On Thomas Merton

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Mary Gordon
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications, Inc.
    , December
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mary Gordon’s forays into non-fiction are often extensions of the tensions she explores in her narrators, especially personal encounters with religious figures, such as in Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter the Gospels (Anchor Press, 2009). Gordon’s Catholicism is a complicated mixture of background scenery and an O’Connor-like wraith, a figure on the edges of consciousness which emerges in the most intimate and simultaneously the most artificial mode of action: writing. It is from this dasein of Catholic writers that Gordon approaches the equally complicated persona of Thomas Merton in On Thomas Merton.

Gordon’s text is a curated commentary, a conversation between writer and reader about another (absent) writer. And while reading On Thomas Merton puts one in the room where the conversation is happening, it is hard to know just how to respond. This is not Thomas Merton; this is Gordon’s Merton—the Catholic writer, who, like a character in her fiction, personifies the fraught dialectic between faith and the “secular” task of writing. 

Structurally, there are four chapters in On Thomas Merton. The first, “Writer to Writer: But What Kind?” begins with some moments of reflexivity and Jungian synchronicities between Gordon and Merton. It then moves to his correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czesław Milosz. Gordon’s arrangement and commentary highlights the repartee between Merton and them: acolyte to the more accomplished writers. However, quickly—or so it seems in the telescoping of re-worked history—the tone of the conversations shift. Merton becomes the expert, dispensing spiritual advice. Although the relationship with Waugh dissipated, Merton remained close to Milosz through the years. Through the correspondence, Gordon tries to paint a mirror. She seems to ask: Is Merton’s approach and relationship to the craft of writing, and to other writers, the same as mine? Or am I imposing my own history on this character called Merton? This exploration into Merton’s thoughts on writing continues throughout this section as Gordon excises entries from the journals in a seemingly haphazard fashion, underlining the monk-writer “problem.” 

The second section takes its name from Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (Harcourt Brace, 1948), which cemented his place in the American Catholic landscape. Problematically, it generated an overabundance of postulants to the Abbey, straining its resources. Consequently, Merton’s writing vocation, as Gordon points out, was as much about creating revenue to support the monastery as it was an artistic calling. Giving us a few expertly chosen excerpts from The Mountain, Gordon continues her running commentary, alternating between literary critic and psychoanalyst: “Merton’s stoicism and reticence about his emotional life allow us to forget that he suffered deep psychic wounds as a child” (53). After several lengthy quotations, Gordon declares: “I find Merton’s description of his grandmother in front of the mirror, and his recounting of his childhood cruelty to his brother, far more evocative than this Tennysonian act of faith in the goodness of God” (60). Here and elsewhere, Gordon seems to identify with Merton precisely where she finds echoes of her protagonists in her novels about tortured faith. She intimates that when Merton actually writes like a Catholic monk, he is, at worse, disingenuous and at best, inauthentic. No, the “real” Merton, she hints, is the Existentialist humanist writer distanced from dogma, haunted by Tradition. 

The third phase of the book centers on Merton’s novel, My Argument with the Gestapo (1941). Gordon mines the novel for aesthetic gems like similes and metaphors, complimenting Merton’s ability along the way to describe, à laJames Joyce and Marcel Proust, rooms and other taken-for-granted detritus of everyday life: “Merton’s greatest gift as a writer was his ability to evoke a place, a moment, an atmosphere with a few swift strokes ... ” (68). Gordon clearly appreciates the novel hesitatingly, noting that it belongs to a very narrow historical moment, one unaware of Auschwitz. It is in Merton’s early attempt at fiction that Gordon finds “the subjects that would dominate [his] writing and life: the problem of war and violence, his particular calling as a writer, and his vexed identity as an American whose imagination had been formed in and marked by Europe,” albeit in “concentrated form” (68). However, as with his autobiography, Gordon demurs anything resembling Tridentine Catholicism. Gordon writes, “[t]he heavy-handed, almost aggressive insistence on the superiority of Catholicism and his identity as a Catholic that so often clogs The Seven Storey Mountain occurs only very rarely in My Argument, when Merton takes on the diction of high Catholic rhetoric and slips into the late Victorian bog that will pollute so much of the autobiography” (79). 

The fourth and final part of her extended reflection dissects Merton’s journals, which Gordon candidly recalls were the reason she “fell in love with him.” In my own case as well, the Merton of the journals is a far more accessible figure than the Thomist author of No Man Is an Island (1955)—one of the few books of his I never finished. But accessibility is not necessarily an indication of truth. Perhaps the reader has not yet reached a level where such abstraction can fully be appreciated. Regardless, like myself, Gordon prefers the journals, leaving the best section for last. After extolling his love of nature, the tragic nature of his death by electrocution in a bathroom, his health problems, his ongoing love affair with France, and his real love affair with “M” (whom Merton scholars all know is Margie Smith, thanks to Mark Shaw’s Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free, St. Martin’s Press, 2009), Gordon finally gets to Merton’s God. Gordon highlights Merton’s few mystical experiences (one from 1940, 1952, and 1958, the famous 4th and Walnut experience in Louisville, KY), which she describes as “sensual and overfilled.” Gordon locates Merton’s spiritual wells as these few isolated incidences in his life—incidences which make it into the journal but are not, to my knowledge, ever cross-referenced later by Merton himself as significant to his journey, except, perhaps, in a few moments of reminiscence. No, these are authorial choices reinterpreted by Gordon herself to fill out the frame of her Merton. But, she cannot end the book with Merton’s beatific visions; he must come down to earth: “Merton knows he must come to terms with a religious life that is not all mystical vision, that has patches of doubt, of dryness, a sense of absurdity” and, quoting Merton from 1966: “I reserve the right to my own empty and disconcerting experience of faith” (132-33). 

On Thomas Merton is indeed a portrait and a portrait only. This is the danger of partly recapitulating a life through journals; daily minutiae are left out, which, nevertheless, have an outstanding effect on one’s psyche. There is a lot of monastic machinery going on in the background of his journal that he completely excludes. In the final analysis, Gordon’s sympathetic account is truly a portrait of the artist full of vitality and contradictions. On Thomas Merton’s value thus lies in its personalization and novelistic extrapolation of a long-term encounter with a truly enigmatic figure.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
April 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary Gordon is McIntosh Professor of English at Barnard College.



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