Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision

By Vivian, Tim | Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision


Vivian, Tim, Anglican Theological Review


Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision. By Lawrence S. Cunningham. Library of Religious Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999. xii + 228 pp. $16.00 (paper).

More than fifty volumes by and about Thomas Merton occupy two shelves in the Merton Corner of my study, and I think I've read all of them. Nevertheless, as I read this excellent study I kept thinking that Merton was an even more remarkable person than I had previously thought. By no means was my response due to any trace of hagiography on Cunningham's part (something that would have been anathema to Merton!); rather, it grew out of the author's decision to focus on "Merton as a monk not in the abstract but against the cultural background of the American experience and in the midst of the vast upheavals of the Roman Catholic Church" in order "to scrutinize the `signs of the times' through the lens of Merton the contemplative monk" (p. 18).

Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision begins where The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton's famous autobiography, ends and follows "the trajectory of Merton's life from his entrance into the monastery [in 1941] until his death twenty-seven years later" (p. 18). It charts, as it were, critical moments "in Merton's intellectual and spiritual" maturation (p. 55). Cunningham proceeds chronologically, in six chapters, through Merton's monastic life and writings, with the last three of these chapters devoted, quite appropriately, to Merton's most mature work and actions of the 60s. Chapter seven offers an incisive meditation on Merton's life as a whole, and chapter eight concludes the volume with a helpful bibliographical essay of fifteen pages.

By placing Merton squarely within his times-Vatican II, the Cold War, Vietnam, Civil Rights-Cunningham shows how Merton "committed himself to living his contemplative life in the midst of history" (p. …

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