Tailfins and cool jazz

Divine Discontent: The Prophetic Voice of Thomas Merton, John Moses, Bloomsbury

In his heyday (the 1950s and 60s), Thomas Merton was one of the most famous religious people in the world, though now he may seem somewhat outdated, relegated to the era of automobile tailfins and cool jazz. But John Moses (and others) insists he still has things to say to us. Merton also remains a fascinating figure: a monk engaged with the problems of the modern world, conflicted about monastic life, impetuous then apologetic, a prophet who was not always honest with himself, enthusiastic, revealing then guarded. This new book mingles analysis of his writings and his personality to give a fascinating insight into these conflicts.

Dissatisfaction with a fast-paced lifestyle led him to a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, yet he also continually rebelled against the monastic life and his superiors, even to the extent of conducting a love affair. His was not a Mother Teresa-type, saintly image. He saw friends, drank, went to jazz gigs. He also had something of an ego; his editor said that even the tone of his private journals indicate one eye on future publication. But he needed the monastic life, it seems, to be able to engage with the world. If the idea of a solitary monk engaging the world seems contradictory, for Merton it was exactly the point. For him, being a “contemplative” meant critical distance in order to pray for the world. He said that a monk is more – not less – concerned with the wider world. Not only did he personally, like a child, need strict boundaries to push against in order to grow, monastic life gave clarity in seeing what was important.

And in his case, writing about it. He was a compulsive writer. Critics said he wrote too much and didn’t revise enough, a criticism he also made of himself. He was most famous for his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain but he later distanced himself from the book (though he had a habit of disowning his own books). For one, he claimed it romanticised the monastic life. Indeed, as famous and well-written as it is, one perhaps gets a better picture from his journals and letters (and, for me, his essays). Moses draws on these resources heavily, as well as discussing Merton’s more prophetic works.

The subtitle of Moses’ book makes it clear that he thinks the “prophetic voice” is Merton’s strongest legacy. Merton wrote about consumerism, pollution, the unthinking homogeneity of modern society and the threat of nuclear war, an issue that is less headline-grabbing now, even though the militarisation of our society is no less a threat. As a writer, he was at heart a prophet rather than an intellectual, so there is passion to his work. Aside from the actual issues, Merton shows how to get involved and speak truth to power, as the saying goes. This is also why he was attracted to Asian spiritualities. He valued experience over thought, and he saw in Asia an emphasis on living out a spiritual calling, rather than on the abstraction of doctrine. And he valued anything that helped the deepening of his own feeling for God.

The value of religious orders, the lessons to be learned from other religions, mind versus heart, the relationship of world and spirit, the continual process of repentance and renewal: these are all issues with which Merton’s writing grapples, and which remain relevant to Christians in various times and places.

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