Thomas Merton’s Spiritual Mother

“What, the great Thomas Merton had a spiritual mother? I never heard of such a thing!” True, in all the literature about Merton there is no mention of his ever having had a spiritual mother. I believe, therefore, that the topic of this article is a unique contribution to Merton studies. Many enthusiasts and experts on Merton may take this as a very extraordinary and even presumptuous assertion. In all my readings of Merton I’ve never seen this claim anywhere. However, I believe this profound influence of Catherine de Hueck Doherty on Merton is one of the little-known facts of both of their lives. From the Seven Story Mountain we learned of their relationship. But I believe her spiritual motherhood of him during the year of 1941 is a new truth about their association that I would like to try and demonstrate.

I discovered this dimension of their relationship when I was doing research for my book, Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine de Hueck Doherty (Ave Maria Press, 2009). I concentrate exclusively here on the year 1941, when their involvement was at its most personal. During this crucial year when Merton was trying to discern whether he should be a priest, a Franciscan, a member of Friendship House, a Trappist, or simply a layman dedicated to writing and teaching, Catherine was his spiritual mother.

This insight was intensified when I began helping an Associate priest of ours, Father Donald Guglielmi, with his book entitled Staritsa: The Spiritual Motherhood of Catherine Doherty (Pickwick Publications, 2018). (I will be referring to this book.) He shows how Catherine was a spiritual mother to many people in all walks of life.

Merton never called Catherine his spiritual mother. As a very recent Catholic convert, he probably had not yet read about the desert fathers and mothers about whom he would write. The reality of having a personal spiritual mother or father was no doubt still quite unfamiliar to him. But to Catherine, with her Russian Orthodox background, the concept was very familiar. She had a spiritual father herself, and had visited monasteries where people went to consult their spiritual parents. I hope to demonstrate, briefly, that that is what she was in practice to Tom Merton during the year of 1941. (She always called him Tom, and he called her Baroness. She had not yet married Eddie Doherty, so at this time she was Catherine de Hueck.) She never referred to herself as his spiritual mother, but I suggest that is how she saw her crucial personal relationship to him in 1941.

Historical Background

In 1938 Catherine was living in Harlem, helping the Black people with the bare necessities of life, and pioneering in efforts at interracial justice. On November 16 of that year Merton was baptized in the Church of Corpus Christi in NYC. It would be several more years before they met, but he began hearing about her because the pastor of that parish was already sending donations to her Friendship House.

Are you old enough to remember the Catholic Church in the 1940s? (Perhaps not many of you are.) In the 1940s I was in grammar school, and was hardly aware of the Catholic Church on a national level. However, if we had been aware of the Church at that time, Thomas Merton would have been totally unknown to the Catholic world at large, and only a handful of friends, students, and faculty at St. Bonaventure’s in Olean where he was teaching were acquainted with him. Catherine de Hueck, on the other hand, would have been somewhat known in the Catholic world. She had been working with the poor in Canada and traveled quite a bit around the Catholic world in both Canada and the States giving talks about her apostolate. She was known and Merton was not.

So, for the purpose of this article, I ask you to try and put aside your normal understanding of the very famous and great author Thomas Merton, and try to enter into a relationship with a very new and unknown Catholic, Tom Merton. This is who he was when Catherine met him.

And keep in mind that in 1941, when they first met, Merton had only been a Catholic for three years. He didn’t even know how to say the rosary; and for the life of him he couldn’t remember the Salve Regina he heard in the Trappist monastery during his Holy Week retreat of that year. He is still a very, very new Catholic. It is the relationship of this very young Catholic and Catherine that is my topic. If you think of him during this reading only as the great Thomas Merton, you will not be able to appreciate the impact Catherine had on him in 1941. In that year Merton was 26, and Catherine was 45.

First Meetings

In his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain (SSM) there is quite a lot about Catherine; it contains some of the best insights about her. For many people, including myself, this book was the first time people heard about both Merton and Catherine. It came out in 1948. In a letter to Fr. Louis (Merton’s religious name), Feb. 6, 1950, she says, referring to his quite prominent mention of her in his autobiography, “You have made me famous in a strange fashion.”

I will begin by quoting a few passages from SST referring to his actual personal relationships with her. This first quotation concerns their initial meeting. He was teaching at the time at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y. in early 1941.

I was walking around the football field, as usual, in the dark. The Alumni Hall was full of lights. There was some speaker there. I knew Baroness de Hueck, who was working among the Negroes in Harlem, was going to speak. When I stepped in to the room there was a woman standing on the stage. As soon as I came in the door, the impression she was making on that room full of nuns and clerics and priests and various laypeople pervaded the place with such power that it nearly knocked me back down towards the stairs which I had just ascended. She had a strong voice, and strong convictions, and strong things to say. I realized it was the Baroness (340).

From another source I learned that the first word he heard from her holy mouth was “Baloney!” What was she talking about? She was talking about the lack of interracial justice in the Church and in society, and especially in Harlem. The Communists were helping the poor, but where were the Catholics? Her audience had never before heard such criticism publicly expressed, and by someone who was living what she was saying. At the end of her talk Merton went up to speak to her briefly, and the next day met her in front of the library. He asked if he could come to Friendship House in Harlem. “Sure, she said, “come on.”

He did go to Harlem, and there are eight pages in the Mountain describing his time there. He arrived on August 15, Catherine’s birthday. He had supper with her and the others who were there. He writes: “For my own part, I knew it was good for me to be there, and so for two or three weeks I came down every night and ate dinner with the little community. After that, for two or three hours, I devoted myself to the task of what was euphemistically called ‘looking after the cubs.’”

Besides describing his activities with Friendship House, these pages contain some devastating reflections about the scandal of Harlem: “Now the terrifying paradox of the whole thing is this: Harlem itself, and every individual in it, is a living condemnation of our so-called ‘culture.’ Harlem is there by way of a divine indictment against New York City.” And there is much more of this kind. It might have been his first experience of interracial injustice.

When he left Friendship House in Harlem at the end of August, he wrote this in the Mountain: “I felt for Friendship House a little of the nostalgia I had felt for Gethsemani [referring to his Holy Week retreat]. No, it was all too evident: I needed this support, this nearness of those who really loved Christ so much they seemed to see Him” (349).

He met Catherine once more before he entered the Trappists. He had returned to St. Bonaventure, and some of the Friars were going to Buffalo to meet Catherine’s train and drive her to the University. They asked if he wanted to come along. He went. In the car Catherine asked him, “Well, Tom, when are you coming to Harlem for good?” He recalled, “The simplicity of the question surprised me. Nevertheless, sudden as it was, the idea struck me that this was my answer [that is, the answer to his vocation].”

Then the Baroness said, ‘Tom, are you thinking of becoming a priest? People who ask all the questions you asked me in those letters usually want to become priests.” “Her words turned the knife in that old wound [of his thinking of the priesthood]. ‘Oh, no, I have no vocation to the priesthood’” (357–58).

About those letters Catherine referred to, he writes: “In October I was writing long letters, full of questions, to the Baroness . . . and getting letters just as long in return, full of vivid and energetic wisdom.” The first 26 pages of letters in Compassionate Fire are these letters they exchanged in 1941. In this correspondence he doesn’t explicitly ask for anything like direction, but Catherine’s responses are filled with very much direction. My opinion is that in these letters Catherine is exercising her wisdom as Merton’s spiritual mother. She never says she is giving direction, but she was very much aware that he was a new Catholic seeking understanding about his new faith and his vocation. And she pours out a spiritual Niagara of wisdom on many topics. In his reflection on that Buffalo trip he wrote this, which I believe was his own experience of Catherine which he imposed on the other Friars:

We were in a restaurant having something to eat, and the Baroness was talking about priests, and about the spiritual life and gratitude, and the ten lepers in the Gospel, of whom only one returned to give thanks to Christ for having cured them. She had made what seemed to me to be certainly a good point. But I suddenly noticed that it had struck the two Friars like a bombshell.

Then I realized what was going on. She was preaching to them. Her visit to St. Bonaventure’s was to be, for them and the Seminarians and the rest who heard her, a kind of a mission, or a retreat. I had not grasped, before, how much this was part of her work; priests and religious had become, indirectly, almost as important a mission field for her as Harlem. It is a tremendous thing, the economy of the Holy Ghost! When the Spirit of God finds a soul in which He can work, He uses that soul for any number of purposes: opens out before its eyes a hundred new directions, multiplying its works and its opportunities for the apostolate almost beyond belief and certainly far beyond the ordinary strength of a human being.

Here was this woman who had started out to conduct a more or less obscure work helping the poor in Harlem, now placed in such a position that the work which had barely been begun was drawing to her souls from every part of the country, and giving her a sort of unofficial apostolate among the priesthood, the clergy and the religious Orders.

What was it that she had to offer them that they did not already possess? One thing: she was full of the love of God; and prayer and sacrifice and total, uncompromising poverty had filled her soul with something which, it seemed, these two men had often looked for in vain in the dry and conventional and merely learned retreats that fell to their lot. And I could see that they were drawn to her by the tremendous spiritual vitality of the grace that was in her, a vitality which brought with it a genuine and lasting inspiration, because it put their souls in contact with God as a living reality. And that reality, that contact, is something which we all need: and one of the ways in which it has been decreed that we should arrive at it, is by hearing one another talk about God. Fides ex auditu. And it is no novelty for God to raise up saints who are not priests to preach to those who are priests — witness the Baroness’s namesake, Catherine of Siena. (357–58)

Before I quote some excerpts from their letters, let me emphasize again my main theme. Catherine called saints “walking gospels.” In 1941 Merton was reading about the saints — especially Therese of Lisieux, John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila, and thinking about holiness. Shortly after his baptism Bob Lax asked him, “Tom, what do you want to be?” Merton answered timidly, “A good Catholic.” “No,” Lax said, “you have to become a saint.” It is my opinion that in Catherine de Hueck he met his first saint.

When Catherine was in Harlem in 1941, she was, as I mentioned, 45 years old, and at the height of her physical and spiritual powers. She says in different places that it was one of the happiest times of her life. She was on fire with zeal for interracial justice, and serving the needs of the poor coming off the streets. This was for her the essence of living the gospel. The powerful woman Merton saw that evening at St. Bonaventure’s and visited in Harlem was a living example of the saints he was reading about.

I believe that Catherine was the first really holy person he ever met. After finishing Gheon’s book on the Little Flower, he said he was “knocked out by it completely” (Run to the Mountain, 431). In that crucial year of 1941, I believe he was knocked out by Catherine!

The Letters

Up to now I have quoted a few passages from the SSM about their relationship. I turn now to some exchanges in those fall letters of 1941, mentioned earlier, after his Harlem visit.

In his letter of October, 1941, he writes, “the first thing of all is our own sanctification, which is the lesson I got out of my retreat at the Trappists.” Catherine comments with one of her very basic teachings: “Never separate sainthood from ordinary living. For, after all, what is it fundamentally but doing everyday things extremely well” (10).

Also in this first letter he begins to consider writing as a vocation: “I think I am finding out something about writing and about the lay vocation for me: which is that my vocation is probably to go on finding out this same thing about writing over and over as long as I live: when you are writing about God, or talking about Him, you are doing something you were created to do . . .” (4). This is an early intuition about what would become his writing vocation. Catherine comments:

Go and stand up and tell everybody the tiniest bit of truth God has sent you. You must, for if that grain of wheat is to grow in the hidden soil of souls, you have to plant it there. If writing is your vocation, go ahead and write. Yes, you have what it takes. You have the right approach. The shaft of God’s light is striking you straight in the face. For a while you are a little blinded by it, but soon you will learn to see fully in his light. And then Tom, oh Tom, you will become so very small that your writing will be like fire; and like sparks of the Holy Ghost, lighting little torches everywhere to illuminate our terrific modern darkness. Do pray so very hard now. That is the way to write these fiery, startling words. Communion, Mass, and prayer, and you will get there” (11).

Merton’s words became “fiery and startling” for millions of people.

In her later letter of October 25, she again encourages his writing vocation:

About writing. Go ahead and write articles and books and everything; but here is the way I see it: write for the simple, the unlearned, the unproud. Write for the lowly and the humble, and for those who spell badly, and for those who hold a magazine clumsily. They are so hungry for knowledge, especially of God, that you and I look like overfed spiritual bourgeois next to them with all our fire and hunger for divine things. Write for them, and the learned will come to you, and the wise will listen to you, and the proud will bow to you. And God will smile on you. (15)

Her encouragement in these letters is a real prophetic word about his vocation. She had a prophetic intuition about his writing genius, and she encouraged it.

She continues in this same letter about one of her major themes: the Gospel must be communicated in simple words:

“Oh, how I wish I could explain my idea that we should write for the masses, taking the place of the Communists who write a catechism of dialectical materialism so that a two-year-old can understand. Look how God spoke: the Gospels are the gem of human literature even though they were all directed to tailors and fishermen and house wives. We do not write great things and truths simply enough. We forget that greatness is best naked and blunt, and not all dressed up in highfaluting words of skyscraper vocabulary. That is what is the matter with us. And so we have no readers. People are hungry for the same idea expressed in one syllable words, or sentences. I am so hopped on that idea, I am just rampant.” (This last sentence is what we called a B-ism.)

In a third letter, of Nov. 10, he comments on her invitation to join Friendship House: “The general burden of this letter is to let you know that, in me, you are getting no bargain, and I feel I should especially tell you this, because you have done me an inestimably great honor, far above my own worthlessness, in asking me to come to FH, even before I got around to asking it for myself” (20). That Merton was contemplating joining Catherine in her apostolate in Harlem shows how extraordinary he considered her radical gospel way of life, almost putting it on a par with the heroic demands of the Trappist vocation.

For the rest of that year he struggled to discern whether or not he had a call to FH or to the Trappists. It’s significant that Merton trusted Catherine for discernment about his vocation. Her influence at that time was so powerful that, in 1941, he went through a tremendous inner turmoil, trying to decide if he should join her apostolate in Harlem or go to the Trappists.

In his unedited journal, Run to the Mountain (STM), he wrote: “It is beginning to seem that when the Baroness came and told me again to get out of here and come to Harlem, it was right, it was time for me to go. If the Baroness came back and told me to stay, I’d stay, until somebody who knew as much as she, came along with some other idea” (Nov. 4, 1941, 451). Thus, certainly in 1941, he owed Catherine encouragement and spiritual guidance at a time when he was really adrift and without too much clarity as to what his next vocational step should be.

There is a passage from RTM, Nov. 29, 1941 that reveals this struggle:

There is no question: I can’t stay at Saint Bonaventure anymore; I must go and find Christ where He really is — in real poverty and real sacrifice. “But then, what about Friendship House: it has this one great thing: it is real poverty, it is real sacrifice; it is real love of Christ in the poor. It is holy. The work is holy. The Baroness is a saint. Harlem is full of saints. And in Harlem there is no doubt a possibility even of martyrdom, in which my sins would all vanish at once and I would be certain of pleasing God, and coming to Him as His child, spotless, clean and holy and a saint!” (464)

Harlem was one of the places where he could give everything to God: “After all, there are certain points where the crisis is acute, and there the Christian is called to be — one is the cloister, the other Harlem, any slum” (464).

The grace that finally resolved this struggle came during a retreat he made with the Friendship House people given by Fr. Paul Hanley Furfey, Catherine’s spiritual director. Merton describes this grace in a letter he wrote to Catherine just before he left St. Bonaventure’s for Gethemani, December 6, 1941. “Then I made Father Furfey’s retreat. His retreat was all about Harlem and nothing about the Trappists, except that it dealt with the one infinite source of life that nourishes both Friendship House and the Trappists, the Mystical Body of Christ: but all from the point of view of the former. It was a terrific retreat, and I came back here all on fire with it. And what happened? I started thinking about the Trappists again” (22).

Catherine’s response, December 13, 1941: “It would be foolish for me to say that I wasn’t disappointed, and yet how could I be. How wonderful, how perfect! A Trappist and a priest! High is your calling, dear friend, and wonderful to behold the Face of God in silence. It is awesome and ever so consoling.” And his response, December 13: “I entered the community as a postulant this afternoon. After that it will no doubt be hard, but at least I will know there is nothing keeping me from God any more — I can belong entirely to Him by simply consenting to each trial as it presents itself, and that is enough! It is everything. I only want to belong entirely to Him. I will never forget FH in my prayers! And pray for me! And write, sometime! Merry Christmas” (December 13, 1941, The Hidden Ground of Love (HGL), 12).

They did “write sometimes,” sporadically, over the years. Again to emphasize: Catherine’s letters are filled with indirect spiritual direction, giving her spiritual vision on a variety of topics. I’m sure she knew she was continuing to educate Merton in his new faith and spiritual journey. Merton’s next letter is Feb. 1949, concerning his newly published autobiography in 1948, and the last letter is Feb. 1966. Besides what each of them wrote in other places, these letters are the best testimony of their relationship. They would never meet again.

A special topic of interest for us in these letters might be their exchange about Catherine’s book Poustinia which has been translated into many languages. As Catherine began reading Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, and Merton began moving more toward solitude, solitude and silence became an increasing topic in their letters. So Catherine began informing him of the poustinia movement growing at Madonna House.

In order to pray for Vatican II, in 1962, the whole community made a pilgrimage to an isolated farm house which became the first poustinia in North America. A tradition from Holy Russia, a poustinia — the Russian word for desert — was a cabin where a person lived a life of solitude, prayer, and penance.

As Merton was moving towards solitude and the hermetical life himself, he was very enthusiastic when Catherine told him of her introduction of the poustinia into North America. In a letter of March 17, 1961, she wrote:

There is much in my heart that I would like to share with you but then it comes to me that you know it already. One thing I want to tell you about is that I have returned to the ways of my people. When confronted with the tragic sight of man ignoring God (I would prefer if he rebelled against Him), I decided to go back to the ‘poustinia’ of my people. In my childhood, my father used to tell me when I meet evil in a new form ‘that such are dealt with through fasting and prayer’ — the two arms that man can lift to God always — and go into the desert.

So now, every Friday, I go into the silence of the Lord. It is at times like these that I have many interesting conversations with you and with other brothers of mine in the Trappist Monastery. Strange, is it not — or is it? How simply one can meet in the silence of the love of God.

She continued to keep him informed about the development of poustinia at Madonna House. On November 12, 1962, he wrote:

I was deeply moved by the Poustinia [i.e., hermitage] project. That is ideal. It is just right. It will be a wonderful contribution. It is the kind of thing that is most needed. And though it is certain that we must speak if and when we can, silence is always more important. The crises of the age are so enormous and the mystery of evil so unfathomable: the action of well-meaning men is so absurd and tends so much to contribute to the very evils it tries to overcome: all these things should show us that the real way is prayer, and penance, and closeness to God in poverty and solitude.

In my personal correspondence with Brother Patrick Hart, who was the executor of Merton’s will, in the course of compiling my book of correspondence between Catherine and Merton, I wrote to him: “I think Merton would have liked the book Poustinia, don’t you?” He replied: “Yes, I think Louie would have loved Poustinia, since it was a way, a response, to something of his writings on the contemplative life for lay people, and not just something for monks and nuns.”

Other Witnesses

Besides this epistolary witness to Catherine’s influence on Merton, let me mention several other testimonies. In a talk at the University of Memphis, June, 8, 2007, Jim Forest said about Merton: “When the Franciscans turned him away due to his checkered past, his next vocational attraction was to be part of a community of hospitality. People like Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Dorothy Day inspired him. He found it extremely difficult to choose between Friendship House and the Abbey of Gethsemani — between a life shaped by the works of mercy and a life centered in prayer.”

Paul Pearson, of the Merton Center at Bellarmine College, KY, told me that it wasn’t until 1963 that Merton started to keep all his letters. Before then, he only kept letters to important people. Catherine was one of these. When I asked Paul what he thought Catherine meant to Merton, he said: “I think she was certainly very important in the discernment of his vocation and he felt she was one of his ‘spiritual parents’ so to speak.” It’s significant that Paul also saw Catherine as a spiritual mother.

Stanley Vishnewski, the indefatigable friend of Dorothy Day, was also a friend of Catherine and used to visit Friendship House in Harlem. Ouse nHalrmeHe had met Merton there. He wrote a book on his experiences, The Wings of the Dawn, published after his death (1979). In a chapter on Friendship House he wrote: “The spiritual zeal of the early FH staff workers was contagious. Many a lukewarm Catholic came there for the social life, and was soon caught up in the Love of God. Tom Merton was one who found his vocation working with the ‘B’” (154).

I interviewed two early members of Friendship House. Betty Schneider was in Harlem with Merton. She told me that Merton was vastly influenced by Catherine. Peggy Parsons, also in Harlem when Merton was there, summed up Catherine’s effect on Merton: “By the grace of the Holy Spirit, Catherine entered into Thomas Merton’s life at just the right moment. She understood where Merton was coming from in his spiritual aspirations. For Merton, as also for Bob Lax, Catherine’s vocation and pursuit of a radical Christian witness to the world illuminated the way for them. There was no uncertainty in Catherine. She comprehended the world we lived in, and the role of the Christian and of the Church in that world” (Personal Communication).

Catherine’s Understanding of Their Relationship

In her letter of February 17, 1958, she expresses her own multi-faceted relationship to Merton in this way: “I have never thought of you as a celebrity. I guess you are a big one at that; but to me, in a manner of speaking, you are a son. And in another sense, a Father. And in a third, a brother. And together we seek our Beloved.” The age of a priest meant little to Catherine: Her strong faith saw every priest as Father. So to think of Merton as Father Louis was not unusual. Catherine had two younger brothers, so it would have been easy to see Merton as another brother.

But her last statement, I believe, is the key to their friendship: “Together we seek the Beloved.” They saw their relationship as a common thirsting for sanctity, and this is one of the major themes in their correspondence. His last public words about Catherine are in the preface to the Secular Journal which he gave to Catherine before he left for the Trappists in 1941. “Catherine is one who realizes more clearly than almost anyone I know, that the neighbor is not only her neighbor but is also Christ. To love, serve and help our brother, is to love, serve, and help Christ. She is one to whom the doctrine of the Mystical Body is something more than a stimulating theory.

When I was writing some of the final pages of this diary in 1941, I was on the point of joining Catherine de Hueck at Friendship House. She had asked me to come, and the decision had been provisionally taken — until it became clear that my vocation lay elsewhere, in a Cistercian monastery. Nevertheless, I owe much to Catherine, and I am glad that this book can help Madonna House in some way.

In the original copy of this manuscript, he inscribed this: “I have learned much in Friendship House and I want to leave you this book. Take it. If you sell it, you get the royalties because I am not going to write any more in the Trappists.” We still receive royalties from this book.

When Abbot Flavian of Gethsemani received word of Merton’s death on Dec. 11, one of the first persons he telegraphed on that very same day was Catherine. This shows his own understanding of the significance of Catherine in Merton’s life. The next day she wrote back: “Thank you for your telegram. Father Louis, in some strange mysterious way I never quite understood, was in part my spiritual son. My heart sings an Alleluia. The world has lost a great man. Monasticism has lost a great man. But all of us, and I say this is all simplicity of heart, have gained a saint. I am with you in your monastery, sharing your pain and your joy” (89).

On a day after receiving the news of his death, Catherine gave a talk at Madonna House about Merton. Among other things, she mentioned how she told him in Harlem to stop just talking about the Gospel and spend some time at Friendship House doing it; how impractical he was in mopping floors; and that she never understood how his vocation to become a Trappist was confirmed in a retreat on Harlem and the lay apostolate! So it must have really been a grace from God. She concluded:

Well, we have his photograph here. Put it on the table with his books so that people can read them if they want to. But you see how deeply, in a sense he enters into our lives. I will bring out his correspondence and maybe we can read a few excerpts from it. There are some very beautiful passages about many things. We corresponded through the years. You know that he was seeking a poustinia. Finally his superior allowed him to live in one. He was so happy about that. So, a great friend is home at last! He has given up everything, and he has received everything. So let us rejoice!

Fr. Robert Wild About Fr. Robert Wild

Robert Wild was ordained a priest in Buffalo in 1967, and joined the Madonna House community founded by Catherine Doherty in 1971. He has lived a partly solitary life involved in prayer, spiritual direction, and editing many of Catherine’s books. He has also written a trilogy on her spirituality. He serves at the community’s clergy retreat center and is the postulator for Catherine’s cause.