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Echoing Silence:
Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing

edited by Robert Inchausti
New Seeds, 2007

Tom Merton:
A Personal Biography

by Joan C. McDonald
Marquette University Press, 2007

review by Jon M. Sweeney

In his monumental biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (1984), Michael Mott set the standard for every other study of the life and work of the most important teacher of monastic spirituality of the twentieth century. A poet and novelist himself, Mott was able to comment with insight on the struggle that plagued Merton for his entire converted life: how to balance his passion for religious life with his overrunning talent as a writer.

In the summer of 1941, a few months before he joined the Trappist monastery in Kentucky that he would make famous with his writing, Thomas Merton was living in upstate New York, teaching English at St. Bonaventure College. He was in his twenties and trying to figure out what to do with his life, attracted as he was to both the life of the mind (as a writer) and the life of the spirit (a possible, religious vocation). Mott records,

[H]e sharpened the focus of a number of debates with himself that would last a lifetime…. He debated whether or not he was a writer…. Then he went on to question whether his writing honored God, or whether it was simply a celebration of self. He was still wondering this in his journals of the 1960s.

It is this tension that has made Merton’s life and work relevant to millions of readers, long after his death in 1968. Many of us, like Merton, bump up against these same questions—not necessarily because we are writers, as he was, but because we seek to exercise our talents without self-aggrandizement. To use the language of monastic spirituality, how do we dismantle our “false self,” and gradually discover our “true self,” as we succeed in our work in the world? This question filled Merton with anxiety throughout his life.

His autobiography was published when Merton was only thirty-three years old. He found it nearly impossible not to write about what was happening inside of him in his first years as a cloistered monk. During his first visit as a retreatant to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, during Holy Week of 1941, he wrote in his journal, “I should tear out all the other pages of this book and all the other pages of everything else I ever wrote, and begin here.”

In the years to follow, after hundreds of thousands of copies of The Seven Storey Mountain were purchased and read around the world, Merton would go through times when he wanted to stop writing altogether. These were times when he felt his ego growing faster than his spirit. But, thank God, they were short-lived, and he went back to his typewriter.

Echoing Silence, ably compiled and annotated by Robert Inchausti, is the first book to chronicle the tension of Merton’s split vocation. This is a book of Merton’s writings on writing, and in that sense, it will appeal most of all to other writers. However, Inchausti uncovers the essence of Merton’s genius, as well—the reason why Merton’s writings themselves will outlive those of most any other spiritual writer of the twentieth century. I have probably never encountered a better summary than this one from Inchausti at the end of his Introduction:

Thomas Merton brought contemplation into the twentieth century, divesting it of its antique scholasticism and ancient prejudices: making it efficient far beyond the inner circle of Christian initiates. He retained the best that was thought and said within the monastic counter culture—preserving its traditions while broadening its appeal and bringing it into dialogue with the contemporary world.

Echoing Silence is arranged topically, rather than chronologically. It includes chapters of selections from Merton’s books, journals, and letters on subjects such as writing as a spiritual calling, poetry, thoughts on other writers, and advice given to other writers. It was uncanny how close to the center of the literary world Merton sat, despite being behind a monastic enclosure in Kentucky. In fact, for those interested in his almost daily letters to other, prominent writers during the 1960s, I highly recommend The Courage for Truth: The Letters of Thomas Merton to Writers, published more than a decade ago and still available in paperback.

I wished that Echoing Silence had included more of the remarkable back-and-forth exchanges that Merton had with people like Czeslaw Milosz, Boris Pasternak, James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Walker Percy, and others. Nevertheless, the selection and breadth of Echoing Silence is admirable, and will be useful for writers and other artists, in college classrooms, and for those interested in a close look at Merton’s lifelong vocational crisis as a writer.

Joan McDonald’s Tom Merton also attempts to uncover new insights into Merton’s life and writing, through the genre of biography. She tries adding to what we already know—from much better biographies such as Michael Mott’s—by inventing internal dialogs for Merton, putting words into his mind and mouth. She explains this controversial technique in a note to the reader at the outset: “I have extrapolated the events of Merton’s life at certain key times by insertion of dialogue and self-analysis in italicized passages, which is purely the result of my imagination.”

Sometimes these dialogs are, in fact, set in italics, and at other times, they appear in quotemarks. Still other times—toward the end of the book—they appear in neither italics nor quotes, and that’s when it gets really confusing. This confusion is most likely the result of poor or no proofreading, which Tom Merton sorely needed.

Only on a couple of occasions did I find these self-analysis dialogs at all helpful, rather than intrusive. For instance, I appreciated the twelve simple, prayerful sentences that McDonald imagined Merton was thinking as he lay prostrate before the archbishop at his priestly ordination. They include these lines:

I told myself God Himself looked down on me at the moment I spoke my vows and accepted me as His servant. I felt a peace I never knew. I began to realize that this wasn’t the end I had been seeking. Rather, it was a beginning on a whole new plane of experience. I had now arrived at the center of all existence.

But on the whole, these internal dialogs make Tom Merton not only a confusing book, but perhaps, a book that does violence to our understanding of him. By Book Three (just after the midway point), McDonald begins a chapter with standard biographical detail, only to begin the next paragraph having switched from the third person “he” for describing Merton, to the third person personal, “I,” as if she is speaking his very thoughts.

I will, however, recommend McDonald’s effort simply for the illustrations that she has compiled and added to her text. Many of these are valuable to the Merton enthusiast, such as the drawings showing the architecture of a typical Cistercian abbey, followed by a computer-generated reconstruction of what the monastery of Cluny probably looked like in the eleventh century.

Also, there are photographs of the famous downtown street corner (4th and Walnut, which has since been renamed 4th and Muhammad Ali) where Merton experienced an epiphany of loving all humankind. And, it was fun to see the cover of The Critic, a Catholic magazine, from December 1965, which pictured “The 15 Most Important Catholics in the U.S.A.” including William F. Buckley, Robert Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mayor Richard J. Daley, Dorothy Day, and of course, our Merton.

Copyright ©2007 Jon M. Sweeney

Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing
To purchase a copy of ECHOING SILENCE, visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.



Tom Merton: A Personal Biography
To purchase a copy of TOM MERTON, visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.


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