A Book of Hours
By Thomas Merton
Edited by Kathleen Deignan with a foreword by James Finley
Illustrations by John Giuliani
Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
One of the measures of a truly classic author is the timelessness of his or her words. After six hundred years, medieval writers like Geoffrey Chaucer or Julian of Norwich still have plenty to say to us who live in a world where, all too often, last year’s books (or movies or TV series) are already forgotten. Sure, they’re telling us something about the “human condition,” whatever that is. But doesn’t every storyteller? What sets the great ones apart is their ability to excavate meaning and insight in ways that continue to amuse, amaze, or astound us, long after the transitory pleasure (or shock) of novelty has dissipated.
And so it is that, nearly forty years after his untimely death in a freak accident at a conference in Bangkok, the American Trappist poet, mystic, and cultural critic Thomas Merton remains not only relevant but essential. Some of this is due not merely to his own genius, but to the sad reality of just how far we haven’t come: Merton’s angst-infused commentary about peace, social justice and interfaith dialogue seem only more urgent now than at the peak of his literary output (the days of the Cold War, Civil Rights, and Viet Nam). But mostly, it’s a joy to read Merton today for much the same reasons that it’s a pleasure to read Thomas à Kempis: because what he has to say remains both meaningful, and beautifully said.
Having said all that, a significant question emerges: how should Merton and his work be presented to a new generation of readers? Reissued or anniversary editions of his most important books, with artfully done covers and new introductions by younger (or at least, still living) authors? That’s been done. New books featuring “never before published” materials, like his letters and journals? Ditto. Anthologies, whether comprehensive or specific to one particular aspect of his work? Same here. So now what? The time has come, it seems, to engage in more radical repackaging of Merton’s oeuvre. And this is the clue to what makes A Book of Hours simultaneously a clever introduction to America’s great mystic and an example of how frustrating a book can be when an author’s work is submitted to what can only be described as procrustean editing.
I find this book clever yet frustrating not because of its author, but because of its concept (what in publishing lingo is called “the hook”): take bits and pieces of Merton’s poetry and prose and fashion a manual for daily prayer out of it all. Since Merton was a great mystic, one of the inspirations behind the Centering Prayer movement, and a poet of some literary stature to boot, wouldn’t it make sense to incorporate his work into a regular cycle of prayer? And this is precisely what editor Kathleen Deignan has done. Drawing from every corner of Merton’s literary estate, she has cobbled together a week’s worth of morning, noon, evening, and night prayers (or, in her charmingly alliterative words: prayers for dawn, day, dark and dusk). Superficially this book of hours resembles similar “little” breviaries: each office includes some variation on the familiar liturgical structure of psalmody, lectionary, and prayer, with each selection of Merton’s writing labelled as an antiphon, examen, hymn, canticle, psalm, epistle, and so forth. But these liturgical names are really arbitrary, since little or none of the material presented here was intended by Merton to used as part of a liturgy. All the words are Merton’s, and while the editor dutifully informs us that no changes were made to Merton’s verbage (not even doctoring up his pre-inclusive language), some of Merton’s prose is recast as poetry (psalmody/hymns/canticles) for the purpose of this book of prayers, and some of the material was “excerpted” meaning that the selections as presented in this book are actually edited down from longer texts as originally penned by Merton (such instances are noted only in the references at the back of the book). This is most evident in the prayers for Saturday, nearly all of which were excerpted from one of Merton’s loveliest poems, “Hagia Sophia,” and one of his most celebrated essays, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952.” And while the excerpts are beautifully assembled to highlight the prayerful dimension that is evident in all of Merton’s work, I found the “Fire Watch” excerpts in particular to be jarring, in that they kept inspiring me not to pray so much as to reflect on the eloquence and grandeur of the original, complete essay.
So in A Book of Hours, what you get is a collection of prayers for each day of the week. And plenty of gems are found herein, particularly in terms of Merton’s more prophetic writings about the splendors of nature and the horrors of human society where money and power matter more than people and relationships. Almost every page delighted me, and the book certainly delivered in its promise to be an aid to personal prayer. The back flap of the dustjacket promises that “this is the first book that organizes Merton’s writings entirely as a source for prayer and contemplation.” And here is where the cleverness withers away and my frustration kicks in. Sure, it’s a neat idea: anthologize Merton’s work as a prayer book. But what I found was that this book inspired me to pray in spite of its concept, not because of it. Ironically, while the book succeeds as a wonderful doorway into Merton’s genius, it really rather fails as a book of hours. Again and again, it left me hungry for, well, the real Daily Office. Praying this book over the four “offices” of dawn to dusk started to feel like those classic rock radio stations that occasionally offer an “All-Beatles” weekend. On Friday night it’s really cool to hear “Let it Be” followed by “She Loves You” followed by “Yesterday” et cetera. But by Sunday, the cute concept is old news and the playlist has gotten rather boring. This is the Beatles I’m talking about — the world’s greatest rock group, you know. But a steady diet of the Beatles is, simply put, too much Beatles. And so it is with trying to maintain a regimen of daily prayer that is all-Merton. It quickly loses its sparkle and its surprise. Unlike the real Daily Office that incorporates not only the fullness of the Psalms with readings from the entire Bible (and beyond, in the Office of Readings) and prayers from the entire sweep of church history, this book, in trying to celebrate Merton’s genius as a wordsmith of prayer, ironically fails simply because even an author of Merton’s stature cannot compete with the grandeur of the entire Biblical and liturgical tradition. I appreciate how this book has helped me to understand the distinctions between text for reading, text for prayer, and text for formal or liturgical prayer. But I feel like I came to that realization at Merton’s expense. His writing is luminous on its own terms, and I believe does work in the context of liturgical prayer — just as long as it’s not the only item on the menu.
In writing a review, it’s easy to fall into the Siskel & Ebert/Rotten Tomatoes trap of having to give every book either a clearly defined “good” or “bad” review. But here’s a great case of a book that provides no easy orientation for my thumb. I think it’s a lovely book, beautifully designed with a wonderful and thoughtfully chosen selection of excerpts from Merton’s most contemplative poetry and prose. I wouldn’t hesitate to give it as a gift, particularly to someone who is new to Merton. But I think I’d have to write a little disclaimer in my gift inscription: “Use this book as a supplement to the Daily Office.”