Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 29, 2002
A look at the essential Merton
Thomas Merton - Essential Writings:Selected With An Introduction by Christine M. Rochen (Modern Spiritual Masters Series) Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2000. 191 pages. Paper.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
"We can no longer afford to barricade ourselves in our Catholic environment," wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in 1961, "and regard it as a little smug fortress of security in a world of pagans."
Merton was being rather autobiographical in presenting these words as part of a talk to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of a congregation of sisters.
Twenty years earlier, he had entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. His original vocational goal had been to lead a life of seclusion and prayer. Gradually, however, he realized that he was being prodded spiritually to take the secular world seriously.
From that point on, his writings focused more extensively on such issues as non-violence, racism and interfaith unity.
A convert to Catholicism at age 23, Merton was a faithful son of the Church. Gradually, that loyalty began to assume a new form so that he would write, two years before his death in 1968: "If I affirm myself as Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it."
Thomas Merton - Essential Writings is actually the fourth anthology of Merton's extensive work to appear in the decades since his death.
For those familiar with the writings of this modern spiritual master (one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century) this book will provide a helpful summary of some of his more significant statements relating to the themes of contemplation, compassion and unity.
For those new to Merton's writings, this short volume offers a helpful gateway to wider reading of his work.
Much research has already gone into Merton's hundred books, countless articles and collections of his letters and journals. Here is a helpful distillation of at least some of his most poignant ideas.
The call to contemplation focuses on the interior journey of silence, solitude and prayer; about what it means to discover one's "true self" and to live "free from care." Here, Merton invites the reader to go beyond words to experience what words, in their poverty, can never adequately communicate.
The call to compassion suggests how contemplation must be transformed into action, or from vision to mission.
"My solitude . . . is not my own," he wrote in 1966, "for I see now how much it belongs to the (world)." Here, Merton writes against violence, the glorification of war and the horror of Auschwitz, with current application. He was an early advocate of the now popular ministry of peacemaking.
The call to unity complements and elucidates the commitment of Vatican II to the Church in relationship with non-Catholics and persons of other living faiths or no faith. Here, Merton tried to emulate John XXIII who sought to be faithful to Catholic tradition but open to all humanity and to the signs of the times.
"To be truly Catholic is not merely to be correct according to an abstractly universal standard of truth," he wrote, "but also and above all to be able to enter into the problems and the joys of all, to understand all, to be all things to all men."
Merton's ideas have stimulated spiritual vision, thought and action for half a century. It is remarkable how favorably he has been received and how his words continue to ring true as guidance for our time.
The strength of this book is its ability to capture, in less than 200 pages, the essence of several key themes located in Merton's writings. The book's weakness is that it can convey only some of these themes, with little provision for elaboration.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)