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. Another tough decision. It came down to voting for Aelred because of the Cistercian Order's influence no the lives of Merton as well as Aelred in particular and history in general. Thanks be to God for both men.

  2. Here again a very difficult choice. Thomas Merton gets my vote because the issues he wrote about are still with us and his thoughts validate my thoughts. We are all brothers.

  3. "The shrine survived until the violence of the dissolution of the monasteries under Protestant rule."
    Although I voted for Merton, it struck me that this quote ends the section on Aelred. Both these men's lives stand for the all inclusive love, acceptance and mercy of God. What a mess we mortals make of things sometimes in the name of a God who weeps for such destruction in the name of faith.

  4. As I read the stories of both men, I had the strongest feeling that, despite the 800 years separating their lives, they are spiritual friends.

  5. I had to laugh when I saw how Tim managed to work his name into the bracket today. This is how the link appeared on my facebook page. AelredTim Schenckon
    I suppose that could have been Aelred's full name.

  6. One of the toughest choices we've faced! At this level of spiritual leadership, comparisons are odious. Voting even more so. The tally should be closer than it is.

  7. Aelred of Rievaulx is one of my guides in prayer, strength, and reflection. It's very fitting that I can vote for him today -- St Cuthbert's Day -- as St Cuthbert is another of the great Northern Saints who mean so much to me.

  8. I was looking forward to today because it's Merton day. Reading Seven Storey Mountain, then getting into his other works, has been a transformative experience for me. However, I was a bit disappointed to read nothing about how he ended up back in the U.S. (scandal!), how reading, studying, and analyzing William Blake, Gerald Manley Hopkins and other Catholic poets during his bachelor's and master's studies in English at Columbia U drew him to the idea of religious life (and his later prolific writing even though he was a member of a silent order), how his shady past affected his qualifications for being a Franciscan (and how that disappointment changed his life), or how he was deeply involved with peace and environmental movements, not only here but abroad, and why he was in Thailand on a pilgrimage in the first place when he died.

    There have been a few days where my curiosity (read: ridiculous near-obsession with information) outweighs the bio here, so I go and do a bit more research. In fact, I may do that with Aelred today! I encourage anyone who's intrigued by Merton to do a bit of extra reading. His words and his life hit home for me--even though I don't struggle in the same way he did, I still struggle and sin. Grace is a resounding truth that chases after us even when we're not ready to accept it.

    Peace to all!

    1. I find that I almost always seek more info before I make my choice - additional facts, or just the way another source presents the facts has changed my initial vote more than once. -- But I have the gift of time this year.

    2. L- it can be a long way through the bracket, especially for a top seed like Merton. The CBs need to hold back in the early rounds to leave something to write about later.

    3. For all the saints, there is far more to write about than our word limit allows. Our hope is that for all the saints, we hit the high points and offer the readers an opportunity to explore more. Perhaps we can add a page to the website that offers "for further reading." And, yes, we do hold back because we *might* have to write more entries as saints advance.

      1. A website with further references would be a great addition to Lent Madness 2015.

        1. I get the idea Thomas Merton would be a vote against celibacy in priests/clergy as well.

      2. To your last point: the exotic (ancient) vs the earnest consequential (modern). I've noticed that, too. For me, it's been a real blessing of this exercise/game to try to resonate -- for lack of a better word -- with the very different Christianities of long-ago centuries.

      3. Love this commenter! Merton for me because his "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."

      4. Thanks for the replies! I didn't mean to sound combative. This is my first year (but not my last!) to do Lent Madness, and I didn't even think about how future rounds were handled. The further reading links sound great--I'll make a note of some I find useful just in case there's an open call for ideas later.

        Have a blessed weekend!

  9. Six days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Thomas Merton was accepted as a postulant. Other young people of his generation summarily abandoned their personal plans in favor of serving their countries in a time of war. Having spent a good part of his youth in Europe it is hard to imagine Thomas not jumping on the bandwagon. There are countless tales of those in religious life saving lives, hiding the vulnerable, ministering to the dying on the battlefield, many martyred along the way. I find this troubling enough to seal my vote in favor of Aelred.

    1. I share Madamesenora's misgivings concerning Thomas Merton's choice during WWII. My father served in Passau, Germany at a Displaced Persons Camp a month after Mathausen Gusen was liberated by the American Army. Multitudes of gentle and thoughtful young men dutifully responded to a world in agony. My bias diminishes my affection for Thomas Merton, swaying my vote to Aelred of Rievaulx.

    2. Merton was a pacifist; there was no reason for him to enlist, even as a medical corpsman, since according to his understanding, any belonging to the military machinery was an assent to war-making. This may not be your understanding, but it was authentically his. In WWI, US citizens (Hutterites, especially) had been tortured and killed by US Army MPs when they refused to serve as conscientious objectors (CO). The outcry in response to those legal murders, CO designation became legal. Their heroic deaths made it possible for others who flat out see war itself as an abomination to be COs. Since Merton was already a CO and already following a path (to be a monk) that canonically does not allow the shedding of blood, for him to enlist would have been, at the least, hypocrisy. He responded to the "world in agony" with integrity. Do read his writings on pacifism, non-violence, and the history of the church as normatively and authentically pacifist, and how the church has fallen far from that understanding of Jesus' own teachings. BTW, I voted for Aelred for other reasons.

    3. Merton's maintaining his focus on prayer in the midst of the horror of WII would have caused me to vote for him had I not already voted for him.

  10. Agree with the point concerning how poorly those in the early church fare in these votes against more modern Christians. If we judge the social views of those in another time against our own, rather than the prevailing views of their times, I doubt that many will do well. For example, Paul . . .

  11. I have bumper sticker that says "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You". Our Sunday bulletin invites all to come to the table and share. Both of these saints accomplished some great things, but for me Thomas Merton wins out. He had faith, gave it up, got it back and that is it for me!!! Thank you SEC for continuing to make us think and read and pray on our choices.

  12. Tough choice today. I've read more Merton than Aelred. But I suppose it's Aelred's understanding of spiritual friendship that sways me the most. Plus, this Anglophile simply cannot go against an English brother!

    1. Dear Ann:

      Breathtaking behavior by Merton in the abandonment others in the service of self: Sadly, very modern, indeed.

  13. Re television coverage: What do you mean, Tim, "Who cares who wins?" If Bach doesn't get the Golden Halo, I may have to go live on a deserted island in a a beehive hut. With a good sound system.

    1. P.S. It's interesting to note that if the Scottish hadn't resisted priestly celibacy, there would have been no St. Aelred.

      1. A couple of years ago I was privileged to visit the Scottish Presbyterian Cathedral of St. Giles in Edinbrough---what a crossover of categories! They wouldn't be kosher, but glad for the stubbornness of the Presbies!

  14. Merton is one of my desert island authors. He has been the calm, modulated voice in my head when everything gets too crazy. I found his essays when I was going through one of the most awful times in my life and still return to my tattered copy of "Thoughts in Solitude", even though it's a pocket book held together with a rubber band and splattered by life with children.

  15. This is a most difficult decison between two outstanding men of God but in the end I voted for Thomas Merton

  16. How totally cruel to set Cistercian Aelred against Thomas Mwrton, a Cistercian of the Strict a Observance! Merton's books has a profound impact on the shaping of my spirituality. But my theological formation, as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, came from Cistercian monks at the University of Dallas. So Aelred it is!

  17. One of my "rules" for myself: Make your choice on the saints themselves -- not the way the vote is trending. Today I broke it. I decided to look at the tally and vote for the underdog. There was no other way to choose between these two great contemplatives.

  18. Well, today's the day I go down to defeat, I guess. I knew Thomas Merton would be a "no-brainer" as the saying goes. But, I had done research on my own on all the saints in order to prepare my bracket, and was so moved by Aelred's emphasis on friendship that I put him through all the way to the Golden Halo. I knew I was to be doomed at some point along the way, but to get shot down at his first appearance - - - ah, well. It's just that the concept of friendship implies the concept of hospitality and that was a big part of Jesus's teaching. I guess there will be no halo and no mug for Aelred. May his teachings resound in our hearts.

  19. Seems like I am often in the minority and today is not different. Aelred resounded with me because of his ability to think clearly about Christ's message by welcoming all in need. I appreciated that because so many turn people away for not being "the right kind of person."

  20. Loved the's into the 3rd week of Lent! Is there any way the study could be published AHEAD of Lent Madness 2015? I might be able to sell the idea of using it to our rector if it's available earlier than the 3rd week. Just asking.

  21. My vote goes to Aelred and Mr. Rogers. They both taught the same values. Thank you to commenters who added this dimension to the conversation.

  22. Merton touched the lives of so many people, including my own. In the spirit of fraternity and humility he argues compellingly that I cast my vote for his Cistercian forefather. Aelred wins my vote, in spite of (and because of) my admiration for the Trappist Titan of the twentieth century. I write this as one who has been a follower of Thomas Merton for forty-some years, fully aware that Frater Maria Ludovicus would want it to be so!