A Course in Desert Spirituality

Fifteen Sessions with a Famous Trappist Monk

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Thomas Merton
Jon M. Sweeney
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , May
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As with A Course in Christian Mysticism (Liturgical Press, 2017), Thomas Merton’s A Course in Desert Spirituality is based on a heavily edited compilation of talks he gave at the Abbey of Gethsemani. The former, however, was directed at nuns; the present volume was originally for the novices at the monastery. It should also be noted that these lectures are not verbatim transcriptions but based on earlier, unabridged volumes. Nonetheless, Jon Sweeney’s astute editing and holistic understanding of Merton’s thought makes the text very readable and organized. 

In brief, after a short foreword by Paul Quenon, a former novice and fellow Trappist, the slim volume covers Merton’s fifteen lectures which survey the first six centuries of Christian monasticism and its connections to the mystical tradition. He does so through the key fathers and mothers of the Church.

Moving chronologically, Merton provides brief histories, contexts, and disputes surrounding each figure and their thought. He pauses to highlight each theological contribution and how that contribution is applicable to the contemporary monastic. By and large, Merton’s treatment is fairly critical and non-hagiographical—seasoned, as it were, by his typical hard-nosed approach to the spiritual life.

There are few surprises; the saints are saints and heretics remain heretics. One would look in vain for contrapuntal readings of Gnosticism, Arianism, and Pelagianism so en vogue today—although he is unexpectedly even handed with Origen: “There is a kind of fashion among superficial minds to dismiss Origen as a heretic and have nothing to do with him. This is unfortunate because Origen is certainly one of the greatest and even holiest of the Church Fathers and was certainly the most influential of the early Fathers” (17).

Further, Merton takes as a given the narratives themselves and the sources, pausing only briefly to discuss any issues with authorship or manuscripts. Since his focus is on the spiritual life and his audience includes monks, he is clearly after the meaningfulness of the desert tradition, not trying to settle endless and irresolvable disputes of historicity. 

As with many of Merton’s writings, there are several ways of reading it. One could take a genetic approach, seeking to uncover vestiges of Merton’s biography. For example, one can find echoes of his issues with authority or his wrestling with the paradox of an eremitic vocation and his gregarious personality.

The text could also be read as a short history of monastic practice or a snapshot of the novitiate under Merton’s tutelage in the 1950s before the drastic changes of Vatican II. It could also be read, and this is the way Sweeney intends for us to read it, in a lectio divina fashion—that is, as a spiritual discipline to mature our souls and draw us nearer to God. In short, we are to read as the monks listened: “To pick up this book is to study—but more than to study, it is to listen, and carefully. That should be the intention of all who read beyond this point” (xv).

To this end, Sweeney includes Group Discussion Topics, Questions, Additional Readings, and an index at the end of the book. The discussion topics and questions seek to connect some points Merton makes in each chapter with the spiritual journey of the modern reader while recognizing the contextualized and preliminary nature of the text itself.  

In terms of Merton studies, A Course in Desert Spirituality offers a few glimpses into Merton’s personality and intersections with the consistent themes found elsewhere in his work. As anyone who has read his journals would know, Merton was reflexively self-conscious and had a highly developed sense of irony.

One senses his uneasiness with being a teacher far from perfection when he remarks: “When Benedict reaches ascetic perfection and becomes a contemplative, souls are also brought to him to be formed” (26). And, later, one can hear him try to justify his writing and publishing journals: “Hence there is some justification for keeping a journal if even St. Anthony recommended the practice!” (29). It must have also been particularly difficult, given his on-going conflicts with the abbot for him to tell the novices that “in community life the divine will is easy to know and follow. The great enemy is self-will. Everything else in the monastery can be consecrated to God, but not this” (42). 

At its best, this book is a primer on the mystical tradition which offers guidance on whom to read, what to look for, what to watch out for, and how to approach the tradition. On the other hand, this book is thoroughly Roman Catholic in orientation and, in modern terms, a clear example of cultural appropriation from Coptic, Byzantine, and Greek Orthodox traditions.

Additionally, Merton’s own limited vision for lay spirituality outside the monastic tradition dampens the wider applicability of the lectures. As a guide to the mystical threads within the patristic tradition, it is a good place to start. In terms of learning how to practice the mystical life with Merton as one’s guide, I recommend starting with Sweeney’s other volume, A Course in Christian Mysticism, with Merton’s Spiritual Direction and Meditation (Liturgical Press, 1960) and his translation of the sayings of the desert fathers, The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions, 1970). For a wider engagement with mysticism in general, one cannot do better than Bernard McGinn’s many volumes on the subject.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin D. Crace is an Assistant Professor at the American University of  Kuwait.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) was an American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion.

Jon M. Sweeney is an independent Scholar, author, critic, and publisher.


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