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a final plea?
on 16 April 2012
3.4.13 Edit: When I originally reviewed this, I felt it was not one of Merton's key books and had maybe been produced just to keep his writer's faculties from rusting. Re-reading it now, I still think the first part is true - the place to start with Merton is The Seven Storey Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation, followed maybe by the journals. But the significance of this book struck me differently this time: it read as a statement of how Merton saw his own spirituality late in his life and maybe even an attempt at justification of it.
He had struggled all his monastic life, after all, for acceptance of his vocation as a Solitary and contemplative - a role which seemingly had almost died out. The first half of this book is almost a polemic, citing authorities from the entire history of monasticism, to the effect that contemplation - not community life or liturgy - is the highest potential achievement of the monk's life. The second part is, surely, a description of his own spiritual state at the time of writing:
'The contemplative', he says, 'is one who would rather not know than know. Rather not enjoy than enjoy. Rather not have proof that God loves him...he intuitively seeks the dark and unknown path of aridity in preference to every other way.'
Hard words, they are followed by a searing analysis of existential 'dread' and condemnation of those who think they can achieve contemplation by their own efforts as a sort of spiritual self-help. The message is that God continues working throughout this dark night of the soul, and that hope and trust in him are the only solution to its problems.
For me, seen as Merton's attempt to wrestle with his own difficulties (and who else can he really be talking about?), this book takes on a new interest - and, almost inadvertently, a new usefulness. Merton is at his most helpful when he avoids generalities and simply presents us with himself.