Merton, a genre on his own

By  Michael W. Higgins, Catholic Register Special
  • September 20, 2014

Simply Merton: Wisdom from his Journals, by Linus Mundy, (Franciscan Media, 138 pages, $16.00) 

The Trappist monk and prolific writer Thomas Merton once spoke of the “Joyce Industry” in a particularly insightful essay on several books about the eminent Irish literary giant. Little did he know that in a short span there would be a “Merton Industry,” an industry which appears to offer no sign of waning. 

That is the good news. Fascination with the life, writings and legacy of Merton provide ample evidence that he remains a spiritual and literary figure of consequence, not only in the Catholic world but in the world at large. 

The bad news is that the tsunami of publications chronicling his life and assessing his work reflects a stark range of competence, insight, and stylistic finesse. 

On the cusp of the centenary of Merton’s birth in the small town of Prades in the French Pyrenees — he was born to an American mother and a New Zealander father on January 31, 1915 — we shouldn’t be surprised to find an especially large array of publications flooding the market, including scholarly studies, introductory essays, selections of his writings, learned commentaries and diatribes. Certainly, Merton has always had his critics and enemies. 

Simply Merton is in a genre of its own. It is a wandering conversation between the author and his readers on the impact Merton had on himself and others. It consists of snippets from Merton’s journal entries, summary comments by various authorities and friends, and a facile effort to identify some key themes of Merton’s life and work and give them contemporary relevance, usually as glimpsed through the author’s own experience. 

This approach is dissatisfying on several fronts. It is scattershot in its treatment of a serious and compelling thinker who deserves to be treated better than simply lifting passages from his extensive and voluminous journals without respecting their historical context or the layers of multiple significance. It trivializes the enterprise. 

The quality of labour and depth of research here are suspect. It’s not because a personal record of one author’s appropriation of another author’s wisdom isn’t valuable or interesting. Rather, in this case, that sort of serious reflection is left wanting. 

Mundy’s previous books — the CareNotes line of booklets and the Elf-help series — ably demonstrate his entrepreneurial instincts. They also reflect a superficial approach to complex matters. A disposition to simplify is not the same as treasuring the gift of simplicity. This is a marketing approach to spirituality that is the bane of North American religious culture. 

Merton is emphatically approachable, intelligible and credible. But he is also demanding, serious and deep. These latter qualities should never be sacrificed in an effort to render Merton’s spirituality an easy commodity, quick to access. 

Mundy adds nothing to our understanding of Merton. If you are keen on learning something about this quixotic genius and spiritual titan from recent Catholic history, look to his writings. There are also any number of estimable introductions to his life and thought. Or dip into Merton’s diaries. You will be stimulated and provoked. 

Simply go to Merton. Leave Simply Merton on the shelves. 

(Higgins is vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. His upcoming book, The Unquiet Monk, Thomas Merton’s Questing Faith is due out from Novalis in December.) 

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