For Thomas Merton, as for any writer, writing is as much about presenting himself as it is about presenting his ideas. And whom does Merton present across his writing career? In his early writings, Merton is a convert to Roman Catholicism and to monastic life. In many of his most familiar texts, he presents as a spiritual writer; his own contemplative spirit is never far below the surface in these works. Perhaps to Catholics of a certain stripe, Merton’s later writings present him as something of a scandal—throughout his life Merton struggled with the vocation that made him famous, including at least his vow of stability (i.e., to stay at the monastery of his profession). What’s more, in his later years, Merton frequently turned East for wisdom and spiritual nourishment, finding fruitful spiritual practices in yoga and Zen meditation; his growing affinity for Eastern spirituality led some to wonder (mistakenly, as most Merton scholars agree) if he was preparing to renounce Catholicism altogether. Reading Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, edited and introduced by Patrick F. O’Connell, however, one gets to know Merton as a scholar, a teacher, and, above all, a Cistercian monk.
Merton the scholar comes out most clearly in his more formal essays in the volume—his work “St. Anselm and His Argument” (104–52), say, or his extended piece on St. Aelred of Rievaulx (256–369). The essay on Anselm of Canterbury, which first appeared in American Benedictine Review in 1966, is particularly thrilling. The reader can readily see the seeds for this article in an earlier conference Merton gave his novices on Anselm’s ontological argument, also included in the collection (45–53). Indeed, this piece’s origin in a monastic setting contributes a great deal to its strength. Merton’s perceptive reading of Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence as “a monastic meditation born of a profoundly monastic experience” helps him avoid a temptation to which many fall prey, that is, to read the Proslogion as merely a dialectic proof for a nonbeliever (110). Though Merton otherwise appreciates R.W. Southern’s “really remarkable” scholarship on Anselm (130), on this point Merton faults Southern (110). For Merton, “the Anselmian proof has no utilitarian purpose: it merely adds to the joy and serenity of belief the further joy and clarity of understanding the evident proof” (120).
Merton’s long discussion of Aelred—over one hundred pages in this volume—was apparently the beginnings of a biography, a project he worked on steadily throughout his life but, as O’Connell points out in an introductory essay, never quite finished (254–5). The material on Aelred collected in this volume was originally edited and published posthumously in the late 1980s in Cistercian Studies. Merton’s treatment of Aelred is quite a feat: he offers a great deal of context, including on the Cistercians generally (256–70) and on the Cistercians in France and England (270–6 and 276–9, respectively), before getting into Aelred’s own life and thought. The amount of historical detail Merton packs into these pages makes this study of Aelred valuable not only for its stated subject matter, but also as an introduction to the history and spirituality of Cistercian monasticism more broadly.
The conferences transcribed and collected here are a delight to read as examples of Merton the teacher. He gave these lessons and lectures in his capacity as novice master, offering instruction in monastic living and spirituality to monks in the first couple years of their formation. Merton’s teaching is learned, witty, self-aware, affectionate, and relevant. His enthusiasm for Blessed Guerric of Igny, a Cistercian whose life straddled the 11th and 12th centuries, comes through palpably; Merton compliments Guerric’s clear theology and plain Latin, which Merton contrasts against Bernard of Clairvaux’s more rambling and obscure style (192). Unfortunately for Merton, the novices don’t seem to share his affection for Guerric; amusingly (and a little desperately), he opens one of his conferences with, “You guys don’t seem to like Guerric! I notice that a large number of people have ceased to come very fast! What’s the matter with Guerric? What about him? What’s the trouble with Guerric?” (238).
But what makes Merton especially compelling as a teacher is his attention to the relevance of these figures. Merton does not reduce these figures to ciphers for modern anxieties and preoccupations. Rather, he recognizes how these long-dead monks can offer wisdom to us today. Consider, for instance, Merton’s remarks on Adam of Perseigne’s account of the new life of the Christian: “He [sc., Adam] certainly recognizes that there is a deep vein of unconscious falsity in us which must become conscious, must be seen for what it is, before we can get free of its all-pervading influence in our lives” (429). Merton’s insightful analysis of the true and false self in his spiritual masterpiece New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions Publishing, 1961), which speaks to modern concerns about authenticity and the self, is not far from the wisdom of these Cistercian writers who nourished his religious life.
This brings me, then, to the last Merton we meet across these essays and conferences: Merton the Cistercian monk. O’Connell’s work as editor shines here; his brief prefaces to each piece and his ample endnotes help contextualize these essays and conferences in the broader trajectory of Merton’s life and the wider corpus of his writings. Some conferences, like his discussion of Anselm and stability, read like they’re as much for Merton as they are for the novices in his care (71–81). Despite Merton’s evident affection for a life of monastic stability, his lifelong restlessness led him to request permission to take a tour of Asia toward the end of 1968. During this tour Merton died unexpectedly when he was accidentally electrocuted after giving a talk at a conference in Thailand. Whether he would have remained at Gethsemani had he survived his tour of Asia is beside the point; it’s clear from reading these essays and conferences that the Cistercians of the 11th and 12th centuries left a deep and abiding imprint on Merton and how he understood his own spiritual life. As Merton tells his novices, “you’re called to the monastery to really die in it” (92). He may not have died within the walls of the Abbey of Gethsemani, but Merton certainly died within the walls of Cistercian monasticism.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Catholic convert, Cistercian monk and hermit, priest, poet, contemplative, social critic, peace advocate and pioneer in interreligious dialogue, was the author of more than seventy volumes, including meditations, essays, journals, letters and poetry. Among Merton's most enduring works is his bestselling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.
Patrick F. O'Connell is Professor of English and Theology at Gannon University.
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