For a Trappist, Thomas Merton had a lot to say. For all he abandoned, the world, first, and finally the monastery, and for all he lost, his hair, his teeth, his health and his heart (briefly to a student nurse in a December-May love affair), he never shed his identity as a writer. What his two vocations - monk and author - have in common is a forfeiture of privacy. Beneath both was an impulse for solitude, and in solitude the hope for freedom, not least freedom from the self. "In an age where there is much talk about 'being yourself' I reserve myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that if one is too intent on 'being himself' he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow." Nevertheless, the long shadow of his writing continued to haunt him. "For 37 years I have been writing my life instead of living it."
It is the writer we encounter first in this selection from his journals. He lives the life - a flat in Greenwich Village, from where he teaches at Columbia, pursues manuscripts through publishers and wanders Cuba in his vacation. It is 1939 and Europe, where he spent his childhood and adolescence, is about to go to war. Already he has discovered that his only subject is himself. Throughout the journals the people he encounters that we are likely to be interested in - Mark Van Doren, D T Suzuki, Joan Baez, even the Dalai Lama - do not leap off the page. It is a common enough problem for beginners but he is an uncommon beginner because he is writing to erase rather than preserve.
And it is writing which proves the greatest obstacle to freedom. Written as a novice monk, his Seven Storey Mountain becomes a book of the month selection and he is enslaved to the drudgery of success: the contractual obligations, the proof reading, the articles. And, as the most famous Catholic in America after John F Kennedy, the Church keeps a jealous eye on him because apostasy would be a public relations disaster. "They are afraid I will run off with some woman," he complains, as he becomes restless within the community at Gethsameni in Kentucky, but is continually denied a more solitary existence by his superiors.
Ah yes, women, we were all wondering about that, weren't we? Despite their physical absence, they were tremendously important to him. He was careful of the emotional involvement in his correspondence with them, despite the fact that most of his correspondents were ageing nuns. And in their absence he developed a devotion to femininity and became sensitive to its expression in Christianity. Religious contemplation is about cultivating a sense of loss, and this most severe loss fuelled a sense of quest in his life. Whatever feminists, Christian or otherwise, may …