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.
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...
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