From the Bookshelf – October 2007

Thomas Merton, 1915-1968I’ve been working my way through the journals of Thomas Merton lately.  Several years ago I read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, after stumbling into it completely by accident.  His style of writing, and thinking, struck a chord and I have been reading his work ever since.

Having read several of his books now, but only being mid-way through the second volume of Merton’s journals (sometime in 1948), it finally dawned on me what the basic similarity between us was – a struggle with a spirit (or psyche, if you like) that is always looking for “the next thing” in search of peace, satisfaction, contentment, or fulfillment.  In Merton’s case, his search led him to convert to Catholicism, to discerning a vocation to the priesthood, then religious life, and entering the monastery at Gethsemani.  Once in the monastery he struggled with his growing popularity as a writer and his desire for peace and solitude as a contemplative, thinking he should become a Carthusian, or a hermit, or searching for common ground in Eastern spirituality.  His journals, at least as far as I have read, chronicle Merton’s effort to overcome his restlessness – and his frustration at being unable to do so – and find the contentment he sought in the surroundings of everyday life.

The circumstances and surroundings of Merton’s everyday life and mine are, of course, quite a bit different.  But the struggle seems much the same, and I have to keep reminding myself to stay in the “now” more and worry about the “later” less.  Like Merton, I get frustrated with myself when I realize that I am not as present to the people and situations in my life as I should be but, in the same way, I keep trying.  It’s funny, but reading Merton’s journals (published, with his permission, more than 25 years after his death) I feel as though he’s a contemporary, and his writing like letters confiding in a friend, even though he died almost forty years ago and would be old enough to be my grandfather.

Merton’s writing, thus far in my reading, hasn’t revealed whether he ever found the peace he was looking for, at least while he was alive, or how.  Guess I’ll keep reading.

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6 thoughts on “From the Bookshelf – October 2007

  1. I have always found Merton’s literary style interesting, but I think his life has been used, somewhat inadequately, to push this or that religious point of view.

    The present consensus seems to be that had Merton lived, he would have either become Buddhist or have been in any case more Buddhist than “Catholic.” And of course there is the issue of his secret, intimate love affair with a woman, while he was supposedly living as a celibate monk.

    So Merton, like many figures used for religious purposes, was just a human with an urge to write. I think he was given far more freedom and leeway to pursue his writing and personal interests than would ordinary have been the case with a Trappist of those times — largely because the Church saw him as useful propagandistically in that regard, but I don’t think he has much to teach us today, except perhaps for the literary aspects of his writing style (and not to take literary and “official” biographies too seriously as reflecting a person’s actual behavior).

  2. It is a little ironic, isn’t it, that Merton has been subject to some of the same treatment he decried of St. Therese of Lisieux? And I find myself wondering just how much his journals have been edited, though he seemed to write them in expectation of them being published, even early on.

    Regardless of the particular faith context, though, what I find interesting, and instructive, in Merton is the importance of the mindfulness in the midst of the struggle.

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