The Trappist and the Rock Star, Sort Of

HudsonRobert Hudson is a recognized Bob Dylan scholar, a member of the International Thomas Merton Society, and a veteran editor. In his The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966, he documents a series of connections between the two iconic figures. Though the two never met, Hudson argues that Dylan was influential in shaping Merton’s final years.

On December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and in fear of military conscription, Thomas Merton became a Trappist monk. It was a decision reached after several years of thought and study, driven by his adult conversion to Catholicism and his desire to find silence and solitude upon what he called “this miserable, noisy, cruel earth.” When Merton took his vows at Our Lady of Gethsemani outside of Louisville, Kentucky, he committed himself to a monastic life that would both nurture and frustrate his deepest desires. Robert Hudson’s The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966 is about this tension.

If other biographies relay the entirety of Merton’s life and times, Hudson is focused specifically on moments when the monk’s more worldly interests ran up against his order’s consistently rigid rules. Through a series of “interludes,” Merton’s (mostly) obedient monasticism is cast against the various rebellions of the young Bob Dylan, with whom Merton became increasingly absorbed. As the book progresses, Dylan provides the free-spirited foil to Merton’s religious asceticism. Though Hudson identifies points of congruence between his subjects, these are less compelling than the general contrast.

In particular, the Merton-Dylan pairing demands some reflection on the nature of commitment. Merton’s developing interest in Dylan’s innovative work is traceable, it seems, to his own repeatedly stifled ambitions—to live alone, to travel, to write without censors, and to marry a woman. Again and again Merton makes requests that his abbot denies, in part to protect his vows and—perhaps in larger part—to retain his very lucrative pen. Though he grumbles about these rejections, Merton honors them as attendant to the promise that he freely made and to which he is eternally bound. The effect is at once impressive and a little annoying. At the time, certain of Merton’s friends wanted him to flee the suffocating monastic life and fulfill his significant potential—to rebel, in other words, like Dylan. Instead, Merton stays put, fulfilling his obligations at the expense of his desire—submitting, that is, like Merton.

Merton’s fidelity is undeniably impressive. Like marriage vows, monastic solemn vows restrict certain behaviors en route to a higher order of being. Made while young, they remain binding long after they have lost their initial charm. At that point, the vow may be broken or merely endured if it is not persistently renewed. In Merton’s case, the temptations were strong and—from the present vantage—persuasive. You only live once, we often reason, so suppressing desire is a terrible waste. Each time Merton considers leaving, it seems like a sensible thing to do. When in each case he stays, his dedication is moving.

Read the whole thing at Reading Religion.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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