Thomas Merton vs. Aelred

The photograph vs. the icon points to the 800 years standing between these two giants of monasticism, Thomas Merton and Aelred of Rivaulx. And by "standing" we mean amid the blue grass of Kentucky for the one and among the moors of North Yorkshire, England for the other.

While we generally try to keep any Celebrity Blogger bias out of the contests, it should be noted that Laurie Brock hails from Kentucky and Robert Hendrickson is, well, an Anglophile. He also cleverly used a Merton quote in support of Aelred. So subplots abound!

In yesterday's Lent Madness action, Thomas Gallaudet trounced Louis of France 78% to 22%. King Louis was last seen muttering something about "eating cake." And, as we highlighted late in the day, Lent Madness also received some more media attention.

If you're still looking for some ways to use Lent Madness as a series for adults, the Rev. Anne Emry has some very helpful ideas on her blog Sacred Story. Since she serves as the Assistant Rector at St. John's in Hingham, Massachusetts (where Tim's the rector), she has an inside track on all the latest Lent Madness "gossip."

primary-mertonThomas Merton

Outside Bardstown, Kentucky, on acres of land, sits the Trappist Monastery that would likely be obscure except for one man. Thomas Merton entered the monastic life there in 1941, after a long, wandering, and sometimes turbulent life.

Born in France, Merton experienced frequent moves, the death of his mother, and the absence of his father. After his father died in 1930, Merton rejected the nominal Anglicanism into which he’d been baptized and became an agnostic. His later writings recall Merton being drawn to observe Mass, but he made no formal excursion into religion until 1937, when Étienne Gilson’s explanation of God in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy resonated with him, and he was introduced to mysticism in Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means. A year later, Merton joined the Roman Catholic church; two years later, he began the process to become a Franciscan monk. Later, Merton was told he was not a suitable fit for the Franciscans. After a retreat at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Merton found his spiritual home—and became known as Brother Louis.

Merton’s superior at Gethsemani encouraged Merton’s writing. He first published poetry. His spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was published in 1948 and immediately became a spiritual classic. A prolific writer, Merton became increasingly well-known outside the walls of the monastery, which created some tension within his monastic community.

Merton’s writings and correspondence with global figures show a man whose spirituality became connected to issues of social justice, nonviolence, racial equality, and a deep life of contemplation. As his fame grew, he moved into a hermitage on the grounds of Gethsemani, which is still available for monastic solitude. Merton died on December 10, 1968 by accidental electrocution in Thailand while on pilgrimage in the Far East.

One of Merton’s epiphanies is commemorated by a plaque at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in Louisville, Kentucky. Noted in his private journal and included in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton writes:

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness...The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”

Merton’s vision of the unity of all continues in his writings, treasured by people of many faiths, and even people of no professed faith, across the world, bound together by these mystical experiences of Brother Louis.

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.

-- Laurie Brock


lm aelredAelred

Aelred of Rievaulx was a learned monk of manifold gifts and spiritual depth. He was born in 1110 and was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of priests (born in Scotland, which had resisted papal insistence on celibacy for clerics). Aelred served the court of King David I of Scotland and developed a close bond with the king.

After about a decade working in the court, Aelred left for England and a monastery at Rievaulx. There are competing historical narratives about Aelred’s decision to join the Cistercians monks. In some narratives, the decision was literally overnight, and in other accounts, he spent long years yearning for a monastic life. In any case, his connections and friendships enabled him to become not only a gifted monk and abbot but also an influential advocate for the monasteries and the faith.

Lent Madness 2014 rival saint Thomas Merton wrote of the order, “The Cistercians of Saint Bernard’s generation had become one of the most important influences in the active life of the Church and even in European politics of their time. . . Anyone who had any talent or, worse still, any powerful connections, was likely to find himself in danger of leading an increasingly active life.” With Aelred’s gift for languages and knowledge of courtly diplomacy, he became integral to the order’s influence in both the Church and the Kingdom.

Aelred was not only skilled in the worldly affairs of his community. He was also a gifted writer and pastor. He wrote extensively and learnedly but also with directness and simplicity on matters historical, ascetical, and spiritual. He had an able mind and a pastoral heart. Aelred’s writings convey the depth of his friendships as well as his longing for closer and richer community. He wrote in Spiritual Friendship, “...the friend will rejoice with my soul rejoicing, grieve with it grieving, and feel that everything that belongs to a friend belongs to himself.”

Aelred was elected as abbot and his true legacy is in creating a community famed for its welcome of all. One historian wrote, “It is the singular and supreme glory of the house of Rievaulx that above all else it teaches tolerance of the infirm and compassion for others in their necessities.” Upon his death, Aelred was buried in a shrine, which became a renowned pilgrimage site. The shrine survived until the violence of the dissolution of the monasteries under Protestant rule.

The Collect for Aelred
Almighty God, you endowed the abbot Aelred with the gift of Christian friendship and the wisdom to lead others in the way of holiness: Grant to your people that same spirit of mutual affection, that, in loving one another, we may know the love of Christ and rejoice in the gift of your eternal goodness; through the same Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-- Robert Hendrickson


Thomas Merton vs. Aelred

  • Thomas Merton (60%, 3,332 Votes)
  • Aelred (40%, 2,193 Votes)

Total Voters: 5,524

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137 comments on “Thomas Merton vs. Aelred”

  1. The long-dreaded day has arrived. I cast my vote for Merton because he taught me how to pray, and I wish to see him make it beyond the first round. However, this is with deep respect to Aelred, and all the people he has influenced throughout history. A thoroughly personal choice.

    1. I was prepared to vote for Merton without hesitation. Then I read about Aelred and changed my mind.

    1. Aelred, in honor of my friend's child Aelred, who was called to Heaven before his earthly life began.

      1. Good for you! Children called to Heaven before they live on Earth need to have their names remembered! I will vote for him, too in honor of this child.

  2. Was ready to vote for Thomas Merton until I read the material about Aelred “It is the singular and supreme glory of the house of Rievaulx that above all else it teaches tolerance of the infirm and compassion for others in their necessities.” May that be said of all houses.
    Being sure that Brother Louis will win I voted for Aelred. Tough choice.

  3. Ouch. How does one choose between these two such amazingly spiritual men? ! In the end, I vote for Aelred.

  4. And I honor Sister Mary Winifred and also vote for Aelred for many spiritual friends.

  5. Admirable and influential as Brother Louis was, I doubt he will be singing anything like St. Louis' blues today. Aelred's gentle friendship is so appealing this morning, and I'm sure he'll need a friend, so even if I can't rejoice with his soul, I'm rejoicing about it. One click for the icon.

  6. On an entirely unrelated subject, I would be remiss in my nagging if I didn't point out that on this date in 1928, the Rev. Fred Rogers was born. Happy birthday, Mr. Rogers, this world is a poorer place without you. I will wear a sweater in your memory.

    1. Amen! "You don't have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say, "It's you I like," I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch...that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive:
      love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.
      So in all that you do in your life, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are." Fred Rogers

    2. And Mr. Rogers embodied the soul of Aelred in his valuing of friendship. Go, Aelred.

    3. Thank you for remembering Fred Rogers. And I vote for Aelred. When I read his work on friendship as a graduate student in English, I was awakened by its beauty and spirituality. In an age known for religion, Aelred stood out as a fresh breath despite the hundreds of years betweeen when it was written and when I read it. Pretty amazing. Go Aelred!

    4. Thanks for mentioning Mr Rogers birthday! I believe that the special kindness he spread is still growing and rippling outward.

  7. This was such a difficult decision, as an Anglophile and one who loves the dark hills of Kentucky where my family is. Both men had amazing spiritual lives and did great things. In the end I had to go with Aelred as the love for the ancient ways and wish that his shrine still existed so I might simply see it.

  8. Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of Thomas Merton's first vows. That's enough for me to vote Merton.

  9. He's behind in the vote already (I oftentimes go with the underdog), and I think I'm using this as a protest against celibacy for priests, so Aelred for me, today.

  10. Some years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Rievaulx and found the ruins of the monastery even after eight centuries to still have the fragrance of holiness. It was, in many ways, a more holy place than any of the cathedrals or other abbeys I visited. I have no logical explanation for this impression, but it was as real as any experience I have ever had. Obviously I voted for Aelred

    1. Thanks, Ed; you nailed it for me. I had a similar privileged experience in Rievaulx' beautiful valley, and have loved Aelred (however illogically) for it ever since. Only Durham cathedral (on this, Cuthbert's feast day) has appeal as strong for me, and it's of an entirely different flavor, being as earthy in its holiness as Rievaulx is ethereal.

      It occurs to me, as one who often rises late and gets to this site much later in the day, that perhaps the mystics among us seem to rise and express themselves early! I haven't checked the vote yet, but Aelred gets mine today. Sorry, Brother Louis; you're great, too.

  11. Much as I love Aelred, Merton, it is for me. The Seven Storey Mountain and Merton's writing on monasticism, prayer and silence were significant milestones in my spiritual journey, and I am thankful for all of that.

  12. Merton's "Contemplative Prayer" transformed my prayer life. It's probably the only book I've ever read that felt as if it was written just to me.

  13. Hardest choice yet. Merton is my Spiritual Friend, but went with Aelred, deciding without him there might not have been a Brother Louis.

  14. I am frequently disappointed in the results of these matchups. It seems to me that voters way too often privilege the newer members of the Church Triumphant, finding their causes, concerns and emphases more to their own contemporary taste.

    But with that said, it has to be Merton for me today. Book after book after poem after letter....all delightful. The Ascent to Truth played a huge role, but all the rest have as well - not that I have read them all, of course!

    1. The results are not quite as silly as they look. They just show that, when they can, most people vote for other people like themselves out of the 'healthy everyday narcissism' that enables movers and shakers to get on with their own lives. That has no spiritual content, but there are worse things than a little moral uplift.

      But have you ever laughed at the same joke 40 times? What really is sad are the pairings-- over and over again-- in which people are choosing between a saint treated as exotic and someone earnest treated as consequential.

  15. Aelred not only taught me to pray, but to understand friendship as a way experiencing the Presence of God. Something truly revolutionary for a shy introvert!

  16. Had to vote for Thomas because entering the monastic life as the son, grandson, and great-grandson of priests must have been an easier decision for Aelred than entering the monastic life of Thomas in Kentucky at the Trappist Monastery in 1941.

  17. I had the good fortune to make a side-trip visit to Gethsemani some years ago. While on a day outing, our group had some unexpected free time thus enabling us to visit there and go to the gift shop and learn a little about Merton. I simply feel more of a kinship with one who struggled mightily with his vocational choice and acceptance of a final decision about his calling, all to the Glory of God.

  18. Thomas Merton for me today. So long a companion on my journey that though moved by Aelred's heart I must vote for the one who has made a difference in my life and my journey.

  19. Thomas Merton recognized his love for all people in the midst of what now is a shopping area. That is strong vision and compassion. I'm challenged to like anybody in a shopping mall. I like Aelred, but gotta go with Br. Louis.

  20. It would be nice if the saints were listed in alphabetical order in each match up. Just a thought....

  21. Nothing against Aelred, but Merton's Seven Story Mountain was a huge influence in my spiritual formation, and I continue to go back to his writing 30+ years later. He is a contemplative for the ages, with his commitment to interfaith dialog and social justice. I'm hoping for Merton to go all the way this year! Golden halo, baby!

  22. One votes for Merton noting the inequity in pity an ancient -- whose biography is shrouded by history and myth -- with a modern -- whose every twist and turn of life is available in a plethora of print. Still, who had the harder task standing up to the cultural mores of his age?

  23. Merton's impact on the revival of the contemplative tradition, as well as how his writings have touched me personally, win my vote.

  24. Aelred for me. Thomas Merton seems to have influenced a lot of people with his writings, but from what little I read he seems more like a deist than a Christian.