Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Review: Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon

Thomas Merton's memory is kept alive through the thousands of readers and seekers who continue to read his books as well as the books written about him. Not only do we have the written literature but we also have the Merton Center which is housed at Bellarmine University as well as the International Thomas Merton Society. Needless to say there are a lot of Merton fans out there.

One of the more recent additions to the vast literature about Merton is a new book by Donald Grayston titled, Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon: The Camadoli Correspondence (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015). Grayston is retired from his post as the director of the Institute for the Humanities at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada and is a post-president of the International Merton Society.

This book specifically covers the time period when Merton was seeking to leave the Gethsamni monastery in Kentucky for a more eremitical life in the Camadolese community in Italy. The Camaldolese are a part of the Benedictine community of monastics which have the eremitical life (smaller communities who live as hermits) as their major charism. The order's founder was Saint Romuald who sought to live out the Rule of St. Benedict in a more austere fashion.

Through analyzing letters written between Merton, his abbot James Fox, as well as the Prior and Provincial of the Camaldolese community in Italy, Grayston shows us the spiritual struggles of Merton during this difficult period of his life. Merton suffered, like many monks do with acedia, commonly called the noonday demon. This is often referred to as despondency as well. Basically the noonday demon is the temptation to question ones role as a monk or nun, to want to leave ones current home for another, the temptation to want to leave the monastic life altogether. Grayston shows us that Merton suffered greatly from acedia, the constant noise and hustle and bustle at Gethsemani, combined probably with the growing number of new vocations, and extra work was the impetus for Merton to want to leave the quiet country pastures of Gethsemani for another monastery in Italy.

Grayston is a wonderful storyteller, he weaves the narrative of Merton's relationship with Abbot Fox through the many letters that the two exchanged as well as the exchanges between Abbot Fox and the Prior in Italy and shows the various types of personalities that played into the mix.

In the end, after much discussion, dialogue, and debate Abbot Fox made a compromise. Merton was forbidden to leave Gethsemani but he was allowed to have a small hermitage on the monastery property where he could pray, write, and live more or less as a contemplative during the last years of his life.

Grayston also provided important background to Merton's life as well as some background to the Camaldolese community in Italy. However I did think that the book needed some editorial work, especially the numerous places where Grayston digressed, but don't let this small criticism detract from the book. If you are a fan of Merton's work than you need to read this one.

For more information about Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon click here 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Book Review: Crossing Thresholds

There are not many memoirs published by pastors, a few have been noteworthy such as Richard Lischer's Open Secrets or Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church are perhaps among the better ones; there are a few others. However, among the most recent is a small but powerful memoir titled Crossing Thresholds: The Making and Remaking of a 21st Century Chaplain (Cascade Press, 2015) by Lucy A. Forster-Smith. Forster-Smith is the Sedgwick Chaplain to the University and the Senior Minister at the Memorial Church at Harvard University. When I saw this book I knew I had to read it, especially because it is by both a chaplain and a pastor, someone who has one foot in separate, but similar ministries.

I don't want to give too much away lest the reader not want to read her book,  but her's is an intriguing story. She first writes about her time as the chaplain at Macelester College in St. Paul Minnesota and the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of religious life at a small Midwestern college, especially the stories about how non-relgious students began to question the role of the chapel and the Church in a liberal arts setting with many students from a wide range of religious beliefs: Jewish, Muslim, various Christian traditions, and non Christian too. One of the funnier stories is her coming to work without the slightest idea of what to do, boxes still unpacked, apparently there was no one around to show her the ropes. I say funny because it reminded me of my own foray into parish life; they gave me the keys and said basically, here it is, good luck. I'm sure most pastors had similar experiences.

Forster-Smith reveals a traumatic episode in her life which I want to let the reader find more out about on their own. However, any trauma, especially a violent one, can leave one hopeless and helpless. Yet somehow, through therapy, prayer, communion and community, Forster-Smith overcomes it and enters into full time ministry. While reading the book I felt like cheering her on, after all, many people are left damaged after traumatic experiences, never to regain their own personal power, dignity, and self-respect.

The only drawback to this memoir is that it is too short. I wanted to learn more about her own faith upbringing, her personal struggles with God, with students, with the larger Church as well as the chapel. Maybe she is saving this for another book in the future, I hope so, she is a good writer.

If you are a pastor or in any way interested in the role and ministry of chaplains and pastors pick up a copy of Crossing Thresholds, you won't be disappointed.

To learn more about Crossing Thresholds and to order a copy click here

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

New Book Review Coming Soon

Just wanted to share some good news from my friend and colleague Dr. Nicholas Denysenko, an Orthodox deacon and professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in LA. I look forward to reviewing his new book on my blog in the near future.

For more information about this book click here 

To order a copy of Liturgical Reform click here