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. An easy choice; better, a rational one-- same sex, same vocation, same countercultural orientation. Merton is a generational figure, the patron saint of baby boomer 'contemplatives,' but as he is known precisely for his contemplative qualities, experienced Aelred might slyly have voted for Merton to make those better known. I myself vote for Aelred's two rare gifts-- intensive spiritual direction, and cultivation of spiritual community. Aelred.

  2. Both of these men stand for all that is good for all people, but alas, my heart still remains with Merton and the impact that he continues to have today with both believers and non believer. Whatever the outcome, there will be no losers today.

  3. "Here we are, we two, and I trust, a Third..." --may not be verbatim, but it's how I remember the beginning of Spiritual Friendship-- is like a great yet gentle stepping-stone into the spiritual life. What a gift Aelred gave us!

  4. I have to vote for Merton who lived a few miles down the road from my hometown of Springfield, KY. The location of hIs Epiphany is also dear to my heart. I must have been at 4th and Walnut hundreds of times. My mom shopped at lot at Stewart's (a department store there) and we kids were dragged along. My uncle had a tailor shop just down Walnut St. And I passed there every morning while I was going to Med school at U of L. I had my own epiphany of the value of working in public health not far from there.

  5. As an active member and Secretary of Integrity/Charlottesville, I am thrilled to vote for St. Aelred today. Merton is a great figure, but Aelred and his life and message of welcome resonate with me on a personal level.

    When my husband and I graduated from college and tried to integrate into the "adult" church, the group that offered us the most extravagant, open-armed, and enduring welcome was the Gay Straight Concerns Group, out of which grew our Integrity chapter. They demonstrated Christian love and care, and treated me with the dignity and respect that we the church have denied many of them. If their commitment to the Christian friendship modeled by our patron saint, Aelred, does not reflect the extravagant love of Christ, then I don't know what does!

  6. A thouroughly frustrating bracket - a most difficult choice.. Aelred is one of my patrons and Merton a mentor.. to whom shall I give a single vote....

  7. Today was much more difficult than yesterday. I agree, Aelred and Thomas Merton May be separated by centuries, but they are soul brothers. I had to go with Merton for his influence in bringing contemplation back into the modern Western faith journey.

  8. "Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience."
    Thomas Merton

  9. One of my many spiritual directors, a Wesley Foundation director at VA Tech in my college days at Madison College (now James Madison University), recommended that I read Merton's "Seeds of Contemplation". Merton has been a valued tutor ever since, so he gets my vote today.

  10. The most difficult decision today as I love the works of Thomas Merton, but I ended up voting for Aelred. I was struck by how he influenced the Church in significant ways for many generations.

  11. It's Merton for me today! So influential in so many realms - spirituality, peace movement, justice issues. So honest about his own struggles.

    1. I didn't know that, but the fact that Merton left the Anglican Church helped tip the scales to Aelred.

  12. Some more thoughts from Aelred's "Spiritual Friendship":

    “My friend must be the guardian of our mutual love, or even of my very soul, so that he will preserve in faithful silence all its secrets, and whatever he sees in it that is flawed he will correct or endure with all his strength. When I rejoice, he will rejoice; when I grieve, he will grieve with me.”

    “‘He who abides in’ friendship ‘abides in God, and God in him.’”

    “Friendship is a path that leads very close to the perfection which consists of the enjoyment and knowledge of God.”

    “For a friend is the sharer of your soul, to your friend’s spirit you join and attach your own, and you so mingle the two that you would like for your two spirits to become one."

    “Without friends there is absolutely no pleasure in life.”

    “A faithful friend is the medicine of life, and the grace of immortality.”

  13. My dad was from Yorkshire; we lived there in 1972 for 6 months and my mom took us on a tour of as many cathedrals and abbeys as possible, including Rievaulx. I have to go with Aelred. His message of inclusion still rings true.

  14. Aelred--for the beauty and ministry of Rievaulx, for his unofficial patronage of the gay community, and for his official patronage of those of us with kidney stones and arthritis!

  15. I went into this one with a pretty open mind, considering that I knew something about Merton and nothing about Aelred. So my vote goes to Merton purely on the quality of the writeup. There was a lot of 'Aelred was known for this or that' but without the specific examples seen for other 2014 contestants from this general time period. If those had been included, I might have been more inclined to vote for Aelred.

  16. Have to go with Aelred. Having lived in North Yorkshire and visited what remains of Rivaulx Abbey this is a vote for the "home team" and for the often unappreciated influence of the North England abbeys and their abbots. I suspect that he is going to have a rough go of it due to his being largely unknown on this side of the pond. Pity, that.

  17. Anam Cara vs 7 Pillars. I'm going with Aelred. Gotta love those Northern Saints...

  18. I'm sure that Merton has had much more of a direct influence on the lives of most of the Lent Madness voters. I had to vote, however, for the PK who survived that life and went on to his own successful ministry. "Aelred was not only skilled in the worldly affairs of his community. He was also a gifted writer and pastor." Sounds like some of my favorite clergy who were challenged and, at the same time, nurtured by being brought up in a rectory.

  19. Hard decision but have to go with Aelred. Merton was zipped out of trouble with the young lady and baby he sired with no responsibility and seemed to be gravitating towards Buddhism at the time of his death. Aelred seems the more saintly of the two.

    Alred seems like the more saintly to me. Was Merton Christian or Buhdist

    1. I brought up basically the same point. What little I have read of his work makes me think he was more of a deist than a Christian.

  20. As many have said, what a choice! As a PK and a believer that we all must be friends if we are to survive I chose the greater of the two greats. Can you guess which one?

  21. As a Catholic who has read and enjoyed much of Merton some years ago I feel a need to vote for him and also because he has had, I believe a great influence upon Christians in all walks of life in recent times. I had never heard of Aelred but was most impressed by his story and will have to learn more in the future.

  22. Already voted for Aelred because he seemed to be the more caring in a pastoral sense.
    Didn't know about Merton's child...hmmm....not so saintly of him to assume no responsibility.

  23. I find myself drawn to the Cistercian Aelred because of a profound morning spent at Tintern Abbey, which was the Cistercian abbey in Wales. I had thought I would vote for Thomas. Curiously, now that doesn't feel apt.

  24. 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.”
    As much as I enjoy Merton….