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The Intimate Merton: Thomas Merton's Life from His Journals Paperback – 24 Mar 2006
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Thomas Merton is one of the world's most famous monks, but can a monk be famous and still be a monk? Merton is captivating because he is a contradiction. He wrestled with his vocation to be a Trappist monk, hidden in the Kentucky woods, and his call to be a writer. Voicing the struggle in his journal, Merton quotes the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu, "Who can free himself from achievement and from fame, descend and be lost amid the masses of men...such is the perfect man."
Merton kept a journal from the age of 16, and this selection from its seven volumes shows him struggling almost daily with the clash between his monastic vocation and his desire to move on a bigger stage. Lovers of Merton will love this book; those who view him with more scepticism will find it hard not to be attracted by his clear style and pursuit of an innocent vision. Edited by Patrick Hart, a fellow monk at Merton's old monastery, and Jonathan Montaldo, the director of the Thomas Merton Centre, the book redacts Merton's journals to a fascinating chronicle of his life from just before he entered the monastery to the day of his death in an electrical accident in Bangkok. Eight pages of black and white photos capture the zest and spirituality of the man, while a complete index illustrates the wide range of his reading and friendships. Together with a handsome design and solid feel they make The Intimate Merton an excellent companion to Merton's classic autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. --Dwight Longenecker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
THOMAS MERTON (1915 - 1968) is one of the 20th century's great spiritual mystics. Through his books, poems and other writings he detailed his conversion from a hedonistic youth to Catholicisim in his 20s to his subsequent life as a Trappist monk and hermit. Throughout his life he maintained a passionate interest in the great causes of his day - social justice, anti-war campaign and inter-religious dialogue.
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In four hundred and fifty pages the reader is taken on a journey with Merton from one of the earliest entries in his private journals from October 1939, when he was living at Perry Street, New York City, through to his final entry on December 8th, 1968 as he was preparing to leave Bangkok for the conference at the Red Cross Centre where he was to die two days later.
In reducing Merton's seven volumes of complete journals to one volume a vast amount of material has been omitted. For instance, from the first section of Entering the Silence, the second volume of the journals, one hundred and fifty pages has been reduced to just two pages in The Intimate Merton. But, on looking at this section of Entering the Silence, I must say there is not a single passage extra I would have included if I had been preparing this volume and, generally, this was the case through the whole book. The great danger with a compilation of this kind is that the natural bias of its editors can more easily detract from the original work than enhance it. This volume enhances the seven volumes of Merton's journals and that is down to the skill of the editors and their familiarity with Merton's work and thought.
The Intimate Merton is edited by Brother Patrick Hart, general editor of Merton's complete journals, at one time Merton's secretary and editor of numerous other volumes by and about him, along with Jonathan Montaldo editor of volume two of the complete journals and currently Director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville. This volume has been divided into seven chapters that correspond to the seven volumes of the complete journals, and for the chapter titles the subtitles of each respective volume have been used and these described well the content of each of the chapters.
In their introduction the editors outline the editorial policy they have followed, selecting passages that would "produce a powerfully written, chronological presentation of his journal's major themes." (13.) Among the themes they highlight are Merton's desire to be more than a writer in becoming a monk, his search for a monastic identity, for wisdom and for the "perfect place," and his awareness of the natural world. As well as these themes many of his prayers and dreams have been included along with other important themes from Merton's life. In editing this volume the editors also "deeply edited Merton's text to present him as favorably and faithfully as we could" (15.). The extent of this editing varies from omitting Merton's "too-frequent use of And to begin sentences" to deleting anything that they judged weakened Merton's style.
On reading The Intimate Merton I think the editorial policy has worked extremely well. There were some themes which I felt could have done with greater attention, in particular Merton's paradoxical nature and some of the writers, events and movements that influenced him. For example, many of his references to Rilke, the Shakers, and Blake are missing and his decision to become an American Citizen, the visits of the Hibakusha and Sidi Abdesalam to Gethsemani and his reference to the trial of Adolf Eichmann are totally omitted. Having said that, the editors have created a most readable volume which will serve to introduce the essential content of Merton's complete journals to Merton aficionados who have been put off by the size and the price of the complete journals and will also introduce a whole new generation to Merton's life and thought.
Except for some very penetrating epigrams at the beginning of each of the chapters the editors are totally unobtrusive providing no footnotes or textual notes. In many ways I felt this book would have benefited from more input from the editors, perhaps just a few paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter, in a style similar to that used by Merton in his introductions to the chapters of The Sign of Jonas, would have been enough to provide readers with a few biographical and contextual details which would make a real contribution to their reading of this book.
In their introduction Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo sum up very succinctly the value of Merton's journals and one of the key reasons why they continue to attract so many readers: His writing operates for readers as both a window and a mirror. In Merton's journals readers catch a glimpse of their own "infinite possibilities" for "contemplation and praise." As he struggles with his life's contradictions, readers are self-examined in the mirror of his autobiographical art. By hearing Merton's literary voice, readers are seduced into listening to that still quiet voice within themselves, one that longs to become incarnate in some outward gesture uniquely their own. (15.) This quotation gets to the very core of Merton's literary work and in The Intimate Merton we have the essence of those journals in one volume. If you like to read Thomas Merton and you have not read his complete journals then this book is a must.
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.
This book provides extracts from each of the seven volumes of Merton's journals and at the end of it I felt that I knew a lot more about Merton, but that the book had also brought home to me just how multi-faceted and complex a person he was. Although sympathetic, the book also makes you realise that he can't always have been the easiest of people to live and work with. But despite all his uncertainties, the disagreements with superiors at Gethsemani, and the temptations from elsewhere - he remained a Monk, remained at Gethsemani and was looking forward to returning there just before his tragic death.
I really enjoyed reading this one-volume edition of his journals, so much so that I have now purchased the first two volumes of the "full" journals.