Thomas Merton Merton, Thomas (Vol. 1) - Essay

Merton, Thomas (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Merton, Thomas 1915–1968

A French-born American Trappist monk, Merton was a poet and essayist. The Seven Storey Mountain is his autobiography. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

Many Christians would like to believe that the sale of [Merton's Seeds of Contemplation and The Seven Storey Mountain] is indicative of an incipient religious revival, but Father Merton apparently had no such illusions, and he was deeply concerned over the crisis which at present threatens monastic life….

It is extremely difficult, however, to participate fully in political discourse when one is removed from the polis; and monastics, after all, are citizens of another country, however deeply they may feel their ordinary civic responsibilities; and their contribution to the world they have renounced is necessarily of a very special nature, since it is characteristic of their vocation to be special pleaders. One is not surprised, therefore, that Father Merton's essays on the temporal world should be pervaded by a strong sense of the eternal one. Indeed, the two worlds exist simultaneously in the best chapters of [Seeds of Destruction]: the paradigm of the City of God superimposed on the secular city, man measured against Christ and found wanting….

Mystics and Zen Masters is, in some measure, a book about Roman Catholic monasticism—its essential nature, its rôle in contemporary society…. For, though he discusses such widely diverse religious traditions as Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, English and Russian mysticism, and Protestant monasticism, he is finally speaking to religious contemplatives of his own faith; and his essays usually contain some specific lesson framed for the Roman Catholic monastic. That these lessons are neither profound nor complex is both the strength and the weakness of the volume, which is really a kind of primer in Comparative Religion….

Cables to the Ace is a collection of "Horatian Odes" about modern secular life and the world of the spirit—the same themes which undergird the two previous volumes. Of course an essayist, by the very nature of rational discourse, is restricted in the scope of his concern; but the poet may synthesize or distill an entire complex world in a single lyric; and a book of poems is, for a talent as versatile as Father Merton's, an opportunity for ranging wide….

Father Merton … devoured and digested the modern world, bitter though it may be … [and his] bone and blood were constantly being nourished by contemporary society. Thus he devised metaphors the vehicles of which are taken from cybernetics, electronics, and business. He deliberately adopted a debased rhetoric, not merely for ironic contrast, but in order to wring poetry out of bureaucratic prose, company memos, news broadcasts, advertisements, and the inane slang of the marketplace. And just as Horace did, he wrote serious verse on the issues of the day. Many modern poets have done these things on occasion, but few if any have so thoroughly immersed themselves in the age while at the same time maintaining the perspective of the literary traditionalist.

If I understand him correctly, then, this excellent volume is an exemplum of a Christian commitment to the temporal world which he has defined in his more polemical prose studies, a commitment which he says characterizes the best in the monastic tradition, a "oneness with all that is".

Thomas Landess, "Monastic Life and the Secular City" (© 1969 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Summer, 1969, pp. 530-35.