Thomas Merton's Dance with the Feminine
- ISBN: 9781773430355
- Published By: Wood Lake Publishing
- Published: October 2018
In Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton's Dance with the Feminine, Susan McCaslin and J.S. Porter set out to trace the influence of “the feminine” on the life and work of Thomas Merton and then to reflect on that influence in their own lives. They successfully reveal what results from a surrender to, or dance with, the feminine: a superabundant life.
The book unfolds as a series of vignettes that, because of the diversity of their genres (e.g., an alphabetical elucidation of Merton’s life, a series of imaginative letters from McCaslin to Merton and his lover, and a “conversation” between authors), keeps the reader’s attention. This variety illustrates the complexity associated with the search for and response to the feminine as well as the authors’ attempts to replicate Merton’s methods for doing so—good models for the reader’s personal reflection.
The principal contribution this text makes is the exploration of the feminine in Merton. The foundation on which the authors build their case is a February 1958 journal entry. In it, “Merton relates a dream-vision in which Holy Wisdom in the form of a young, dark-haired Jewish woman passionately accosts him in the street. [Merton writes:] ‘I am embraced with determined and virginal passion by a young Jewish girl. She clings to me and will not let go. . . . I ask her name and she says her name is Proverb’” (22; for a longer excerpt, see 192). The authors connect this experience to Merton’s now-famous Fourth and Walnut experience and to his study of Sophia—connections that lead the authors, like Merton, to the broad conception of feminine as synonymous with Sophia, Wisdom, and Proverb.
Also explored is the incarnate, embodied aspect of the feminine. The authors argue that the difficult conclusion to Merton’s relationship with his mother, who died without allowing Merton to see her suffer, led him to the feminine as a process of self-restoration—a process experienced in his dream-vision, his writing Hagia Sophia, and his relationships with actual women who themselves were not bound by the societally imposed view of feminine as merely masculine’s complement. For McCaslin and Porter, these experiences led Merton not only to a better understanding of the feminine but also to embody it in his integration of and relationship to self, others, and the created world.
Importantly, however, McCaslin and Porter qualify this discovery and embodiment of the feminine as something not donned from outside ourselves. Instead, the feminine “is incarnate in nature as natura naturans, or nature doing what nature does, which is being herself and acting as the essential creative power within us and the world” (221). This is consistent with Merton’s conviction that sainthood is one being more fully oneself (142). One takes the example of the created world around them, where the feminine is apparent in flowers being flowers, rocks being rocks, birds being birds—all exactly as they were created to be (the bridge the authors make to environmentalism).
In the end, the reader will appreciate the difficulty of offering a succinct, clear, or sufficient definition of the feminine—and it is certainly not to be confused with cliché femininity. To cope, the reader should focus instead on two other words from the book’s title: superabundance and dance. These terms offer, respectively, an important insight into the myriad ways feminine can be defined and the intellectual activity in which the reader must participate to come to at least some handle on its meaning.
The highlight of the book may be the exegesis McCaslin offers for Hagia Sophia, including an exploration of its influences (128–35). There the authors explore in greatest and most succinct detail the feminine as “represent[ing] the darkness of ‘unknowing’ as well as the dawn light. . . . Gender metaphors are an expression of two aspects of a single dynamic at play, like Wisdom at the foundation of the world” (132). Here, the authors present Merton’s conception of the feminine as one that includes both his lover, “M.,” and Rosemary Radford Reuther, a challenging (if not confrontational) voice in his life.
Importantly, in chapter 6, McCaslin writes imaginative letters to Merton and “M.” In them, she opens Merton to some of the contemporary criticisms one might bring regarding the power dynamic associated with his affair. McCaslin offers more questions than answers, nuancing the relationship and whose perspective we should foreground. But she opts for a hermeneutic of generosity because she believes that his experience of the embodied feminine helped form Merton into something more integrated—one who knew he “could fully love and be loved by another” (181).
The authors argue in chapter 7 that when one allows oneself to experience the feminine, something creative is done through them, which was the case in the peace/activist poetry of both Denise Levertov and Merton. Certainly, poetry can have an impact, but, as Levertov argued, “The poet does not use poetry, but is at the service of poetry. To use it is to misuse it” (194, emphasis original). The feminine—Wisdom, Sophia, Proverb—uses the poet to say what it wishes.
This leads to the final chapter, in which McCaslin shares her own experience of environmental activism through her use of—or, rather, her being used by—poetry. This autobiographical turn demonstrates well how one’s surrender to the feminine can lead them to an integration that naturally results in activism.
Ultimately, McCaslin’s voice is heard the most. And while McCaslin shows us the same sentiment in her creative and autobiographical contributions, Porter says best what the reader will likely feel upon finishing the book: “In Merton’s work, you’re implicitly invited to be a beginner alongside him. I hear his invitation. I accept it. I want to begin again with my reading and re-reading of Merton” (85). Merton’s work is a dance into which the reader is invited. As they learn the steps, they will surely stumble over their two left feet. But once they find the rhythm, they will hope the music never stops.
R. Zachary Karanovich is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at Boston College.R. Zachary KaranovichDate Of Review:January 26, 2022