Thomas Merton and Jan van Heijenoort
A tale of two idealists and their disillusionment
Thomas Merton and Jean van Heijenoort were both studies in youthful idealism. Both made drastic life decisions early on, and both sacrificed much for their respective ideals. Van joined Leon Trotsky to save the world rather than attend the prestigious Ecole Normale in pursuit of a bourgeois career. While Van was motivated by a desire to save the world, Tom was driven by contemptus mundi to flee the world and retreat to a monastery, which is what he did in 1941 at the age of 26 when he joined the Trappists. A convert to Catholicism, with the zeal of the convert, he took to the limit what the old-time doctrine implied: if the temporal order is but a vanishing quantity, then one should live with eternity ever before one's mind.
Both became disillusioned, but in different ways. Van lost his secular faith, broke with Marxism, and went back to the serene but lifeless precincts of mathematics to become a distinguished bourgeois professor of the subject. Tom remained a monk but dropped the contemptus mundi. Van abandoned activism for mathematical logic and romantic affairs. Tom dropped his quietism — not entirely, however — and became active in human affairs, the peace movement in particular, during that heady period of ferment inside and outside of the Church, the 1960s.
Both met their ends in foreign venues by unusual means. Unable to stay put like a good monk in Gethsemani, Tom flew to Bangkok for a theological conference where he died of electrocution in December of 1968 at the relatively young age of 53. Van's addiction to sexual love and 'romance' led to his destruction, and in the same Mexico City where the long arm of Stalin, extended by Ramon Mercader's ice axe, finally slew his erstwhile mentor, Trotsky. Van couldn't stay away from Anne-Marie Zamora even though he believed she would kill him. Drawn like a moth to the flame, he flew from Boston to Mexico City. And kill him she did. While he was asleep, Zamora pumped a couple of rounds from her .38 Special into his head. Trotsky was done in by the madness of politics; Van by the madness of love.
What is the moral of this comparison?
Superior individuals feel the lure of the Higher. They seek something more from human existence than a jejune bourgeois life in pursuit of property, pelf, and social status. They seek transcendence, and sometimes, like Marxist activists, in the wrong places. No secular eschaton is "right around the corner" to borrow from the then-prevalent lingo of the 1950s Communist Party USA. Man cannot save himself by social praxis. The question as to how we should live remains live. Tom chose a better and nobler path than Van. But can any church be the final repository of all truth? And if Christianity is the truth, it is worth pondering that Christ, the exemplar, was no anchorite.