Author Spotlight: The Spiritual Nonfiction of Thomas Merton

The celebrated monk, philosopher, religious scholar and author Thomas Merton was very prolific. While much of his work is grounded in theology, most of his books are largely non-denominational and not particularly “religious”. Rather, Merton primarily focuses on the pillars of character, morality, personal responsibility and self-awareness. From Amazon:

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has millions of copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.

After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order.

The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960’s. Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called “certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.” For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.

During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk’s trip to the Far East in 1968, the Dali Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known.

Some of Merton’s most popular works include:


No Man Is An Island (4.5/5 stars, currently priced at $9.99)

A recapitulation of his earlier work Seeds of Contemplation, this collection of sixteen essays plumbs aspects of human spirituality.

Merton addresses those in search of enduring values, fulfillment, and salvation in prose that is, as always, inspiring and compassionate.

“A stimulating series of spiritual reflections which will prove helpful for all struggling to…live the richest, fullest and noblest life” (Chicago Tribune).

 

Thoughts in Solitude (4.5/5 stars, currently priced at $9.94)

Thoughtful and eloquent, as timely (or timeless) now as when it was originally published in 1956, Thoughts in Solitude addresses the pleasure of a solitary life, as well as the necessity for quiet reflection in an age when so little is private. Thomas Merton writes: “When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”

Thoughts in Solitude stands alongside The Seven Storey Mountain as one of Merton’s most enduring and popular works. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, is perhaps the foremost spiritual thinker of the twentieth century. His diaries, social commentary, and spiritual writings continue to be widely read after his untimely death in 1968.

 

Learning To Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom – [From] The Journals of Thomas Merton (4/5 stars, currently priced at $7.99)

Having embraced a life of solitude in his own hermitage, Thomas Merton finds his faith tested beyond his imagination when a visit to the hospital leads to a clandestine affair of the heart. Jolted out of his comfortable routine, Merton is forced to reassess his need for love and his commitment to celibacy and the monastic vocation.

This astonishing volume traces Merton’s struggle to reconcile his unexpected love with his sacred vows while continuing to grapple with the burning social issues of the day—including racial conflicts, the war in Vietnam, and the Arab-Israeli conflict—visiting and corresponding with high-profile friends like Thich Nhat Hanh and Joan Baez, and further developing his writing career.

Revealing Merton to be ‘very human’ in his chronicles of the ecstasy and torment of being in love, Learning to Love comes full circle as Merton recommits himself completely and more deeply to his vocation even as he recognizes ‘my need for love, my loneliness, my inner division, the struggle in which solitude is at once a problem and a ‘solution’. And perhaps not a perfect solution either’ (11 May, 1967).

 

Zen and the Birds of Appetite (4/5 stars, currently priced at $8.74)

Merton, one of the rare Western thinkers able to feel at home in the philosophies of the East, made the wisdom of Asia available to Westerners.
“Zen enriches no one,” Thomas Merton provocatively writes in his opening statement to Zen and the Birds of Appetite–one of the last books to be published before his death in 1968.

“There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while… but they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the ‘nothing,’ the ‘no-body’ that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.” This gets at the humor, paradox, and joy that one feels in Merton’s discoveries of Zen during the last years of his life, a joy very much present in this collection of essays.

Exploring the relationship between Christianity and Zen, especially through his dialogue with the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki, the book makes an excellent introduction to a comparative study of these two traditions, as well as giving the reader a strong taste of the mature Merton. Never does one feel him losing his own faith in these pages; rather one feels that faith getting deeply clarified and affirmed. Just as the body of “Zen” cannot be found by the scavengers, so too, Merton suggests, with the eternal truth of Christ.

 

Click here to browse the full catalog of Thomas Merton’s books.

 

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