Thomas Merton’s Last Book

The title refers to the last book that Thomas Merton I himself had prepared for publication. There have of course been certain posthumous works released since the death of the famed Trappist monk, Dec. 10, 1968, while attending a conference on monasticism in the Far East. Moreover, the Merton publishing industry promises to be lively and productive for some years to come. The last poems have long since been published and perhaps just as promptly overrated by those who have not yet placed them embarrassingly enough, beside the religious poetry of the late David Jones and the contemporary British poet Geoffrey Hill. Volumes of the letters will soon be published, no doubt, and the journals of Thomas Merton, when issued about a decade hence, will prove in many ways to be the most remarkable of all his writings.

Technically speaking, however, and in some ways very realistically speaking, Merton’s last book and ultimate statement was The Climate of Monastic Prayer, issued under the imprint of Cistercian Publications and Consortium Press (1973), as the initial venture in the new Cistercian Studies Series. The scholars and spiritual leaders responsible for the publication of this book, citing especially the inspired guidance of M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O., could not have selected a more significant text with which to launch this notable series of spiritual writings as seen and placed anew in the contemporary context.

There has been so much actual and potential nonsense written about Merton’s fateful journey to the Far East—and of what he may or may not have encountered there—that it is necessary at this time to re-center him at the point where he more truly exists and at last most properly belongs. I happened to put it this way in my own introduction to Blaze of Recognition (Doubleday, N.Y., 1983), a choice of daily meditations drawn from the various writings of the monk:

The quintessential Thomas Merton will always be, in my opinion, the Cistercian monk and contemplative whose locus of geography and spirit is irreversibly identified with the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Though there was in Merton a certain restlessness of temperament that now and then tempted him to consider other regimens of the religious life and perhaps even to fantasize on new foundations in more or less esoteric places, it is the prayerful and meditative monk who remains central to the image we shall always have of him. In the end, as in the beginning, solitude was his only vocation.

I would further refine this conclusion by saying that Merton’s only vocation was, of course, Christocentric solitude. This is nowhere so evident, I think, as in The Climate of Monastic Prayer. Here we have the most serious Merton, the literally professional Cistercian monk, writing to his brothers in the centuried tradition which they all shared and in which the most concerned of them were looking toward a future that Merton himself would not live to see. And yet, though his days were that closely numbered, it is now not only reasonable but transparently prophetic to say that Merton indeed is still helping to shape the future. There was a Merton who sometimes posed for the public, odd as this may seem, but you will not find him in The Climate of Monastic Prayer.

The title is only slightly forbidding, and lay people in particular should not be put off by it. Merton has a way of revivifying the possibilities of one’s prayer-life, not as lapses into mere individualism, however, but in a manner so communal and so illuminating that the celebration of the liturgy itself becomes an act of immediacy and renewal. One ought prudently to be advised, all the same, that in Merton we shall not find the way to easy or pious consolations. Exactly the opposite is the case. His greatest emphasis lies in fact on that concept of existential dread which most deeply afflicts those with an uneasy knowledge of how easily we can fall into the various modes of bogus interiority. The contemplative monk knows this keenly enough, in most instances, but we whose task it is to live in the noisiest of worlds ought nevertheless strive to bring to it some measure of the silences of true contemplation. As it is, the monk takes on the burden of the world in a way that the world itself does not know.

In 1968, with this book, Thomas Merton seemed to reach a center of spiritual stability which belies the sometimes inferred contention that he might have been in a slightly overwrought state when he left for the Far East. For example, he could still write sentences like the following:

When one is simply obeying God, a little effort goes a long way.

We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!

God darkens the mind only in order to give a more perfect light.

What am I? I am myself a word spoken by God. Can God speak a word that does not have any meaning?

These are not the spiritual aphorisms of a man at loose ends either with himself or with the ineffable sources of his contemplation. Long before Thomas Merton had gone to the Far East, there was ample evidence that he had already turned to the Christocentric wisdom of the Near East—that is to say, to the “school of hesychastic contemplation which flourished in the monastic centers of Sinai and Mount Athos” and which at times, Merton himself admitted, had irresponsibly been compared to yoga, etc.

Still, paradoxically, there seems little argument that Merton was at least susceptible, for whatever reasons, to the kind of experience he had undergone at Polonnaruwa only a week before his death by electrical accident (and/or heart attack) at the monastic conference just outside Bangkok. His mystical experience there, or what we may now profess to know of it from his last journal notes, was not all that dissimilar from the naturalistic revelations of Richard Jefferies on the Sussex Downs, of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s self-entrancement on Boston Common, or of Henry Thoreau imbibing delight through every pore by the shores of Walden Pond. In any case, it is now fairly arguable that Merton did not possess the critical faculty—or, more likely, the disposition—to perceive in Far Eastern thought (R. C. Zaehner would have been a better guide for him in this regard than was D. T. Suzuki) the pernicious streak of absolutist negation that is obviously there on closer examination.

Westerners can traipse to Polonnaruwa and swoon all over the place, if they wish, or if indeed they are curiously given to even the loftiest expectations of that sort, but we are nevertheless beings equipped with thoroughly rooted Aristotelian minds. The principle of identity (A is A) obtains in us, thwart it how we may, whereas the null-A of Zen Buddhist and other types of eastern philosophy must remain basically alien to us—that is, insofar as the personhood of the Word, Jesus Christ incarnate, embodies for us that ultimate principle of identity which displaces, or at least puts into perspective, all other dimensions. For trend-seeking Christians to fancy otherwise is folly at best, speciosity at worst.

This is not to contend, however, that we should cut off all contact with the spirituality of the Far East. I once in fact suggested to Thomas Merton the establishment of an East-West quarterly of opinion as a vehicle for the exchange of ideas related to both religion and the arts, etc. But the point is that Merton himself, though a gifted ecumenist, should not be taken whole, unquestioned and unexamined, as a spiritual authority on the Far East. There are many other extraordinary Christian voices to be heard in this regard, in many cases far more capable than Thomas Merton’s, and some indeed which may excel him as among the greatest spiritual writers of the century. I mean such figures as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, perhaps Merton’s most formidable opponent, Hans Urs von Balthasar, formidable on any grounds whatsoever, plus Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan as nonpareil interpreters of contemporary Christian thought.

The Climate of Monastic Prayer—as in a sense, then, Merton’s last book—is therefore extremely important as a work which centers the peripatetic monk in the area he knows best and over which he may still preside with loving competence and informed authority. Again, in speaking seriously to his fellow-monks, Merton is very nearly incomparable. As a spiritual extension of the world itself, these monastic gifts are also available to an interested laity and to the secular Religious at large. There is no contemplative way, as such, Merton said at last, for Christ alone is the way. This is the truly centered Merton, the Christocentric Merton, who could write as luminous and clarifying a paragraph as the following:

Religion always tends to lose its inner consistency and its supernatural truth when it lacks the fervor of contemplation. It is the contemplative, silent, “empty” and apparently useless element in the life of prayer which makes it truly a life. Without contemplation, liturgy tends to be a mere pious show and paraliturgical prayer is plain babbling. Without contemplation, mental prayer is nothing but a sterile exercise of the mind. And yet not everyone can be a “contemplative.” That is not the point. What matters is the contemplative orientation of the whole life of prayer.

The outstanding accomplishment of Thomas Merton, during his relatively brief tenure in this world, was that he—more than anyone else of his time—introduced to ordinary men and women the possibilities of a contemplative orientation in their heretofore mundane lives and stressfully competitive careers. In the perhaps noisiest of nations, he loved silence; and whether in teeming cities or on far mountaintops, he always sought true solitude. He was a man who, though restless and searching, had already found that lasting home which would soon receive him again, though with much sorrow, as it had once welcomed him in joy, some twenty-seven years before, at the gates of Gethsemani.

  • Thomas P. McDonnell

    Thomas P. McDonnell is the editor of Blaze of Recognition:Daily Meditations from the Writings of Thomas Merton

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