The 20th century has concluded. Thomas Merton remains the single most influential American Catholic spiritual author of that century. Judging from the number of current publications by and about Merton, his spiritual vision remains as captivating today as when he broke upon the scene in 1948 with his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton died in 1968. But authors’ editorial perspectives on Merton vary greatly. The following books represent two contrary interpretations of Merton’s life and writings: Merton the conscientious monk and spiritual master versus Merton the restless monk and disenchanted church maverick.
Merton has remained since graduate school my primary guide to the Christian spiritual traditionperhaps a strange confession from a Jesuit. My familiarity with Merton’s life and work convinces me that Lawrence S. Cunningham’s perspective in Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision (William B. Eerdmans, 233p, $16, paper) best reflects the facts: "My intention is to begin my study of Merton where his major autobiography ends off, i.e., with his entrance into, and full embrace of, the monastic life. My story begins there because of a deep personal conviction...that if one does not understand Merton as a monk, one does not understand Merton at all."
The excellent final chapter of the book, "Summing Up a Life," gives an expanded interpretation of Cunningham’s perspective. Merton is a monk who is also a theologian, but a theologian in the classic patristic and Evagrian sense, one who knows God personally and writes theology from his own contemplative experiencehaving the capacity "to mediate experience through use of language." His best writing embodies three key characteristics of a monastic perspective: a certain distance and detachment from ordinary secular concerns, a preoccupation with radical inner depth of religious belief and a special concern for inner transformation of consciousness beyond the empirical self and ethical and pious observance.
The book is an intellectual biography of Merton. Cunningham, a theology professor at Notre Dame and author of Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, walks us through the differing stages of Merton’s life at Gethsemanithe 40’s, 50’s and 60’spointing out his central preoccupations and his dialogue partners in each stage of his spiritual journey, including extended summaries of Merton’s books in each stage. The focus is on Merton’s evolving inner journeyhis discovery of God as he works through his experience of Trappist monastic life and 20th-century secular and ecclesiastical culture.
Within this perspective Cunningham sensitively interprets the more sensationalistand to some scandalousaspects of Merton’s life: his desire to leave Gethsemani and join the Carthusians, his often testy relationship with his abbot, his restive relationship with Trappist censors who refused publication of his anti-war protests and his romantic affair with a young student nurse at the age of 51.
William H. Shannon situates Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey: Writings on Contemplation (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 292p, $14.95, paper) within the same monastic perspective: "Thomas Merton lived as a monk, wrote as a monk, died as a monk. He saw the world through the eyes of a monk. Being a monk was, I firmly believe, at the heart of his life, his work, his spirituality." And like Cunningham, Shannon also walks us through Merton’s life and writing; however, Shannon focuses on a single theme, contemplation"the explicit theme, or at least the implied background, of most everything Merton wrote."
Monsignor Shannon, a retired chancellor of the Diocese of Rochester and founding president of the International Thomas Merton Society, is the most prolific Merton commentator today, having published some six books on Merton and edited several volumes of Merton’s letters and journals. Paradise Journey is a revision of Shannon’s first book on Merton, Thomas Merton’s Dark Path: The Inner Experience of a Contemplative (1981). Shannon explains that this book is an "extensive revision" and a "completely new edition" of his first attempt to trace the development of Merton’s thought on contemplation. The book retains all the original chapters of the 1981 edition with but minor revisions; its "newness" is concentrated in four new chapters of approximately 80 pages.
The original edition, Shannon candidly acknowledges, is inadequate because it fails to show how Merton’s ever evolving approach to contemplation ultimately leads to his critique of contemporary culture and call to social action: "I am quite willing, then, to confess that in the first edition...I failed to lead the reader to a full understanding of all that contemplation involves. I am not willing, however, to assume all the blame for this failure. I want to place at least some of it on Merton, for it was only gradually that he came to realize that contemplation of necessity summons one to action and social engagement."
For Shannon, Merton’s famous experience at Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville on March 18, 1958, is the decisive moment in his evolving understanding of contemplation. This profound contemplative moment stimulated Merton to think of contemplation not only as the preserve of monks in a cloister but as the birthright of all baptized Christians fully encountering their world: "Contemplation transforms our consciousness and forces us to see reality in a new and totally different light. It gives a sense of oneness not only with God but with the whole of reality that exists only because it is grounded in God." In discovering God in contemplation we discover the ground of all being, and consequently we discover our oneness in God with the created universe and with all our brothers and sisters. This turning point in Merton’s understanding of contemplation has the double effect of moving him to begin addressing the specific social problems of our society and of exploring links with Eastern mysticism, especially Zen. These concerns dominate the final decade of Merton’s life.
As one who teaches about Mertonand as a disciple of hisI can conscientiously recommend the books of Cunningham and Shannon to my students as an accurate guide to Merton’s thought and writings. They will help them, as they helped me, to grasp better the centrality of the contemplative vision for Christians and to apply this vision to a fuller understanding our lives and culture.
The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (HarperSanFrancisco, 363p, $28) [available from the Catholic Book Club] provides a fine service for Merton lovers. Throughout his adult life Merton kept a daily journal, seven volumes of which have recently been published. I suspect many like myself have purchased these journals and placed them on their Merton shelves unread. The Intimate Merton presents selections from each of the seven volumes. The editors, Brother Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, divide their volume into seven chapters, with each chapter containing excerpts from one of the previously published volumes: "The basis for our selecting a given journal entry over another was to produce a powerfully written, chronological presentation of his journals’ major themes." The themes listed: Merton’s hopes for more than a writer’s identity by becoming a monk; his search for a monk’s identity by writing; his appropriation of Holy Wisdom as a metaphor for God; his failed search for the "perfect place"; his strong sensitivities to the simple and the natural. Trappist Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s personal secretary and representative of Gethsemani on Merton affairs, is general editor of all seven Merton journals and personal editor of two volumes. Jonathan Montaldo, a Merton scholar, lecturer and director of the Thomas Merton Study Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Ky., edited one volume.
The book delivers what it promises: intimate glances into Merton’s uncensored attitudes. On Gethsemani: "With this and a thousand other things I cannot help think that life here has become to a great extent meaningless. Not that I am such a terrible asceticcertainly I am not. But I wonder more and more to what extent a genuine and deep spiritual life is going to be at all possible in such a community." On his spiritual progress: "Today is the twenty-second anniversary of my reception of the habit. In all sobriety and honesty I must admit that the twenty-two years have not been well spent, at least as far as my part in them has been concerned, although from God there has been nothing but grace and mercy. Rather, twenty-two years of relative confusion, often coming close to doubt and infidelity, agonized aspirations for something better,’ criticism of what I have, inexplicable inner suffering that is largely my own fault, insufficient efforts to overcome myself, inability to find my way, perhaps culpably straying off into things that do not concern me." On his affair with the student nurse, M.: "M. and I sat on the moss by the little creek in one of my favorite places and talked and loved and opened our hearts to each other. It was the longest, greatest time we had had together, not as ecstatic as the evening at the airport, but sweet and deep. There are in us both deep capacities for love, especially in her. I have never seen so much simple spontaneous, total love. I realize that the deepest capacities for human love in me have never even been tapped, that I too can love with an awful completeness."
The Intimate Merton, like the previously published seven journal volumes, offers a candid glance into Merton the person, a glance not available in the previously publishedand censoredMerton corpus. As a Merton scholar seeking deeper understanding of Merton’s complex life and personality, but with limited time, I am grateful for the service their volume provides. While Hart and Montaldo choose passages for their volume that do reveal a candid portrait of a Merton’s inner life and struggles, they ultimately situate Merton within the same perspective as Cunningham and Shannon, as a conscientious monk and spiritual master.
Heretic Blood: The Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton by Michael W. Higgins (Stoddart, 306p, $29.95) offers a contrasting perspective for interpreting Merton’s life and writings: Merton as restless monk and disenchanted church maverickeven heretic! Higgins, dean and vice-president of St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo in Canada, sees Merton as the William Blake of our time, engaged in the same kind of spiritual and intellectual tasks: "the critiquing of a dehumanizing culture; the subverting of conventional modes of perception; the radical re-visioning of human destiny; the liberating of our senses from the shackles of constrictive reason...."
Blake, Higgins explains, divides human nature into four components: reason, wisdom, emotion and instinct. As a result of the Fall the components no longer operate harmoniously as intended. Reason, absolutized by the Enlightenment, now dominates human consciousness eroding the roles of wisdom, emotion and instinct. Prophets like Blakeand Mertonrebel against the dominance of reason and work toward a reintegration of the person.
Following the opening chapter on Merton’s life, the subsequent chapters discuss Merton under each of Blake’s four components, subtitled: The Rebel, The Marginal Critic, The Lover, The Wise One. Higgins presents an image of Merton as a monk shackled by his monastic profession and in continual rebellion. Fully half of Heretic Blood presents Merton as rebel and marginal critic alienated from his religious order, church and society. Chapter Four, The Lover, centering on Merton’s affair with M., adds to the general impression of Merton as a restless and unsettled monk. Only the final chapter, The Wise One, deals with Merton as an integrated contemplative and spiritual master; it is the only chapter in the book dealing directly with Merton’s relationship with God. It should be noted that Higgins chooses Merton’s poetry as the primary illustration for his theses; the book will be less attractive to the reader who finds Merton’s poetic style difficult.
Heretic Blood is absorbing and entertaining reading, giving valuable insights into Merton the person. And Higgins does occasionally attempt a balanced picture, as in this interpretation of Merton’s relationship to his abbot: "Dom James was the necessary polarity, the defining opposite, who both contained and directed Merton’s rebellion. Merton needed Dom James and this need accounts for the painful ambivalence he felt towards his abbot." And he selects quotations that prompt new insights into Merton’s humanness, as in this journal excerpt Merton recorded at the height of his affair with M.: "Concelebration early. I stood there among all the others, soberly aware of myself as a priest who has a woman. True, we have done nothing drastically wrongthough in the eyes of many our lovemaking is still wrong even though it stops short of complete sex. Before God I think we have been conscientious and have kept our love good. Yet is it reasonable for me to be writing her love poemseven a song?"
I enjoyed reading Heretic Blood, but I couldn’t help feeling that Higgins presented a distorted portrait. Merton, a contemporary prophet, did indeed cry out against the dehumanizing culture of contemporary society and did indeed work through many personal obstacles. But as with all genuine prophets, his prophecy was grounded in God; he cried out from depths of a contemplative union and visiona vision fostered by his monastic life, as Cunningham and Shannon rightly insist. In my judgment Higgins undervalues this contemplative-monastic dimension and so distorts Merton’s image. It is Merton’s groundedness in God combined with his prophetic crying out that make him the most influential spiritual writer of this past centuryand perhaps even of the next.