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Sons and Daughters

Ernie Holsendolph '58
Robert M. Rosencrans   '49
James P. Rubin '82
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O Beata Solituda! Thomas Merton and the Monastic Life
By Timothy P. Cross

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 century.

No 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, $15.00).

All 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.

In 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.

About the Author: Timothy P. Cross is the associate editor of Columbia College Today and editor of the Bookshelf section.

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