On Thomas Merton by Mary Gordon–Book Review

Thomas Merton’s conversion to Catholicism is detailed in his famous autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain.  He eventually became a Trappist monk.  This book by Mary Gordon focuses on Merton as a writer, and will mainly be of interest to other writers (and English major types, like me).  If you haven’t yet read much by or about or Merton, don’t start with this one.  You will get bits of her personal life, but not in a linear way.

On Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was a man of contradictions.  As a contemplative and Trappist, he was called to silence;  at the same time his vocation as a writer encouraged him to have a strong voice.  In fact, he was often under pressure from his superiors to “produce” more books to earn money for the monastery.  He doesn’t seem completely comfortable as a monk;  yet he can’t escape his love for Gethsemani and his calling to the community there.  It was an integral part of his personality as a man and as a writer.  Gordon says,

“If Thomas Merton has been a writer and not a monk, we would never have heard of him.  If Thomas Merton had been a monk and not a writer, we would never have heard of him.”

In this short book, Gordon discusses at length a novel entitled My Argument with the Gestapo, written by Merton in 1941 and unpublished until a year after his death.  She also includes some of his correspondence with other writers, including Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz (a Polish poet).  If you’re not interested in writing, you’ll bog down in these literary discussions.  You’ll also learn, if you didn’t know, that Merton wrote poetry at times.

Gordon saw Merton’s journals as his greatest accomplishment.  They contained his greatest writing and were the form to which he was best suited.  She describes him as “ardent, heartfelt and headlong.”  His passionate relationship with God is what comes through consistently.

My verdict?  Two stars.  This book won’t have a wide appeal.

Ideal, part 3 …. The Limitations of Being Human

Animals are limited by the circumstances that train and condition them, by their instincts and habits.  But human beings can transform their lives.  Humans are continually developing, always becoming.  C.S. Lewis, a Christian theologian said:

“Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.”

Through the exercise of intellect people have the freedom to choose and are responsible for the consequences of their choices.  People are not forced to grow, but if we fail to use the faculties that are part of our human nature, we shrivel up inside, we become less than human.

Focusing on only one aspect of life is one way that human development may become stunted or twisted.  In our society, it is very easy to be caught up in materialism.  Accumulating more and more things seems to be the driving motivation of many people.  Ads and commercials whet our appetites for more and easy credit lets us have it all now.  If we don’t have a new car, a big house, or the “right” clothes, we feel inferior.  But pursuit of the material leads to an emptiness inside.  My husband once met a man on retreat who told him, “I am a successful physician and I have everything that money can buy.  I have a lovely home, a fine wife, and nice children.  But I lie awake at night wondering, ‘Is this all there is?’

Shunning the material world to embrace only the spiritual is just as dangerous.  We cannot have healthy bodies if we don’t take care of them.  We will not develop a healthy personality by avoiding human relationships or evading responsibility for our surroundings.

A book I recently read told the story of a journalist who was studying Trappist monasteries.  He became interested in monastic life after his son died, and he found comfort in their services.  He asked to live as part of a Trappist community so that he could heal, learn more about them, and eventually record his experiences.  One of the monks bitterly resented his presence.  He did not want an outsider intruding upon HIS spiritual life.  This same brother had difficulty getting along with his fellow monks.  He complained if the rules governing silence, or suitable topics for study were bent in any way.  His desire to separate himself from worldly things was so intense that he lost all compassion and understanding for the worlds’ people.

Stay tuned for part four …..