Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Review Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters

I am a big Merton fan. When I was in college I devoured many of his books, especially his spiritual biography The Seven Storey Mountain as well as Contemplative Prayer. Throughout the years many publishers have released various collections of his writings, namely his journals and letters. The Merton Center, hosted at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY has over 20,000 of Merton's letters, both the letters that Merton wrote as well as the ones that he received from fans or from business associates or friends. This latest paperback edition published by Ave Maria Press is a nice collection of a selection of Merton's letters and is a welcome resource for newcomers to Merton or longtime Merton fans.

This new paperback edition is identical to the hardcover edition published last year by HarperOne and edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen. The letters are organized by topics such as: monastic living, the writing life, culture, peace and war, and various letters on the state of the Catholic Church.

The letters reveal not just Merton the longtime Trappist monk, but the human Merton, the Merton who struggles with his faith, the Church, living the solitary life, as well as seeking forgiveness and love in a world in which war and power rules. People are drawn to Merton first and foremost because he was a real person. So much of contemporary spiritual writing is what I called "sugary spirituality" which offers readers pleasant platitudes or cliched spiritual aphorisms which don't offer much. Reading Merton is like sitting down to a three course dinner. When reading the letters we see the ride range of longtime friendships that he maintained such as: Dorothy Day, Catherine de hueck Daughtery, a well as the French Catholic philosopher and writer Jacques Maritaan and his wife Raiisa, as well as poets, writers, and artists. While living a cloistered solitary life far from family and society Merton's letters reveal a person who was very much connected to the world around him. The letters reveal a man who was widely read, not just in Catholic theology but in Orthodox and Protestant theology as well as in art, music, and other world religions. We see Merton struggling with his Abbot James Fox as well as living in a large monastery with all the trials and tribulations of what that type of living presents. We see a man struggling with love and intimacy as well as his own faith in God.

I encourage newbies to Merton's writings to take and read Ave Maria's new paperback edition of A Life in Letters. Those who are diehard Merton fans won't find much new in this book, but they might want a copy to fill the Merton section on their bookshelves.