The Common Good
June 1994

Memories of a Mentor

by Brent Short | June 1994

The continuing influence of Thomas Merton

Trying to capture someone else’s persona in words can be like trying to capture smoke in a jar. It can be done, but it’s harder than it seems. Ron Seitz takes a stab at it in Song for Nobody. In what he calls his "memory vision" he writes about an influential friend of his who happened to be a monk at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani in Ken-

tucky. The monk in question was a spiritual mentor and friend not only to Seitz, but to countless others through his writing.

Thomas Merton remains one of the most compelling voices for spirituality, peace, and justice in the 20th century. Commemorating the 25th anniversary of his death, National Catholic Reporter recently stated on its cover in big bold type that Merton continues to be "one of the most charismatic Christians on earth."

Seitz was a poet with a young man’s restless questions and problems at the time he knew Merton. Of course, these many years later, Seitz relies on reconstructions of conversations with Merton and the inspiration he derived from them. (Those suspicious of such a method of poetic "remembering" only need remind themselves that the New Testament itself was written and put together after a much longer lapse of time.)

A book of remembering such as this will be judged on how successfully it recreates a sense of real presence. On that score, in the growing field of Mertonia, this will probably be regarded as a unique but minor addition because it is as much about Seitz’s struggles with his own developing artistic conscience as it is about Merton.

Even though the writing is uneven and at times lacks the kind of substantial payoff you associate with Merton himself, this book does offer a fairly concrete idea of how Merton approached issues of transcendence in the context of this particular relationship. Perhaps more important, it gives an idea of what Merton was actually like in a conversation (see "In His Own Words..." page 43).

MANY BOOKS have already been written about Merton by academics with their own subject interests in mind. Seitz’s book is much more quick-cut and stream of consciousness-oriented as he picks his way through his memories of Merton. In a sense, the book is really a sustained meditation on the meaning of Merton’s absence and memory in all its permanence and impermanence.

The book’s potential value lies in its look at Merton’s mentoring approach, written by a young poet who found himself included in Merton’s inner social circle. It is personal, but probably more limited in its appeal and less universal in its application than many of the other Merton books already out.

Song for Nobody is written by someone who shares Merton’s poetic charism and has an affinity for expressing himself in the spontaneous non-dualistic terms of the Eastern thinkers and Eastern haiku of poets like Chuang Tzu. I found some of the poetic experimentation a little self-conscious and annoying.

It’s obvious that Seitz owes quite a lot to Merton—the older, wiser poet with a deeper, more balanced sense of judgment and appreciation for creation itself. He attempts to keep Merton human while paying homage to him as spiritual guru—no easy task for any writer.

Every accomplished writer has the gift of striking directly and deeply into the heart of inexorably complicated issues. Merton’s clarity put him in the position of adviser to many social activists of his day. (Martin Luther King Jr. scheduled a conference with Merton shortly before his assassination.)

Merton’s directness made him pretty persuasive in informal situations as well. Seitz captures a moment at an ordination reception when Merton—perhaps made a little uncomfortable being cornered as the "spiritual answer man"—was being asked a variety of questions of an ecclesiastical nature. Making his point about the "organizational" church and the living reality of a community of love that is the real church, Merton put the entire discussion into perspective:

...he finally spread his arms as a gentle gesture of calling a halt to all of this, with: "Okay, okay, let’s hold a moment....this is all fine and good, but the real issue here is whether or not God is in this room, here and now!" Pausing, with arms still spread, a smile widening to a cheerful grin, eyes open with light (everyone caught, still, silenced with listening), "If you are in the truth of that—then all of these other concerns take care of themselves, eh?"

It’s these kind of solid nuggets that at times bring Merton back to life.

ANYONE OTHER THAN the most dedicated Merton scholar or student, those interested in more than rounding out a Merton collection, should probably start with one of Merton’s own books or one of the many biographies on Merton to get a more comprehensive reading of his life and work. For biographies, I recommend Living With Wisdom, by Jim Forest; Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet, by George Woodcock; and Merton: A Biography, by Monica Furlong. All three biographies avoid the cold objectivity and overwhelming encyclopedic detail of the authorized biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, while still conveying Merton’s development both as a literary artist and a religious figure.

Furlong’s early offering is still one of the most comprehensive bios of Merton. She is particularly perceptive about the lack of stable parental affection and presence during his early years. She traces Merton’s early career as a writer of edifying pious Cistercian tracts to books much more personal and original. Furlong does a good job of pointing out Merton’s defects while letting her great admiration and affection for Merton himself still shine through.

Woodcock’s book balances Merton’s work as a poet (including his later experimental cut-and-paste "anti-poetry") with his prose writing. This book is more of a critical study than straight biography. Woodcock’s emphasis on poetry would have probably pleased Merton since much of Merton’s best writing was really a form of prose poetry.

Forest’s pictorial biography lifts out several excellent quotes from Merton revealing his thoughts about the burgeoning peace movement of the ’60s. With an abundance of photographs and quotations lining the columns of just about every other page, he gives you a good sense of the arc of Merton’s life and thought, and a good sampling of his powers of description.

If you’re particularly interested in Merton’s special gift for translating the stuff of everyday life into effective lucid metaphysical speculation, there are several good choices. If the spirit of the haiku interests you, try A Day of a Stranger, Woods, Shore, Desert or his translation of Chuang Tzu—The Way of Chuang Tzu. Those interested in reading a small collection of poetic essays permeated by the silence of Merton’s hermitage may try Raids on the Unspeakable.

Several previously published books were culled from Merton’s own journals (chronologically: The Sign of Jonas, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, The Vow of Conversation). These serve as running commentary—a series of prisms—reflecting every aspect and dimension of his thought as it developed during his time as a Catholic religious.

Faith and Violence and The Nonviolent Alternative are interesting expanded essays on issues of peace and war. As a student of antiquity and a contemporary culture critic, Merton was particularly gifted, quickly identifying the archetypical elements in both primitive cultures and the Middle Ages, as well as those in postmodern Western technological society (which involved the worship of efficiency and technique, scientism, and wholesale presumptions of racial and cultural superiority). With essays more profound than the normal one-dimensional political or sociological tracts by academics or journalists, Merton’s cultural sensitivity allowed him to introduce moral and religious issues and questions in a way that was simply, obviously, and inescapably relevant.

Literary buffs might like The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton. This work includes an analysis of the echoes of paradise in William Faulkner’s furious primitive South set against the background of the modern world, and a series of empathetic essays on the avowed agnostic Camus’ search for "good faith." In this stunning series of essays, Merton sees art as prophecy and the crisis of the world reflected in the very ground of freedom and being common to unbelievers and believers alike.

We will learn even more about Merton very soon when the last volume of a five-volume set of his letters is released later this year, along with a whole new comprehensive set of his unedited journals that will begin appearing in 1995.

BRENT SHORT is a free-lance writer living in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

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