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From 1941 until his death in 1968, Thomas Merton lived as a Catholic Trappist monk-hermit in the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky; the episodic form of this work was therefore determined largely by the rhythms and obligations of his religious vocation. Divided into five parts, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is composed of 320 pages of personal reflections, metaphors, observations, insights, and critiques of various readings and of events, the more important of which are usefully indexed. The passages composing each part vary in length from an epigrammatic sentence or two to sketches and meditations of several hundred words. Merton wrote them between 1956 and 1965, but they do not display any particular chronological order.

Nevertheless, the book is neither a ragbag nor a capricious collection of musings. In 1955, Merton became Master of Choir Novices and thus shouldered what was to be an eleven-year burden of exceptionally heavy religious duties that precluded studied, systematic, or dense writing. Yet 1955 also marked the commencement of the fourth and most significant phase of his already prolific writings. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander constitutes his personal interpretation of the world of the 1960’s. His Trappist emphasis on solitude and meditation during this period was joined to a growing preoccupation with the alternatives and conundrums posed by a transitional era: nuclear weapons, Oriental mysticism, racism and materialism, the social implications of technology, and the disintegrative forces that he discerned primarily as they affected American character, but which were almost equally apparent in France, where he had been born, and in England, where he received his early education. Indeed, he perceived them as forces that were being manifested in varying degrees throughout Western Christendom.

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is Merton’s acknowledgment that while the monastery provided him with a comprehensible world, he nevertheless desired to remain open to the vast, vocal, chaotic world beyond the abbey’s perimeter. The observations and criticisms that bind the work together as he scanned the contemporary scene are monastic, but they are not reflective of a monasticism that is narrowly circumscribed and constrained toward a hermetic sterility. It is as if in this book Merton, with both feet planted firmly within monastic bounds, were poking his head out his window to offer personal, highly tentative, and informal comments on the shape and character of current issues. Justification for this commentary stems from his belief that the cloistered, contemplative life was one that compelled personal openness, growth, and intellectual development. Understanding that he, too, lacked answers to the profound problems of Western civilization, he sought to make his contribution by at least conjecturing: drawing inferences about the state of Christendom from slight evidence.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47

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