Thomas Merton vs. Philander Chase

February 29, 2012
Tim Schenck

In today's match-up we get a 20th century monk/best-selling author with a lot of letters after his name versus a 19th century missionary bishop with what just might be the best name in Lent Madness (Enmegahbowh may beg to differ). Will the Kenyon College students and alums rally to put Philander Chase over the top? Or will the many who have read and been touched by Thomas Merton's "The Seven Storey Mountain" jump to his cause? Only you and the next 24 hours will tell.

In yesterday's battle, Mary Magdalene swept to a resounding victory over John Huss (66% to 34% with well over 1,700 votes cast), setting up a wild Round of the Saintly Sixteen match-up with Joan of Arc. Magdalene vs. Huss also set a record with over 100 comments! Keep up the good work, friends, and don't forget to check out the updated bracket and the calendar of upcoming battles.

Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was born in France to Owen Merton, a New Zealander, and Ruth Jenkins, an American. Both were artists. Later in 1915, with World War I raging, they moved to the United States of America where John Paul, his brother, was born in 1918.

Merton's mother died when he was six which led to a complicated childhood, moving between his father, his grandparents in New York, and boarding schools in France and England. His father died in 1931. Merton went to Clare College, Cambridge, in 1933 where he lived a dissolute life and it is likely that he fathered a child. His guardian, Tom Bennett, who had been a classmate of Owen’s in New Zealand, intervened and persuaded him to go back to New York.

In 1935 Merton entered Colombia University where he studied English literature. He also discovered an interest in Roman Catholicism and began to engage with issues of social justice.

He joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1938, the year that he graduated. He considered joining the Franciscans but, after a Holy Week retreat, in 1941, at Our Lady of Gethsemane, near Bardstown, Kentucky, he joined this monastery of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance on December 10, 1941.

In the Second World War, his brother John Paul died in 1943 when his plane's engines failed over the English Channel.

As a monk, Thomas Merton became one of the most widely-read and deeply-respected authors on spirituality of the twentieth century. He wrote more than seventy books as well as lots of articles. He also maintained a prolific correspondence, with people around the world, on a great diversity of topics.

His autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," published in 1948, was a publishing sensation. More than 600,000 copies sold in the first year alone.

Merton was responsible for the formation of new monks and novices at a time when the monastery was thriving. He had a passion for solitude and was finally given permission to live in a hermitage on the monastery grounds. He helped to highlight the spiritual dimension of Christianity and did so with a strong interest in other world religions.

He died from an electric shock from a faulty fan in Bangkok while attending a meeting of religious leaders.

Collect for Thomas Merton: Gracious God, you called your monk Thomas Merton to proclaim your justice out of silence, and moved him in his contemplative writings to perceive and value Christ at work in the faiths of others: Keep us, like him, steadfast in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Bosco Peters

To Philander Chase (1775-1852), the Book of Common Prayer was the second best book ever written. Chase picked up the BCP when studying at Dartmouth College, and upon reading it, decided to become an Episcopalian. For Episcopalians throughout what was then the frontier of the United States, it’s a good thing he did. Despite the lack of a seminary in the new United States, Chase was ordained a priest at age 23 (having studied under the private instruction of the Rev. Thomas Ellison), and over the next 18 years served churches in New York, Louisiana, and Connecticut (the latter two of which would later become the cathedral churches of their respective dioceses).

Then in 1817, in fine Abrahamic tradition, Philander Chase uprooted his family, including his consumptive wife, Mary, and moved west to the frontier, which at that time was Ohio. Chase’s Oaks of Mamre were in Worthington, Ohio, where he founded Kenyon College and Bexley Hall Seminary (and where Mary passed away from her illness). His move west happened partly out of pioneering zeal and partly because he did not see eye to eye with Bishop Hobart of New York. His conflict with Hobart (in whose diocese the new General Seminary had recently opened), not to mention his unwillingness to expose young frontiersmen to the vicissitudes of city life (from which they might not want to return) led Chase to found the seminary in Ohio, which opened in 1824

Prior to that, in 1818, Chase was elected the first Bishop of Ohio. However, his penchant for single-handedly controlling the institutions in his charge led to fallout in both the college and diocese, and he resigned both the presidency and episcopacy in 1831. The old pioneering zeal flared up again, and he moved to Michigan, founding many churches along the way. Then, in 1835, he was elected the first Bishop of Illinois, and he continued moving west. He also served as the Presiding Bishop from 1843 until his death in 1852.

Philander Chase was a pioneer for the Episcopal faith in the frontier of the nascent United States. His conviction and zeal, while it often got him into trouble with his colleagues, helped spread the Gospel to the edge of the country, where it took hold and flourished.

Collect for Philander Chase: Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith: We give you heartfelt thanks for the pioneering spirit of your servant Philander Chase, and for his zeal in opening new frontiers for the ministry of your Church. Grant us grace to minister in Christ’s name in every place, led by bold witnesses to the Gospel of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Adam Thomas


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154 comments on “Thomas Merton vs. Philander Chase”

  1. Wow! Am I really the first person to cast a ballot this morning? Thomas Merton figured prominently in my spiritual formation and journey in grace from the church of my childhood into the Anglican tradition -- go figure! Also, his monastic pilgrimage kindled in me a continuing connection with the religious life and communities in the Episcopal Church. So, my vote was easy!

  2. As a Quaker, I have always been grateful for Merton's appreciation of The Society of Friends through his devotion to/in silence. This is easier for me than Hus vs. Mary M.!

  3. As a friend of Bexley Hall Seminary, I have to vote for Philander Chase. Not only did he start a college in the wilderness, but he also founded a great seminary. Besides, he was a Presiding Bishop! GO PHILANDER!

  4. In this very complicated age, I am particularly grateful for (in the words of the collect) Merton's efforts " to perceive and value Christ at work in the faiths of others." We need more of that.

  5. I decided on Philander Chase because he did not give up. When things did not go well for him in Ohio, he moved on and kept on going! How many of us suffer a set-back and decide to give up? Not Philander! It wasn't an easy choice, but if one has to pick, I pick him.

  6. My mother was a devoted fan of Merton whereas my daughter went to Kenyon College. Such a dilemma. I am predisposed toward the contemplative however. Will ponder this for a while.

  7. Philander doesn't come across as the most attractive character here, but I admire leaders who are feisty and focused, and wonder if someone like him might be just what we need in our time?

  8. Well, Merton converted FROM the Episcopal Church (and initially was somewhat parocial about it!) and Chase TO the Episcopal Church. So I guess that shows who was the wisest, eh?

  9. Thomas Merton had a great influence on my life. I knew I was being called from a very young age but took a different path. In 1975 I read the Seven Story Mountain. That changed everything for me. Even thought it was years before I was eventually ordained Merton and his writings were with me on the journey. Last year I got to visit Bardstown. It is beautiful.

  10. I do like Thomas Merton, but I'm going to have to vote for Philander Chase since he was the first Rector at my husband's home church in Worthington, OH.

  11. Philander Chase was a true visionary. He was not limited to the imagining the church as it is but sought to make it into something it could be in a changing world. Unfortunately, he left a chain of broken relationships and hard feelings. He reminds me a little to much of self centered individuals who act like the church is their very own plaything and anyone who disagrees is an obstructionist, deluded or worse. In our age of public and institutional bullying, I have to go with the monk in his hermitage who knew that in Christ, he was connected and in relationship with the rest of the world and acted like that mattered.

  12. I have great respect for Thomas Merton's spirituality: his "Seven Storey Mountain" was a key in my own formation; but I can't imagine going into a monastry three days after Pearl Harbor. I have to give my vote to Philander Chase; I think there is a courage to pushing the frontier.

  13. Would have voted for Merton anyway, but I could not vote for someone who disagreed with Hobart and dissed my seminary "in the City."

    1. I'd like some citation -- that Merton abused women. That's not the way I'd describe falling in love and having sex -- as a young man.

    2. By "diss" you mean thought that not every single priest in the Episcopal Church should have to mean move to NY city for their education but that people who lived on the other side of the Appalachian should actually be able to get a Masters of Divinity in the Anglican Tradition without having so to do...

      1. I went to Kenyon and heard the stories of the founder, Philander...and went to General and heard the stories of the founder, John Henry. They are the ecclesiastical equivalent of apples and oranges, oil and water. That's good news, aside from the mutual "dissing" that went on as they competed for funding for their respective seminaries. That even at that early stage our denomination could be so diverse, what a gift! Still, I am sure that old Philander and John Henry did a little spinning in their sleep in Christ when I signed the respective Matriculation Books!

    3. Amy,
      Having matriculated at Hobart College in Geneva NY (unabashed plug), I've been aware +Hobart was not an easy bishop to work with. But he also was on the western edge of "civilisation". Stubborn people do not mix well. How about a bracket of Episcopal Bishops since the seperation from the Church of England? 🙂 The spread of the Episcopal Church as Americans spread across what is now the USA is a fascinating story with many chapters, many personalities.

  14. Chase may have had pioneering zeal, but anybody who would drag his consumptive wife to the frontier seems to be seriously lacking in the virtues of mercy and compassion. I agree with some others that he comes across as autocratic and bull-headed. Sure, maybe there's a time and place for such behavior, but our modern world seems far too full of bull-headed autocrats. My vote's with Merton.

    1. I agree with Mainecelt's comment on Chase. I know Merton is a great spiritual authority but I don't like the way either of these guys treated the women in their lives. Voting for neither.

      1. I'm wondering what you mean. Yes, Merton had a relationship with a woman as a very, very young man. She never spoke of it. Perhaps she continued to care for him? At any rate, I've never read that he treated the women in his life disrespectfully. Falling in love with one is not disrespect.

  15. I have never heard of both, but I found Thomas Merton's life very interesting. Actually, I am planning to read his Seven Storey Mountain. Being a Catholic monk, I do not understand why Thomas Merton was not known in Cuba, where I grew up, since the Roman Catholic Church is the major Christian church back there. I wonder whether his book has been translated into Spanish. Otherwise, it could be a great experience doing it by myself.

  16. Easy choice for me. I read Seven Story Mountain in 1959 when I was 11 and was hooked. I can say in all honesty there has been less than a 100 days in my life that I have not read or listened to Merton. The ability of Merton to speak to so many varying folks is amazing. At the International TM Society of meetings it is a gathering of a real melting pot folks. It is real live Pentecost event. I doubt Merton will ever be canonized by Rome. Too much is known about him. We have his books, articles, and letters but the most revealing and dynamic is the recorded talks and teachings especially if you started collecting them before some redactors/censors got hold of them. I think the most outstanding part of Merton's character is how he dealt with his constant struggle with his vow of Obedience. It was a mine field that cause him much angst and turmoil yet he remained faithful. It is a lesson from a very strong willed individual to us strong will individuals. There is something to be said for obedience and something to be said for testing the boundaries. How much more relevant can one get?

  17. Philander Chase was a staggering individual. In a church that today finds itself so married to academic and intellectual pursuits of the Spirit, Chase stands as a strong reminder in our day that intelligence. consideration and insight must by necessity be backed by action, with patient strength, resolute determination and an unimpeachable sense of duty to the call of God. As fallibly human as any man could be, Philander Chase's own failings as a leader serve to remind us that we, too, can and often do let our own very human perceptions, desires and shortcomings overshadow the good work that God is bringing forth in our lives.

  18. The comments of others helped me decide this morning. I never could understand how Merton could be a "hermit" and still travel all over the world. I don't think I would have liked to be married to Chase but as someone said, he went to the Episcopal Church and Merton went from it. And I'm trying not to vote just for people I knew beforehand. Thanks for new information.

  19. Some clarity here: Merton was only a handful of times in an Anglican Church outside when forced while he was in school. It is a stretch to talk of him as being an Anglican/Episcopalian so to leave it. From the time he entered the monastery to his death he was rarely out of the monastery. He went to Louisville KY for medical reasons. He went to a conference in MN once and to NY to meet with DT Suzuki when Suzuki was dying. His "travel all over the world" occurred at the end of his life (last 3 years) and that was very limited by his Abbot.

  20. Gimme an "M"; gimme a "E"; gimme an "R", gimme a "T"; gimme a"O"; gimme an "N"! Whatzat SPELL? (not sure--never was a really good speller--but I DO know that it is the Abbey of Gethsemani, with an "i" at the end!) A beautiful place with more than a thousand acres, a statuary garden in the woods, and wonderful mature trees planted by Merton when he was the Forester. Vote M-E-R-T-O-N!

  21. You folks on the East Coast certainly get up earlier to vote than those of us in the West! I could not help but vote for Thomas as his writtings have had a real impact on me. That being said, its hard not to vote for a guy with a name like Philander. I'm sure he took some grief as a young man.

  22. This was difficult - I like saints who aren't perfect. Merton lead a "disoulute" life before conversion and Philander "got into trouble". In the end, though, I have to vote for the Episcopalian pioneer.

  23. Although Philander Chase had much to do with the Episcopal church in Louisiana and would win my vote by that fact, how can he compete with Thomas Merton? If you want to lift up your heart, google Thomas Merton quotes.

    "My life is measured by my love of God, and that in turn is measured by my love for the least of His children: and that love is not an abstract benevolence: it must mean sharing their tribulation." --Run to the Mountain

    "If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat . . . Ask me what I am living for and what I think is keeping me from living fully that.”
    ― Thoughts in Solitude

    “MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
    I do not see the road ahead of me.
    I cannot know for certain where it will end.
    Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
    But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
    And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
    I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
    And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
    Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
    I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

    And also, "([Ezra] Pound and Esquire are on exactly the same level, both bad in the same offensive and frightening way)." -- Run to the Mountain

  24. Neither treated women as anything other than objects. And there is no sign that they ever changed or repented. No voting from me today

  25. I am okay with "broken" people becoming saints but not abuse of women. There was no "maybe" about Merton's child - he admits it in one of his writings.

  26. I'll admit it's tribal pride that has me vote for Chase over Merton. How can I overlook the man who maintains his diginity despite bequeathing his name to the dog of my former bishop, Bill Persell of Chicago? OK, so the whole world thinks Merton is holy, I'm voting for the underdog this time.

  27. Don't get me wrong.. I love Thomas Merton without bounds. His writings and his intellect have inspired and enriched my spiritual growth throughout my life. His pray that opens.. "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.." has informed my life's quest for living in harmony with the Divine's Will for the world and for me. 

    But if I know anything about Merton it is that he had no desire for "sainthood" and would never presume to interfere with anyone else's journey. He didn't aspire to be revered.

    Philander on the other hand did desire to be a pastor and to win souls for Christ. As I come from the very "frontier lands" that he evangelized I have always heard his stories and admired him. He desired so much for us who now occupy his beloved Protestant Episcopal Church that I simply must give him the vote. Br. Thomas will be too busy meditating to notice.

    1. Meredith, you beat me to that one. I have been struggling to decide whether to cast my vote for Philander or the (former) philanderer.

  28. I can't vote for anyone whose wife was so sick and move the whole family to another state where she died. She may have died anyway, but it doesn't appear as if he had much compassion. My vote goes to Merton.

    1. Since the main treatment for consumption until relatively recently was to get out of the city and into the fresh air I just don't see that Philander was so hard on his wife (and Ohio was frontier country but not the Wild West and had been a state --sort of but that's another story -- for 14 years by the time he moved there). Anyway I grew up in Cincinnati, and Philander is Our Guy so he gets my vote.

    2. Do we know what Mrs. Chase wanted? Perhaps she wanted to see another part of the country; perhaps the doctors said, "Go west. You might get better or just feel better." Such advice was frequently given. It seems shocking Chase would drag the missus away from family & friends, but maybe not. She may have been glad to go!