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O Beata Solituda! Thomas Merton and the Monastic
By Timothy P.
Thomas Merton '38 found fame once he no longer sought
it. Merton's decision to become a Roman Catholic and enter a
Trappist monastery permitted him the literary career that had
eluded him in the years after graduation. In the cloister, Merton
could write freely, not only about religion but also world affairs,
social justice and civil rights. He gained recognition as one of
the preeminent religious writers of the twentieth
one, including Merton, anticipated his religious vocation. Born in
France in 1915 and raised in England, Merton was expelled from
Cambridge University's Clare College after fathering an
illegitimate child. (The child was killed, along with the mother,
during the Battle of Britain.) Merton had sailed for New York in
1935 and entered the College as a transfer student, quickly
becoming friends with a pantheon of Columbia greats, including
professor Mark Van Doren, poet Robert Lax '38 and Robert Giroux
'36, who later became Merton's editor.
Merton recounted his path towards Catholicism in his famous
memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. Originally published in
1948, the autobiography became an instant best seller and has been
translated into 20 languages. In 1998, Harcourt Brace issued a 50th
anniversary edition with a new introduction by Giroux that
recounted his relationship with Merton and the struggle to get the
book published (see CCT, Winter 1999). The special
edition has now been issued in paperback (Harvest Books,
told, Merton wrote more than 40 books of essays, poetry and prose.
After his death in 1968 during a visit to Bangkok, Merton's letters
and journals were published in multi-volume editions. To continue
where The Seven Storey Mountain left off, Patrick Hart, the
general editor of Merton's journals, and Jonathan Montaldo, editor
of the second volume of Merton's journals, have assembled The
Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals
(HarperSanFrancisco, $28), essentially a pseudo-autobiography
comprising selected journal entries from Merton's 27 years at the
Gethsemani monastery outside Louisville, Ky. In Thomas Merton
and the Monastic Vision (Wm. B. Eerdmans, $16 paper), Lawrence
S. Cunningham, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, also examines
Merton's monastic career, emphasizing the paradoxical connections
among his strict observance of Trappist discipline, dramatic
changes within Catholicism and his writings.
addition to his letters and journals, recent reissues of Merton's
spiritual essays are bringing the full range of his thought to new
readers. A central theme for Merton was the value of the
contemplative life and monastic values in the modern world. This
idea featured prominently in The Seven Storey Mountain, and
Merton returned to it (though not autobiographically) in
Thoughts in Solitude (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $11
paper), which he described as "reflections on man's solitude before
God," and The Silent Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $12
paper), "a meditation on monastic life."
Merton offered a post-Vatican II perspective in
Contemplation in a World of Action, now available in a
corrected and updated edition (University of Notre Dame Press, $14
paper). In addition, William H. Shannon, an editor of Merton's
letters, has compiled an anthology, Thomas Merton's Paradise
Journey: Writings on Contemplation (St. Anthony Messenger
Press, $12.95 paper).
Merton never hesitated in his role as a Catholic apologist, but
in later years he became interested in other religions. In The
New Man (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13 paper), Merton
explored spiritual identity in the modern world. In Mystics and
Zen Masters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14 paper), he
examined Eastern religion, especially Buddhist monasticism, which
had become a passion, noting that the "Catholic scholar [must]
respect these other traditions and honestly evaluate the good
contained in them."
While interest in Merton has transcended religious
denominations, many Roman Catholics have come to revere him. Both
A Retreat with Thomas Merton: Becoming Who We Are (St.
Anthony Messenger Press, $7.95 paper) by Anthony T. Padovano and
15 Days of Prayer with Thomas Merton (Ligouri, $7.95 paper)
by André Gozier, a French Benedictine monk, use Merton's path
from convert to monk as the basis for programs of prayer and
meditation. Clearly Merton has settled into good company:
Padovano's book is part of a series that also includes Augustine of
Hippo and St. Francis of Assisi as spiritual guides.
Author: Timothy P. Cross
is the associate editor of Columbia College Today and
editor of the Bookshelf section.
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