Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing
edited by Robert Inchausti
New Seeds, 2007
A Personal Biography
by Joan C. McDonald
Marquette University Press, 2007
his monumental biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton
(1984), Michael Mott set the standard for every other study
of the life and work of the most important teacher of monastic spirituality
of the twentieth century. A poet and novelist himself, Mott was
able to comment with insight on the struggle that plagued Merton
for his entire converted life: how to balance his passion for religious
life with his overrunning talent as a writer.
the summer of 1941, a few months before he joined the Trappist monastery
in Kentucky that he would make famous with his writing, Thomas Merton
was living in upstate New York, teaching English at St. Bonaventure
College. He was in his twenties and trying to figure out what to
do with his life, attracted as he was to both the life of the mind
(as a writer) and the life of the spirit (a possible, religious
vocation). Mott records,
[H]e sharpened the focus of a number of debates with himself
that would last a lifetime…. He debated whether or not he
was a writer…. Then he went on to question whether his writing
honored God, or whether it was simply a celebration of self. He
was still wondering this in his journals of the 1960s.
is this tension that has made Merton’s life and work relevant
to millions of readers, long after his death in 1968. Many
of us, like Merton, bump up against these same questions—not
necessarily because we are writers, as he was, but because we seek
to exercise our talents without self-aggrandizement.
To use the language of monastic spirituality, how do we dismantle
our “false self,” and gradually discover our “true
self,” as we succeed in our work in the world? This question
filled Merton with anxiety throughout his life.
autobiography was published when Merton was only thirty-three years
old. He found it nearly impossible not to write about what was happening
inside of him in his first years as a cloistered monk. During his
first visit as a retreatant to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky,
during Holy Week of 1941, he wrote in his journal, “I should
tear out all the other pages of this book and all the other pages
of everything else I ever wrote, and begin here.”
the years to follow, after hundreds of thousands of copies of The
Seven Storey Mountain were purchased and read around the world,
Merton would go through times when he wanted to stop writing altogether.
These were times when he felt his ego growing faster than his spirit.
But, thank God, they were short-lived, and he went back to his typewriter.
Silence, ably compiled and annotated by Robert Inchausti, is
the first book to chronicle the tension of Merton’s split
vocation. This is a book of Merton’s writings on writing,
and in that sense, it will appeal most of all to other writers.
However, Inchausti uncovers the essence of
Merton’s genius, as well—the reason why Merton’s
writings themselves will outlive those of most any other spiritual
writer of the twentieth century. I have probably
never encountered a better summary than this one from Inchausti
at the end of his Introduction:
Merton brought contemplation into the twentieth century, divesting
it of its antique scholasticism and ancient prejudices: making
it efficient far beyond the inner circle of Christian initiates.
He retained the best that was thought and said within the monastic
counter culture—preserving its traditions while broadening
its appeal and bringing it into dialogue with the contemporary
Silence is arranged topically, rather than chronologically.
It includes chapters of selections from Merton’s books, journals,
and letters on subjects such as writing as a spiritual calling,
poetry, thoughts on other writers, and advice given to other writers.
It was uncanny how close to the center of the literary world Merton
sat, despite being behind a monastic enclosure in Kentucky. In fact,
for those interested in his almost daily letters to other, prominent
writers during the 1960s, I highly recommend The Courage for
Truth: The Letters of Thomas Merton to Writers, published more
than a decade ago and still available in paperback.
that Echoing Silence had included more of the remarkable
back-and-forth exchanges that Merton had with people like Czeslaw
Milosz, Boris Pasternak, James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Walker Percy,
and others. Nevertheless, the selection and breadth of Echoing Silence
is admirable, and will be useful for writers and other artists,
in college classrooms, and for those interested in a close look
at Merton’s lifelong vocational crisis as a writer.
McDonald’s Tom Merton also attempts to uncover new
insights into Merton’s life and writing, through the genre
of biography. She tries adding to what we already
know—from much better biographies such as Michael Mott’s—by
inventing internal dialogs for Merton, putting words into his mind
and mouth. She explains this controversial technique in a note to
the reader at the outset: “I have extrapolated the events
of Merton’s life at certain key times by insertion of dialogue
and self-analysis in italicized passages, which is purely the result
of my imagination.”
these dialogs are, in fact, set in italics, and at other times,
they appear in quotemarks. Still other times—toward the end
of the book—they appear in neither italics nor quotes, and
that’s when it gets really confusing. This confusion is most
likely the result of poor or no proofreading, which Tom Merton sorely
on a couple of occasions did I find these self-analysis dialogs
at all helpful, rather than intrusive. For instance, I appreciated
the twelve simple, prayerful sentences that McDonald imagined Merton
was thinking as he lay prostrate before the archbishop at his priestly
ordination. They include these lines:
told myself God Himself looked down on me at the moment I spoke
my vows and accepted me as His servant. I felt a peace I never
knew. I began to realize that this wasn’t the end I had
been seeking. Rather, it was a beginning on a whole new plane
of experience. I had now arrived at the center of all existence.
on the whole, these internal dialogs make Tom Merton not
only a confusing book, but perhaps, a book that does violence to
our understanding of him. By Book Three (just after the midway point),
McDonald begins a chapter with standard biographical detail, only
to begin the next paragraph having switched from the third person
“he” for describing Merton, to the third person personal,
“I,” as if she is speaking his very thoughts.
however, recommend McDonald’s effort simply for the illustrations
that she has compiled and added to her text. Many of these are valuable
to the Merton enthusiast, such as the drawings showing the architecture
of a typical Cistercian abbey, followed by a computer-generated
reconstruction of what the monastery of Cluny probably looked like
in the eleventh century.
there are photographs of the famous downtown street corner (4th
and Walnut, which has since been renamed 4th and Muhammad Ali) where
Merton experienced an epiphany of loving all humankind. And, it
was fun to see the cover of The Critic, a Catholic magazine,
from December 1965, which pictured “The 15 Most Important
Catholics in the U.S.A.” including William F. Buckley, Robert
Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mayor Richard J. Daley, Dorothy Day,
and of course, our Merton.
©2007 Jon M. Sweeney
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