Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

Merton’s career as monk and writer has been described as an uncertain love affair with the world. In 1941, he happily abandoned the world, averring that he hoped never again to be a participant in its mean and violent affairs. His early writings, such as The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), the first to bring him general literary notoriety, Figures for an Apocalypse (1948), and Exile Ends in Glory: The Life of a Trappistine, Mother M. Berchmans, O.C.S.O. (1948), extolled the contemplative life and upheld the correctness of his decision to find fulfillment in monasticism. By the 1950’s, however, if The Sign of Jonas (1953) and No Man Is an Island (1955) are valid indications, he was at least on speaking terms with the world. By the 1960’s, as his biographer James Thomas Baker notes, he had resumed the more sanguine disposition of his youth and again, as evidenced not only in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander but also in Seeds of Destruction (1964) and Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (1968), became the world’s friend and lover.

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Changes within the Roman Catholic church itself partially accounted for this evolution of Merton’s attitudes and opinions. Early in 1959, Pope John XXIII called for a worldwide council to undertake an aggiornamento (an updating of Catholicism), which eventuated by 1962 in Vatican II, arguably the most significant religious event of the twentieth century. Pope John epitomized the spirit of Vatican II by launching unprecedented dialogues with representatives of other great religions, while simultaneously lending a more humanistic cast to previous Catholic dicta and practices. Clearly, for Merton, monk though he was, the fresh breezes of Vatican II’s internal reforms and ecumenism were propitious. His own examination of Catholicism—hence of himself and of monasticism—in an increasingly pluralistic world had never ceased. Stronger than ever in his faith and persuaded of the wisdom of his own choices, he was also freer to address the worldly plight of Christendom and to remind Christians, at both the spiritual and social levels, of their errors and opportunities.

Parallel changes within the Church as well as within himself also afforded Merton a chance to recast his own image as a writer. The readership to which he had first successfully appealed read a message calling for them to withdraw from worldly concerns (most of which were evil) and to embrace the sacrifices of the contemplative life—the only life, as he perceived it, that offered a true Christian vocation. That life was a singularly spiritual one; what nourishment one derived from it provided little, if any, sustenance for social needs. In truth, until the 1950’s, preoccupied as he was with contemplation, Merton’s notes, poems, and books reveal little knowledge of what those social needs might have been in any case.

Very gradually through the 1950’s, however, he realized that he had drawn too sharp a separation between the abbey and the world beyond. Having entered monastic life in order to find himself, he reasoned that if he entered too deeply into it and lost his place in the world, he would have wasted his time. Accordingly, he rebuked himself for having hated and rejected the world without having praised the good that there was in it and for having written pious books declaring how much better he was than others. This was the spirit in which Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and other Merton writings of the 1960’s were composed. They were to mark him, after his metamorphosis, as one of the Church’s most outspoken social critics—as another twentieth century man, guilty as everyone else, who had been a bystander for too long.

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