No getting to know Merton here

By  Noel Cooper, Catholic Register Special
  • June 27, 2008

{mosimage}Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things, by J.S. Porter. (Novalis, softcover, 216 pages, $24.95, ISBN Number 9782896460083).

Thomas Merton was an American poet and writer who died accidentally at the age of 56 in 1968 after a remarkably public life (especially for a Trappist monk).

He had suffered the loss of his mother when he was six, his father when he was 16, his brother when he was 30. After earning a master’s degree at Columbia, and in the process engaging in what he considered a dissolute life, he was converted to Catholicism through the influence of thoughtful, intellectual friends. Within a few years he entered the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance at a monastery in Kentucky. From there, he wrote dozens of articles, poems and books and became a well-travelled speaker and activist.

Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things offers a comprehensive exploration of Merton’s life and work under nine headings, including “Contemplative and Activist,” “Poet, Reader, Translator,” “Tone Meister,” “Public Intellectual” and “Lover.”

If you are very familiar with Merton, you may be interested to compare Porter’s erudition and his understanding of Merton with your own. In my opinion, yours is the only group that will be vitally interested in this book.

If you aren’t familiar with Merton, but are interested in poetry or spiritual reading, this book offers some passages that might encourage you to delve deeper into Merton’s work, but I found the initial chapters, after an engaging preface comparing Merton to Henri Nouwen, to be very difficult reading. Brief but demanding poetic passages are followed by discussions of the complications of translating poetry from Spanish into English, and a discussion of Merton’s essay on the poetry of Louis Zukofsky. Several pages listing the author’s favourite Merton works are more intimidating than attractive.

If you, like me, are a fairly prosaic believer who had a passing acquaintance with Merton 40 years ago and wonder whether he might offer insight for the continuing journey, you may be as disappointed in this book as I was.

We all need insight on the question, “How does one maintain peace and faith in a world governed by profit and greed?” But this book offers only one paragraph containing two quoted sentences by Merton on the issue.

There are some insightful passages about war, more relevant to Americans than Canadians: “Man is so addicted to war that he cannot possibly deal with his addiction.” Merton realized that the root of war is fear — fear of one’s self, fear of the other. The author compares him to Michael Moore, who makes it clear that “America has a history of fear. Fear of the Indian. Fear of the black man. Fear of the communist. And now fear of the Muslim.”

Many of us need help as we try to pray and some may find support in pages that describe how Merton’s “work took its rise from prayer and returned to prayer.”

“My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the centre of Nothing and Silence… It is not ‘thinking about’ anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible,” Merton explains.

“It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one’s hunger and sleep, one’s cold and warmth, rising and going to bed… Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying. I live as my ancestors have lived on this Earth, until eventually I die. Amen.”

A passage late in the book about Adolf Eichmann (a murderous Nazi who was executed in Israel some decades ago) brought chilling realizations about the banality of evil as practised by people in authority in our contemporary world.

“For Merton, Eichmann lives anywhere in any time… He thrives where institution and bureaucracy, nation and nationality, power and obedience supersede individual freedom and human need… The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal,” writes Porter.

Passages like those mentioned in previous paragraphs are scattered amid less-interesting material. One wishes that those topics had been dealt with more fully, but the author’s purpose seems to be to inspire the reader to seek out the quoted sources in Merton’s writing.

The chapter on Merton’s late-in-life love for a woman he never named is the most readable chapter in the book and may be a more or less pleasant exercise in nostalgia for some who remember the 1960s fondly.

In the ’60s, and for some contemporary searchers, Zen Buddhism has a lasting attraction. Merton called Zen “the finest example of a technique leading to the highest natural perfection of man’s contemplative liberty.” He studied Zen masters and wrote of the self as “‘nobody’ found ‘nowhere’ in ‘nothing.’ ” Merton’s journey brought him “to point zero fairly naturally from long practice in geographic and psychic displacement.” In his last notebook, Merton wrote, “The self is merely a focus in which the dance of the universe is aware of itself as complete from beginning to end — and returning to the void.”

Whatever your previous relationship to Merton and his work, this book may answer the question about whether you want to learn more about him. I do regret that the answer for me is in the negative.

(Cooper is a retired educator.)

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