“Justification By Imagination: The Marian Art Of Thomas Merton” (Alfred Eaker’s Masters Thesis)

January 31st is the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton. In honor of his centenary, the following is an excerpt from my Master’s Thesis: Justification By Imagination: The Marian  Art Of Thomas Merton. 

The thesis was approved by Drs. Frank Burch Brown, Marti Steussy, and Lorna Shoemaker.

Introduction: Opening Merton

Thomas Merton BW

It is, perhaps, apt that Thomas Merton’s Marian art is primarily concealed—much as the Marian figure is in the gospels. The bulk of Merton’s Marian drawings reside at the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. Little of that art has been published. To approach it, one must first open Merton: “One hears from others that this is a Sacred Book, takes their word for it, and resolves not to get involved.”[1] Thomas Merton’s own words on the act of opening the Bible can be applied similarly to opening Merton. Over one hundred books and several documentary films have been produced about Thomas Merton since his death in 1968, indicating the extent of his art and influence. The magnitude and immensity of Merton is such that no single interpretation will have the final word on the famed Trappist, whose status as the preeminent Christian monk of the twentieth century, is readily acknowledged, even by his critics.

Investing in Merton’s prodigious output can inspire identification with his own reaction to the monumental Picasso exhibit of 1939: “Room after room of his paintings, and each room better and more exciting than the last. It was a terrific and tiring and bewildering experience.”[2] Like Picasso’s, Merton’s posthumous reputation has taken on a legendary sheen, so much so that finding a fresh approach to him is an elusive endeavor.

Merton was a relentless communicator over time. When he wrote the following about the Church and Christian tradition he was giving an observation that might serve as self-descriptive: “The biggest paradox about the Church is that she is at the same time essentially traditional and essentially revolutionary. But that is not as much of a paradox as it seems, because Christian tradition, unlike all others, is a living and perpetual revolution.”[3]

Fred Herron finds Merton himself at that paradoxical point: “It was the catholicizing of Catholicism, the retrieval of the richness of the Catholic imagination, that was the subject of the revolution in the church during the life of Thomas Merton.” [4]

Far from being an inconsequential relic of the 1960s, Merton’s voice resonates with the contemporary, possibly because his relationship with tradition is a dialectical one. Merton utilizes historical perspectives as a preparation to achieve a far-reaching, evolving theological and literary language that transcends his contradictions, making him a successful communicator of faith. As Rowan Williams says:

Merton’s genius was largely that he was massively unoriginal: he is extraordinary because he is so dramatically absorbed by every environment he finds himself in—America between the wars, classical pre-conciliar Catholicism and monasticism, the peace movement, Asia. In all these contexts he is utterly priestly because utterly attentive: he does not organize, dominate, or even interpret, much of the time, but responds. Merton is sure enough of his real place, his real roots, to let some very strange and strong winds blow over him, to let his understanding grow by constant re-creation in himself of other human possibilities. Being interested in Thomas Merton is not being interested in an original, a shaping mind, but being interested in God and human possibilities. [5]

Jonathan Montaldo expands on this:

Among Thomas Merton’s literary gifts was his ability to craft elements of his biography into literary metaphors that incite his readers not only to identify with his autobiographical art but also to undergo inner experiences of being transformed by reading him. Reading Merton threatens incidences of being changed, of wanting to lead a different, deeper kind of life. His art of confession and witness does not merely disclose itself for the reader’s review, but imposes itself powerfully upon the reader as a form of teaching by personal example that both seduces and constrains the reader to go and do likewise.[6]


The Autobiographical Nature of Merton’s Work

It is often said that all art, regardless of subject, medium, or genre, is self-portraiture. Fundamentally, Thomas Merton’s expressive oeuvre is entirely autobiography. Opening Merton through diverse facets of writer, monk, priest, revolutionary, social commentator, and theologian inevitably proves to be too rudimentary, too opaque and too incomplete an encounter. The influence of his own artistically grounded genetic roots vibrantly shaped Merton’s power of expression and separates him from his peers. Merton’s conversion and subsequent vocations were filtered through a pre-existing artistic palette: “Merton’s first real attraction to the Catholic Church was through art. He talks about the image of Christ that he met in the Byzantine mosaics. He says that while he went to see the art, without understanding what was happening, he found something else happening to him that went beyond the art.”[7]

Merton’s experience of a Christ of the ikons followed his immersion into the poetry of the Jesuit Gerald Manley Hopkins, who had, likewise, experienced a spontaneous conversion. Christine Bochon says of Merton: “Catholicism was intellectually exciting to him, but he was moved too. He comes to experience God through the things of this world.”[8] Sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley writes of an additional aspect of Hopkins that may have deeply resonated with the young Merton: “Hopkins pointed at the essence of the Catholic sensibility about the mother of Jesus when he tied together the fertility of spring, the fertility of Mary, and the fertility of God.”[9]

Greeley’s descriptive comparison between the Catholic and Protestant imagination can be useful in identifying the aesthetic allure of Catholicism to Merton:

Catholic religious imagination differs from the Protestant religious imagination. Catholic writers stress the nearness of God to his creation, the Protestant writers the distance between God and His creation; the Protestants emphasize the risk of superstition and idolatry, the Catholics the dangers of a creation in which God is only marginally present. Or, to put the matter in different terms, Catholics tend to accentuate the immanence of God, Protestants the transcendence of God.”[10]

As we shall see in excerpts from his journals, Merton’s religious vocabulary is steeped in artistic imagination, so much so that an unprepared novice, expecting to find in Merton merely a guide to better living, may discover Merton to be a source of genuine surprise and initial consternation.

Merton’s impassioned ecumenicism, which pre-dates the promotion of it by Vatican II, mirrors his multifarious taste in the arts. While Merton wrote extensively on Buddhism, St. John of the Cross, and the contemplative life, his sporadic writings on Mary, the Mother of Christ, are among his most restless, enigmatic and vividly imagined works, expressed through written and audio reflections, poetry, and visual art. Kenneth Voiles writes:

What he has written, though sparse, tells us quite a lot about his view of Mary and also about her importance in the silence and solitude of his own spiritual development. Some of Merton’s most telling passages about Our Lady can rather easily lead readers to the conclusion that she was not only a major influence for him, but conceivably his primary influence.[11]


Merton and Marian Art

Working from the universal and autobiographical nature of Merton’s work, the specific focus of this thesis is on the Marian art of Merton, which has not received the attention of significant scholarship to date. Among the nine hundred plus existing drawings of Thomas Merton are approximately two hundred Marian-like images, a subject he drew with more frequency than he did any other representational image (his later abstractions and Zen calligraphy outnumber his earlier iconographic works). While Merton rarely dated or titled his visual art, the feminine image, although unnamed, is what we can safely refer to as Marian in expression. Sophia, Eve, Proverb, Wisdom and Our Lady are personas of the divine manifest in the feminine, which fired his theological imagination and devotion.

The symbol of Mary, perhaps in its ambiguity, gives substantial and challenging breathing room for artistic expression, as Greeley writes:

The image of Mary the mother of Jesus distinguishes the Catholic religious sensibility from all others. She pushes the envelope of the Catholic imagination as far as it can be pushed by hinting that there is a maternal dimension in God as well as a paternal one and thus absorbs and purifies and transforms all the female deities who came before (Nut, Astarte, Venus, Brigid).[12]

Greeley’s assessment aptly sets the tone of contemporary Marian imagery and devotion as provocative for most Protestants and some post-Vatican II Catholics: “When it links the fertility of nature and the fertility of a woman with the fertility of God, the Catholic imagination risks being profoundly offensive.” [13]

The origins of Mariology are quite the reverse. The devotion began as a popular tradition. Once the Church acknowledged that devotion, it was rapidly coated with orthodox sheen: “By the early second century, Christian writers were speaking of her as the new Eve; by the early third century, drawings of her appeared in the catacombs, and by the early fourth century, direct and explicit devotion to her was well under way.”[14]

Since the Reformation, Marian devotion, devotion to the divine manifestation in the maternal image has become scarcer in much of Christian worship practice. The feminine outcast label latently hovers over Marian theology and imagery: “Mary is the only feminine religious symbol who reveals a God passionately in love with his people. The structure and the function of the Mary myth are designed to reveal the femininity of God. The theologians may have missed the point or have been afraid to touch it; but the poets and painters have not.” [15]That may explain the appeal of the Marian symbol to artists as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dali, and Thomas Merton.

Merton’s Marian piety seems to have stemmed first from his history of personal relationships with women (from his short-lived mother to M, the student nurse with whom Merton had a late-in-life romance): “Strange connections in my deepest heart-between M. and the Wisdom figure-and Mary-and the Feminine in the Bible-Eve etc.-Paradise-wisdom. Most mysterious, haunting, deep, lovely, moving, transforming!”[16] Merton’s yearning for the feminine was poignantly expressed in a 1966 journal entry after a Mass: “Thought deeply about Our Lady afterword, prayed much to her, saw her immense importance in my life, gave myself as completely as I could. I have a great need to belong to her.”[17]

His reverence to the image also adhered to Cistercian tradition. In 1941, two years after his baptism and one year before entering the Abbey of Gethsemani as a novice, Merton was emotionally moved during a visit to Our Lady of Gethsemani: “Here, suddenly, I am in the Court of the Queen of Heaven, where She sits throned, and receives at once the proper praise of men and angels. I tell you I cannot breathe.”[18]

In an article for the Merton quarterly, Sheila M. Hempstead-Milton addresses the Cistercian influences on Merton’s Mariology:


It seems to me that the feminine archetypes of the church, cloister and enclosed garden, with Mary as both garden and idealized woman, along with all the conflicts and resultant tensions of his life as a monk and writer in the Abbey, provided Merton with the right climate in which to develop a mature identity, and to recover and integrate the feminine. Merton writes in the dedication to Gethsemani Magnificat: The Most Blessed Virgin is the Queen of the Cistercian order, as she is also Queen and model of the Contemplative life.[19]

Merton’s Mariology is inexorably wedded to his artistic expression. To fully glean the artistic and theological complexities of his Marian drawings, a literary accompaniment and well-rounded perspective of Merton’s artistic temperament is beneficial.

[1] Thomas Merton, Opening the Bible (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1970), 14.

[2] Thomas Merton, Run to the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton, ed. Patrick Hart, O.S.C.O. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995), 87.

[3] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), 142.

[4] Fred Herron, No Abiding Place (Lanham, MD: University Press, 2005), 14.

[5] Rowan William, A Silent Action. Engagements with Thomas Merton (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011),19.

[6] Jonathan Montaldo, “A Gallery of Women’s Faces and Dreams of Women from the Drawings and Journals of Thomas Merton,” in Merton Annual 14, ed. Victor A. Kramer (Louisville, KY: International Thomas Merton Society, Bellermine University, 2001), 155.

[7] Elaine Malits, Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, ed. Morgan C. Atkinson (Collegeville, PA: Liturgical Press, 2008), 26

[8] Christine Bochen, Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, ed. Morgan C. Atkinson (Collegeville, PA: Liturgical Press, 2008), 28, 39.

[9] Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 92.

[10] Greeley, The Catholic Imagination, 5.

[11] Kenneth Voiles. “The Importance of Mary In the Spirituality of Thomas Merton. (paper presented at the Summer Seminar on Carmelite Spirituality, Notre Dame, IN, June 1991), 218.

[12] Greeley, The Catholic Imagination, 91.

[13] Greeley, The Catholic Imagination, 94.

[14] Andrew Greeley, The Mary Myth (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), 80.

[15] Greeley, The Mary Myth, 41, 20.

[16] Thomas Merton, Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton. ed. Christine M. Bochen.1966-1967. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1997), 131.

[17] Merton, Learning to Love, 16, 17.

[18] Merton, Run to the Mountain, 333.

[19] Sheila Hempstead-Milton, “Merton’s Search for Paradise and His Integration of Ruth Merton, Sophia and Mary,” The Merton Seasonal Spring (1996): 12-13.

©Alfred Eaker 2015