Michael Higgins may be a fan of Thomas Merton, but he doesn’t let it cloud his judgment in his scholarly look at Merton in The Unquiet Monk.

Higgins the scholar is undoubtedly a Merton fan

  • March 7, 2015

The Unquiet Monk, Thomas Merton’s Questing Faith, by Michael Higgins (Novalis, 126 pages, $14.95).

Heroes matter. Which is not to say that our heroes define us. Superman has many admirers, but few who fly or fight crime. Despite the ways each of us falls short, every hero we admit into our personal halls of fame, whether starting pitcher or saint, gives us an opportunity to aspire as well as admire.

Thomas Merton is quite obviously Michael Higgins’ hero. The Canadian literary historian and expert in Catholic thought and argument almost certainly read Merton’s memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, when he was a young man. Since then Higgins has read, with the critical eye of a professor of English literature, all the volumes of poetry, essays and spiritual ruminations that poured from the prolific pen of America’s most famous monk over decades, even after Merton died suddenly in Bangkok in 1968.

Merton would have been 100 years old this year, which has been reason enough for a flurry of Merton scholarship, an avalanche of popular biography and many repackaged collections of Merton’s writing.

The Unquiet Monk, Thomas Merton’s Questing Faith stands nobly between the two poles of popularizing mythology and critical scholarship. Higgins is a Merton fan and cannot hide it. But he is also a scholar, aware of the context and significance of Merton’s accomplishments.

“Merton, the Zen child, the Blakean child, not only opened himself to everyone and to every experience with both freshness and a dangerous indifference to caution, he also longed to identify promiscuously with all. The childlike predilection to imaginatively embrace all was never erased with adulthood; it was just transformed into his capacity for universal empathy,” writes Higgins in all his erudite enthusiasm.

If the book consisted only of Higgins’ admiration it would not stand up. But Higgins is more than willing to share the stage. Frequent and long quotes from interviews and letters of people who knew Merton and other scholars who have studied Merton, and examples of Merton’s writing, make this book both enjoyable and revelatory. 

Rather than being subjected to Higgins personal enthusiasm, the reader is invited to join in and see Merton through the eyes of a leading Merton scholar.

In recent years, Merton has become the daemon of choice to a small, angry, uncharitable minority of Catholics who presume to be offended by the story of how Merton, late in his life, fell in love with a never-named nurse with whom he may have broken his vow of chastity. But that story is just an excuse. In fact, they dislike Merton because of who likes him. For half a century the monk who reached out to eastern religions, who turned his back on the phony battle with Protestantism which once defined a reactionary American Church, who protested against the Vietnam War and made friends with leaders in the American civil rights movement has been a hero to liberal Catholics. 

If the liberals like him then the conservatives must not.

Higgins draws a picture of Merton that kicks these ridiculous categories to the side of the road. Merton was not a conservative or a liberal in the post-modern Catholic sense. He was a writer, a monk and a novice master with a very particular set of concerns arising from the times in which he lived and the vows he lived under.

By showing us Merton in context, Higgins gives us an opportunity to read more generously a writer who thought long and hard about what it means to live with a single-hearted desire for Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

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