The cloistered Merton burst into public view in 1948 with the publication of his memoir “The Seven Storey Mountain,” which detailed his journey from a young rogue who wallowed in “beer, bewilderment, and sorrow,” according to a friend, to a penitent novitiate in the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, the formal name of the Trappist order.
Merton went on to write a steady stream of spiritual books, essays and poems, and became one of the best known and well-loved Catholic writers of the 20th century. He died at age 53 in 1968 in a freak electrocution accident in Thailand.
Scholars and even casual Mertonites have long known of his affair with [Margie] Smith, especially since his seven-volume personal journals, in which he pins down passing emotions like a butterfly collector, were published in the 1990s. But some disagree about whether the affair was a regrettable interlude, or an emotional breakthrough for a man who had long struggled with his feelings toward women.
A new Merton biography, “Beneath the Mask of Holiness,” falls firmly in the latter camp. Author Mark Shaw paints a portrait of the monk as a tormented, “imposter of sorts,” who reluctantly played the part of the happy, contemplative guru. In reality, Shaw argues, Merton was haunted by his youthful indiscretions with women””including reportedly, the fathering of a child out of wedlock””and the chasm between his private past and public persona.