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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Getting Started with Thomas Merton: A Reading Guide

Painting by Owen Merton
"On the last day of January 1915, under the Sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world..."
When people learn of my interest in Thomas Merton, they frequently ask what they should read to get acquainted with his thought.  I've been asked this question even more frequently in recent months in the run-up to 2015, the centenary of his birth (on a related note, his birthday is this Saturday, and there are events planned all over the world on that day and throughout the year to celebrate his life & writings. Check here to see if there are events planned near you).

It is difficult to know where to start with Merton.  Merton published prodigiously during his life, and the list of posthumous publications continues to grow.  In this post, I want to provide some guidance about where to begin reading Merton.  I should stress that I am not a Merton scholar, but am simply someone who found in Merton a spiritual companion whose writings continue to speak to me.  Some familiar with Merton may disagree with my advice, and they are quite welcome to provide their own suggestions in the comment box below.

There are two approaches to reading Merton.  You may want to get a broad view of Merton's writings quickly, and if so, you should start with one of a number of good readers.  I highly recommend Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, The Essential Writingsedited by Lawrence Cunningham.  Cunningham's collection is particularly good as it contains significant passages from both Merton's autobiographical work - The Seven Storey Mountain and his journals - and texts from Merton's writings on spirituality as well as on ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.  However, those looking for his writings on peace and justice issues will not find them in this collection.

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, edited by Christine Bochen, is a smaller collection that provides a nice cross-section of his writings on prayer and spirituality as well as his writings on peace and justice issues.  You won't find much of his autobiographical stuff here, though.

For the more adventurous who want to start with reading books by Merton, I recommend that you start with his autobiographical writings for he is, in my opinion, at his best when he writes autobiographically.  You have two options here.  Some may want to start with The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography that made him famous.  This was my introduction to Merton, and for reasons I've explained elsewhere, I've been hooked ever since.  But this is a wordy book and one written by a monk enthusiastic (to a fault) about his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his identity as a monk.  Those expecting to find the writer who later focuses his attention on the world and on dialogue with those of other traditions and religions may be disappointed.  But despite its faults, The Seven Storey Mountain is a classic of spiritual autobiography, and many continue to find solace in it.

If you'd like to get to know about the man, but want not to start with The Seven Storey Mountain, I recommend reading an edited collection of his journals.  The full collection of Merton's private journals are seven volumes in length, but you can read many of the best bits in The Intimate Merton: His Life from His JournalsMerton's journal entries are raw and penetrating.  Highly recommended.

Once you've read something autobiographical, I suggest you proceed to New Seeds of Contemplation.  Here you'll encounter Merton's thoughts on the life of prayer, and specifically his pivotal insights into what it could mean to recognize one's true self in relation to God.

From here, you're ready to tackle Conjectures of a Guilty BystanderConjectures is the theological equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.  For this book, Merton took excerpts from his journals and notebooks, revised them, and threw them together into a collection that seems haphazard, but which make sense as you immerse yourself into the book.  Not one with which to begin, but one you should read at some point.  This book is a favourite of mine.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, as well as in New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton does deal with issues of peace and justice.  But if you want to delve into some of Merton's most famous essays on these issues, I recommend Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence.  This collection doesn't have everything he wrote on the subject, but it is an excellent place to start.

Photo of Owen Merton's painting is from the Thomas Merton Center's Twitter account, @MertonCenter

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. My Quaker friends speak of Merton and I've read individual quotes that were deeply moving. Now I'm ready to go to the source.

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