Thomas Merton: Selected Essays

By McGregor, Michael | Cithara, May 2015 | Go to article overview

Thomas Merton: Selected Essays


McGregor, Michael, Cithara


Thomas Merton: Selected Essays. Edited by Patrick F. O'Connell. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013. Pp. xviii, 528. $50.00.

The first question readers new to the work of Thomas Merton often ask is: Where do I begin? Given the volume and breadth of Merton's writings, this has never been a simple question. It used to be wisest to take a general approach: start with The Seven Storey Mountain, say, or the compendium Merton worked on himself, A Thomas Merton Reader. In recent years, however, excellent collections of selected writings in particular areas have made a narrower targeting possible. Interested in Merton's private thoughts? Try The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (1999), edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo. Drawn more to poetry? Start with In the Dark Before the Dawn: New Selected Poems (2005), edited by Lynn R. Szabo. Curious about his correspondence with friends, writers and religious leaders? Choose A Life in Letters: The Essential Collection (2008), edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen.

The latest addition to this useful trend is Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, featuring 33 of the approximately 250 essays Merton wrote and published during his lifetime. As is true with the collections named above, the selections in this volume have been chosen and edited by a scholar well known for his knowledge of Merton's writings-in this case, Patrick F. O'Connell, editor of The Merton Seasonal and co-editor of The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia. In addition to choosing a rich mix of better-and lesser-known essays that highlight Merton's various rhetorical approaches and wide range of interests, O'Connell has provided pleasingly succinct and yet thorough headnotes discussing the composition, publication, significance, context and content of each essay. His helpful introduction traces the development of "Merton the Essayist" in the years following the phenomenal success of The Seven Storey Mountain and especially over Merton's last decade when a deeper engagement with the world led to a greater variety of writing concerns.

Among the topics addressed in these essays are: the relationship between poetry and contemplation, the dialogue between Christianity and Eastern religions, the absurdity of modem life and the rise of Christian existentialism, the Christian response to America's racial problems, the works of William Faulkner and Albert Camus, the interplay between nonviolence and civil disobedience, the history of white relations with Native Americans, and the importance of developing an ecological consciousness. Most of these subjects- and many of the essays-are already familiar to veteran Merton readers, but arranged as they are here, in chronological order, O'Connell's selections reveal the development and evolution of Merton's ideas, the crosscutting nature of his central beliefs, and the variety of subjects Merton was thinking about at any particular moment.

Although O'Connell writes in his introduction that Merton's "'career' as an essayist can be conveniently divided into two approximately equal periods, 1947-58 and 1958-68," O'Connell clearly considers the second period more important. Only three essays in the collection were written during the earlier timespan, and "Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal" is a later revision. As a result, the voice we hear in these essays is confident, mature and fully engaged. It is the voice of a man who knows what he believes and where he's speaking from, one who isn't afraid to challenge or poke fun at anyone, even those above him within his own order. …

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