James Finley left home at the age of 18 for the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, where Thomas Merton lived as a contemplative. He later earned degrees from the University of Akron, Saint John College, and the Fuller Theological Seminary. Today James Finley is a writer, psychotherapist, and retreat leader.
Recently, Finley led a retreat at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin. Mike Sweitzer-Beckman took a few minutes to interview Jim about his two years sitting in Merton’s novice classes.
When did you first meet Thomas Merton?
In my home growing up, I was exposed to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. My mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and she taught me how to pray to deal with my alcoholic father. In 9th grade, I attended a Catholic high school in Akron, Ohio, and one of the Holy Cross brothers talked about monasteries. He mentioned Thomas Merton. That day I went to the school library, and they had The Sign of Jonas. When I opened the book, I saw his entry on December 13, 1946, “For myself, I have one desire, and that is the desire for solitude … to be lost in His teeth.” At 14, I was very struck by that. I was very strongly drawn to go to the monastery. My master plan was to sit at Merton’s feet and be brought to God. I started writing to the monastery and when I graduated from high school, I left my high school and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1961. Merton was the senior monk and assigned to the role as novice director. I had about two and a half years of regular contact with him. I was introduced to the mystical heritage of Christianity. When I left the monastery, I continued reading Merton.
What was Merton like on a day-to-day level? What did he like to eat?
We were all vegetarians. Our life in the monastery was very regimented. Merton had colitis so he ate in a separate refectory so he could have meat to get more protein. The quality that stood out to me was that he was very bright in person, a very gifted person. He was very committed to the search for communion with God, and he was devoted to this. They built a hermitage on the grounds for him. At this time, he was very involved between social justice, writing books about how contemplative practices should lead us to awareness about the Vietnam War and atomic bombs. He was in dialogue with Abraham Heschel, Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hahn, etc. He was very in touch with how dialogue and nonviolence interacted. He was very down-to-earth, didn’t like bullshit, didn’t want to play games. He had a temper, kind of a wound-up guy with his energy. I got the impression that he was very grounded, and very accepting of his own energy patterns with the impulse to write. He was really a father figure to me, and was very healing for me.
What’s one takeaway you have for our Benedictine Bridge readers from studying with Thomas Merton?
What we’re really trying to come to is this experiential discovery for the infinite love of God, to completely permeate our brokenness. We’re already precious in our brokenness and frailty. We have to accept our brokenness, and in a paradoxical way we can come to peace with ourselves as we are. What we are usually doing is going around with a secret list about ourselves—once I do this then God and I will be close. To realize that with God there are no lists, you don’t need to do that to get to God.–by Mike Sweitzer-Beckman
Jim Finley’s books include Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, The Contemplative Heart, and Christian Meditation.