it.

(The next meeting of the Mid-Michigan Chapter is 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 315 Kedzie St., East Lansing. For information call (517) 333-3878 or email at mshawin@yahoo.com.)


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