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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A spiritual master..., 19 Dec. 2005
By 
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (Paperback)
The book `The Intimate Merton', edited by Brother Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, is a great encapsulation of the journals which Thomas Merton, monk, writer, activist and spiritual guide (I believe he would eschew the word leader, kept from the time he began considering a vocation (both as a monk and as a writer) to the time of his death nearly thirty years later.
The book is broken into sections reflective of Merton's monastic life. Each section is composed of selections, representative and/or significant, from his regular daily journals. Merton actually kept voluminous journals (published in seven thick volumes), much of which served as a basis and self-reflective sounding board for his other writings. This book is a user-friendly spiritual autobiography, distilled from the wisdom gained over twenty-nine years of teaching, prayer, reflection, prayer, writing, prayer, activity, and yet more prayer.
Merton was not (and still is not) universally loved, even by the church and monastic hierarchies who claim him as a shining example of one of their own. Merton's life is a quest for meaning, and quest for unity before God of all peoples, and a quest for love. These were not always in keeping with the practices of the church, which found itself more often than Merton cared for embroiled in political action in support of the state, or at least the status quo.
Merton was a Trappist monk. The Trappists derive their name from la Trappe, the sole survivor of a reformed Cistercian order in France about the time of the Revolution. This order of Cistercians (white-robed monks) had fairly strict observances which included the usual monastic trappings of vows of chastity, stability, obedience, poverty -- and a regime of prayer and psalm recitals coupled with daily work and study that is not at all for the faint-hearted (or faint-spirited). It was to this order that Merton pledged himself, in his beginning search for meaning and fulfillment.
`The great work of sunrise again today.
The awful solemnity of it. The sacredness. Unbearable without prayer and worship. I mean unbearable if you really put everything aside and see what is happening! Many, no doubt, are vaguely aware that it is dawn, but they are protected from the solemnity of it by the neutralising worship of their own society, their own world, in which the sun no longer rises and sets.'
Poetry in prose -- this passage, from the section on The Pivotal Years, reflects a searching nearing a conclusion, but still far from grasping, and far from complete. It also reflects the need for sharing, the drive toward caring, the simplest of things in the world, available to all, free of charge -- and most will never take possession.
God is calling in the sunrise. Merton recognises the call. He wants to deliver this sunrise in a package to the world. But he cannot. This is Merton's endless frustration, and the drive to do more, while yet being, as he would say himself, selfish in wanting to grasp it for himself, too. His time in the Hermitage, a time during which he was removed even from the company of fellow monks -- reflects this duality of vocation in Merton. He recognises that in some ways, it is an escape, but other ways, a fulfillment.
Even late in his life, after he was called away from his solitude at the Hermitage, because the world needed him, he was still humble and seeking. After nearly three decades of monastic practice and reflection on the level that Merton had done, one would expect a certain 'expertise' to have permeated his thinking. And yet, he would write:
`I have to change the superficial ideas and judgments I have made about the contemplative religious life, the contemplative orders. They were silly and arbitrary and without faith.'
This, on the basis of one retreat in December of 1967, with laypersons and clerics and monastics outside his Trappist order -- this is his conclusion, his resolute determination to not be boxed in, even by his own thinking. The true search can lead anywhere, even to the conclusion that one has been wrong all along.
And yet, Merton was not wrong. There was value in each of his spiritual discoveries as he discovered them. They still resonate for all of us today.
`Since Hayden Carruth's reprimand I have had more esteem for the crows around here, and I find, in fact, that we seem to get on much more peacefully. Two sat high in an oak beyond my gate as I walked on the brow of the hill at sunrise saying the Little Hours. They listened without protest to my singing of the antiphons. We are part of a menage, a liturgy, a fellowship of sorts.'
Near the end of his life, Merton was becoming more and more one with all around him, with all of God's creation, with nature, with people, with friends and strangers. And yet, he missed his privacy, his time for personal reflection and solitude.
`Everyone now knows where the hermitage is, and in May I am going to the convent of the Redwoods in California. Once I start traveling around, what hope will there be?'
Merton had premonitions that 1968 was a year `that things are finally and inexorably spelling themselves out', prophetic indeed, for in the same year the world lost Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and Brother Thomas Merton. He never was able to reclaim the solitude, pouring himself out for his friends ('what greater love hath anyone...'), who he counted as the entire world.
May Brother Thomas' journey enlighten your own.
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The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals
The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals by Thomas Merton (Paperback - 1 Mar. 2001)
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