One of the most prolific American Catholic writers of the 20th century, Thomas Merton produced a supple, contemplative prose style that grew out of his contemplative life as a Cistercian monk. Or it could be said that the prose style preceded the lifestyle, for the nature of Merton’s writing was established well before he became a priest and a monk. In an era when the American essay was becoming almost embarrassingly intimate Merton’s own prose, though it could be called “personal” in style, exhibited a personalism that de-emphasized the value of the self. Even his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which by its nature must focus on himself, is not so much self-conscious as conscious that the self is an illusion. “Free by nature,” begins the second sentence in the book, “in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born.”
In all his writing, Merton’s spirituality is inseparable from his style.
For readers, however, the connection between Merton’s contemplative prayer and his writing must be heavily qualified. Merton thought of contemplation as the “cloud of unknowing” imagined by an anonymous 14th-century mystic, a prayer carefully devoid of images. Yet writing that is emptied of images is very dull, and almost invariably bad.
Hence even the most transcendent and abstract spiritual experiences appear in Merton’s prose in concrete images. The saint’s radical freedom in God he expresses this way in Seeds of Contemplation (1949): “A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall through it into immense depths which, although they are infinite, are all accessible to us.” Even the “cloud of unknowing” and “the dark night of the soul” are themselves images in writing, for all that they represent an imageless contemplation.
Merton’s prose is capable of abstraction, of course, and he is capable of abstract thought. In a lengthy paragraph critiquing Marxism, which very quickly turns to a personal critique of Marx, Merton writes, in prose filled with generalities as vague as those of the worst Marxist rhetoric, about the terrible effects of Marx’s “bourgeois and Jewish conscience” on the world. But just as the connections Merton makes are about to collapse into their own abstraction, he ends the paragraph with a picture that focuses as sharply on Marx as on the “effects” Merton has asserted: “Because Marx raged at himself and everyone else and wore out a path in his carpet walking up and down the room cursing his boils, there are now twenty million persons in Soviet forced labor camps” (The Monastic Journey, 1977). What had been abstract assertion is now realized in a verbal diptych.
Though his formal theological writings can be as involuted in thought and style as those of Thomas Aquinas, whom Merton revered, his attempts to popularize contemplative life, or to explain it to a lay audience, could be simple and aphoristic.
Thus, in attempting to counter a Manichaean tendency in religion, the error of valuing only spirit and scorning material reality, Merton crossed Alexander Pope’s “Everything that is, is right” with William Blake’s “Everything that lives is holy” to say “Everything that is, is holy,” a chapter title in Seeds of Contemplation. (Blake in fact was an important influence in Merton’s thought and writing, and his “Proverbs of Hell” in The Marriage of
Heaven and Hell  may be a source of Merton’s own aphoristic style.)
Merton’s aphorisms, however, are not presented as proverbs, disembodied snippets of wisdom. They always arise naturally as incandescent condensations of the point he is moving toward in the paragraph. “The spiritual life is first of all a life” (Thoughts in Solitude, 1958). “All true love is a death and a resurrection in Christ” (Disputed Questions, 1960). “The devil believes in God but he has no God” (No Man Is an Island, 1955). “To see your hope is to abandon hope” (The New Man, 1961). “As long as we are in this world, our life in Christ remains hidden” (The Living Bread, 1956). “When a myth becomes a daydream it is judged, found wanting, and must be discarded” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966). Yet sentences like these differ from proverbs and folk sayings in that their meanings are not self-contained: they need to be unfolded in the sentences that surround them. By themselves they either make no sense or seem incomplete.
Though most of his prose tends toward the theological, Merton’s essays touch on any number of subjects, primarily literary and art criticism (his early training was in art, his graduate studies in literature) and politics. Since his vocation as a writer preceded his vocation as a priest, and since he considered both to be literally calls from God, Merton maintained a keen interest in the role of literature and art in the culture of the 20th century. Thus an essentially religious book, Disputed Questions, begins with a 20,000- word chapter on the Russian novelist Boris Pasternak, with whom Merton had corresponded in the years just before Pasternak’s death.
As well known for his poetry as his prose, Merton displays the poet’s ear for prose rhythm. In a random passage in his journal Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander Merton attributes to Gregory the Great a break from the classical style in medieval Latin toward a rhythm that simplified medieval prose the way Gregorian chant simplified medieval music. There is no doubt that a little of Gregory’s simplified prose rhythms also crept into Merton’s writing, especially since he tells us that he spent a year of his novitiate reading Gregory’s Moralia. One of the wonders of Merton’s prose is that it sounds very contemporary while yet echoing in rhythm, diction, and, of course, doctrine, the great writers of Catholic antiquity.
Born 31 January 1915 in Prades, France. Brought to the United States, 1916; returned to France, 1925, then lived in England, from 1928, and back in the U.S., from 1934; became a U.S. citizen, 1951. Studied at Clare College, Cambridge, 1933–34; Columbia University, New York, 1935–38, B.A., 1938, M.A., 1939. Instructor in English, Columbia University, 1938–39, and St. Bonaventure University, New York, 1939–41.
Cistercian monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky, 1941–68: ordained priest, 1949, master of scholastics, 1951–55, master of novices, 1955– 65, and lived as a hermit in the grounds of the monastery, 1965–68.
Awards: Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer Award, 1939; Catholic Literary Award, 1949; Catholic WritersGuild Golden Book Award, 1951; Columbia University Medal for Excellence, 1961; Pax Medal, 1963; honorary degree from one university.
Died (accidentally electrocuted) in Bangkok, Thailand, 10 December 1968.
Essays and Related Prose
What Is Contemplation?1948
Seeds of Contemplation, 1949; revised edition, as New Seeds of Contemplation, 1962
The Ascent to Truth, 1951
Bread in the Wilderness, 1953
No Man Is an Island, 1955
The Living Bread, 1956
The Silent Life, 1957
Thoughts in Solitude, 1958
Spiritual Direction and Meditation, 1960
Disputed Questions, 1960; selection as The Power and Meaning of Love, 1976
The Behavior of Titans, 1961
The New Man, 1961
A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P.McDonnell, 1962
Life and Holiness, 1963
Seeds of Destruction, 1964
Seasons of Celebration, 1965
Mystics and Zen Masters, 1967
Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 1968
Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice, 1968
The Climate of Monastic Prayer, 1969; as Contemplative Prayer, 1969
The True Solitude: Selections from the Writings, edited by Dean Walley, 1969
Opening the Bible, 1970; revised edition, 1983
Contemplation in a World of Action, 1971
Thomas Merton on Peace, 1971; revised edition, as The Nonviolent Alternative, edited by Gordon C.Zahn, 1980
Spiritual Direction and Meditation; and, What Is Contemplation?, 1975
Thomas Merton on Zen, 1976
Ishi Means Man: Essays on Native Americans, 1976
The Monastic Journey, edited by Patrick Hart, 1977
Love and Living, edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Patrick Hart, 1979
Thomas Merton on St.Bernard, 1980
Introductions East and West: The Foreign Prefaces, edited by Robert E.Daggy, 1981;
revised, enlarged edition, as Honorable Reader: Reflections on My Work, edited by Daggy, 1989
The Literary Essays, edited by Patrick Hart, 1981
“Monks Pond”: Thomas Merton’s Little Magazine, edited by Robert E.Daggy, 1989
Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence S.Cunningham, 1992
Passion for Peace: The Social Essays, edited by William Shannon, 1995
Other writings: poetry, volumes of autobiography (including The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948; as Elected Silence, 1949), and several volumes of journals and correspondence.
Breit, Marquita, Thomas Merton: A Bibliography, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1974
Dell’Isola, Frank, Thomas Merton: A Bibliography, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1975
Bailey, Raymond, Thomas Merton on Mysticism, New York: Doubleday, 1975
Furlong, Monica, Merton, a Biography, New York: Harper and Row, 1980; London: SPCK, revised edition, 1995
Kramer, Victor A., “Thomas Merton’s Published Journals: The Paradox of Writing as a Step Toward Contemplation,” Studia Mystica 3 (1980):3–20
Kramer, Victor A., “Merton’s Affirmation and the Affirmation of Merton: Writing About Silence,” Review 4(1981):295–334
Kramer, Victor A., Thomas Merton, Boston: Twayne, 1984
Labrie, Ross, The Art of Thomas Merton, Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1979
Mclnerny, Dennis Q., Thotnas Merton: The Man and His Work, Spencer, Massachusetts: Cistercian Publications, 1974
Twomey, Gerald, editor, Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox, New York: Paulist Press, 1978
Woodcock, George, Thomas Merton, Monk and Poet: A Critical Study, Vancouver: Douglas and Mclntyre, Edinburgh: Canongate, and New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978
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