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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Getting Started with Thomas Merton: A Reading Guide

Painting by Owen Merton
"On the last day of January 1915, under the Sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world..."
When people learn of my interest in Thomas Merton, they frequently ask what they should read to get acquainted with his thought.  I've been asked this question even more frequently in recent months in the run-up to 2015, the centenary of his birth (on a related note, his birthday is this Saturday, and there are events planned all over the world on that day and throughout the year to celebrate his life & writings. Check here to see if there are events planned near you).

It is difficult to know where to start with Merton.  Merton published prodigiously during his life, and the list of posthumous publications continues to grow.  In this post, I want to provide some guidance about where to begin reading Merton.  I should stress that I am not a Merton scholar, but am simply someone who found in Merton a spiritual companion whose writings continue to speak to me.  Some familiar with Merton may disagree with my advice, and they are quite welcome to provide their own suggestions in the comment box below.

There are two approaches to reading Merton.  You may want to get a broad view of Merton's writings quickly, and if so, you should start with one of a number of good readers.  I highly recommend Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, The Essential Writingsedited by Lawrence Cunningham.  Cunningham's collection is particularly good as it contains significant passages from both Merton's autobiographical work - The Seven Storey Mountain and his journals - and texts from Merton's writings on spirituality as well as on ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.  However, those looking for his writings on peace and justice issues will not find them in this collection.

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, edited by Christine Bochen, is a smaller collection that provides a nice cross-section of his writings on prayer and spirituality as well as his writings on peace and justice issues.  You won't find much of his autobiographical stuff here, though.

For the more adventurous who want to start with reading books by Merton, I recommend that you start with his autobiographical writings for he is, in my opinion, at his best when he writes autobiographically.  You have two options here.  Some may want to start with The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography that made him famous.  This was my introduction to Merton, and for reasons I've explained elsewhere, I've been hooked ever since.  But this is a wordy book and one written by a monk enthusiastic (to a fault) about his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his identity as a monk.  Those expecting to find the writer who later focuses his attention on the world and on dialogue with those of other traditions and religions may be disappointed.  But despite its faults, The Seven Storey Mountain is a classic of spiritual autobiography, and many continue to find solace in it.

If you'd like to get to know about the man, but want not to start with The Seven Storey Mountain, I recommend reading an edited collection of his journals.  The full collection of Merton's private journals are seven volumes in length, but you can read many of the best bits in The Intimate Merton: His Life from His JournalsMerton's journal entries are raw and penetrating.  Highly recommended.

Once you've read something autobiographical, I suggest you proceed to New Seeds of Contemplation.  Here you'll encounter Merton's thoughts on the life of prayer, and specifically his pivotal insights into what it could mean to recognize one's true self in relation to God.

From here, you're ready to tackle Conjectures of a Guilty BystanderConjectures is the theological equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.  For this book, Merton took excerpts from his journals and notebooks, revised them, and threw them together into a collection that seems haphazard, but which make sense as you immerse yourself into the book.  Not one with which to begin, but one you should read at some point.  This book is a favourite of mine.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, as well as in New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton does deal with issues of peace and justice.  But if you want to delve into some of Merton's most famous essays on these issues, I recommend Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence.  This collection doesn't have everything he wrote on the subject, but it is an excellent place to start.

Photo of Owen Merton's painting is from the Thomas Merton Center's Twitter account, @MertonCenter

Friday, January 23, 2015

Archbishop Kurtz on the Synod on the Family


On January 7, the Department of Theology at Bellarmine University hosted a public conversation with Archbishop Joseph Kurtz on the Synod on the Family; Archbishop Kurtz is the archbishop of Louisville and is the current president of the  United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Archbishop Kurtz and I spoke in 2013 about Pope Francis, and I wrote about our conversation for the Bellarmine University magazine.  Given his prominent role as a delegate to the Synod on the Family, I contacted him to ask if he'd be willing to discuss publicly his experiences at the Synod, his understanding of the issues at stake, where he sees the Synod going in 2015, as well as his personal impressions of Pope Francis.

Our conversation took place on a cold evening, but despite the weather, a sizable group of Louisvillians came to hear the Archbishop speak on the Synod and to raise their own questions.  When I announced on Twitter that this event would take place, a number of people outside Louisville asked whether the conversation would be recorded.  Archbishop Kurtz agreed to the event being recorded, and the video of our discussion is embedded below.  I, rather embarrassingly, mixed up the notion of gradualism with another concept, but Archbishop Kurtz very graciously corrected me.  Archbishop Kurtz was open in his assessment of the Synod, and he very willingly opened up the floor for questions from the audience.  He mentioned throughout the conversation that such events like this are vital for him as a bishop as he discerns the issues at stake and his responses to them.



Photo above by my colleague, Dr. Justin Klassen, Assistant Professor of Theology

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thomas Merton & Christian Socratism: Convergence between Pope Francis & Pope John XXIII

Because I'm teaching an undergraduate class on Thomas Merton this semester, I have the happy task of re-reading some Mertonian texts.  I'm wading through Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander at the moment, and just came across an interesting passage about the Church's relationship to, and interaction with, the 'world.'  In it, Merton talks about Pope St John XXIII's promotion of a "spirit of openness and dialogue," calling this spirit an embrace of "Christian Socratism."  As I read Merton's description of Pope St John XXIII's Christian Socratism, I was again struck by the tremendous convergence between Pope Francis and Pope St John XXIII on the Church and the world.  I wrote about this convergence in a previous blog post, noting the similarities in their words regarding how the Church should engage the world.  The passage I'm about to quote from Merton, however, fleshes out Pope John's thought more fully, and it seems to me that it finds an echo in the current papacy.
One of the admirable things about Pope John is his simple fidelity to the Socratic principle which is essential to our Western cultural tradition.  This is a very profound element in Pope John's thought, and he has shown in fact that true Christian renewal implies an understanding of and a commitment to Christian Socratism.  This means respect for persons, to the point where the person of the adversary demands a hearing even when the authority of one's own ecclesial institution might appear to be temporarily questioned.  Actually, this Socratic confidence in dialogue implies a deeper faith in the Church than you find in a merely rigid, defensive, and negative attitude which refuses all dialogue.  The negative view really suggests that the Church has something to lose by engaging in dialogue with her adversaries.  This in turn is a rejection of the Christian Socratism which sees that truth develops in conversation.  And, after all, that is the spirit of the Gospel also.  We see it everywhere in the New Testament.  Those who were open to Christ and the Apostles, received the truth.  Those who refused dialogue, or who engaged in it only with political intentions, with pragmatic reservations and tactical subtlety, ended by crucifying Christ and slaying the Apostles.
The Socratic principle, as Pope John definitely sees, means not only the willingness to discuss, but the readiness to meet one's adversary as an equal and as a brother.  The moment one does this, he ceases to be an adversary.
Some seem to fear that in such encounters, meeting the adversary on his own ground, we leave the protection of the Church and Catholic truth.  They forget that if we meet the non-Christian as a brother we meet him on ground that is Christian.  If we fear to meet him on what is really our own ground, is this not perhaps because we ourselves are not sufficiently Christian? (p. 218).
Image above from www.loomebooks.com