Sarah Coakley on Thomas Merton: The Climate of Monastic Prayer

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the last book Thomas Merton completed before his death, Liturgical Press has brought out a new edition.

The book is The Climate of Monastic Prayer, which has also been published under the title Contemplative Prayer. The new edition features a foreword by noted Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley.

Coakley’s foreword is short — only five pages long — but she makes every word count, deftly describing the book itself, why it matters in the context of Merton’s overall literary corpus, and why it matters as a contribution to the 20th century literature of contemplation. She points out that the text itself is — similar to other Merton books like New Seeds of Contemplation and The Inner Experience — actually a revision of earlier material of Merton’s, in this case two earlier manuscripts, dating back to 1959, that had either never before been published or had been circulated privately.

Therefore, Coakley cautions the reader against seeing this book as a window into the mind of Merton in the months before his untimely death in late 1968. Rather it’s better understood simply as a statement reflecting Merton’s “unique, idiosyncratic, and highly personal late-twentieth century rendition of the call to contemplation” — and Coakley goes on to praise it as being “as fresh and challenging now as when it was first compiled.”

Why does the book have two titles? Coakley clears up that mystery as well. The book’s original American publisher was the newly formed Cistercian Studies Press, which intended to publish it as The Climate of Monastic Prayer (Cistercian is now part of Liturgical Press, which helps to explain why that publisher is bringing out this anniversary edition). In England, however, the book was slated to be published by Herder & Herder with a more general-public-friendly title of Contemplative Prayer. Eventually, the Herder edition was licensed to the Image Books imprint of Doubleday (now part of Random House) to bring out the trade paperback edition. That’s the edition I first read, back in the 1990s, and I imagine most Merton aficionados outside of the monastic world probably first read this book through either the Herder or Image edition.

Incidentally, the current edition from Image books features a lovely introduction by Thich Nhat Hanh.

So there you go. It’s a beautiful new, gift quality, hardcover edition, and the Coakley foreword is a delight, and the book itself is one of Merton’s many essential titles, even though (as Coakley points out) it’s important not to see this as a “beginner’s” book, for it is not — neither for monks or laypersons; rather, this is a book that assumes a certain familiarity with its topic.

If you’re a Merton completist or a Sarah Coakley fan, you’ll want this book; otherwise, I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already have the Image edition.  But if you already do have this book, rather than “stock up” on another edition of the same text, look instead at some of the many other wonderful Merton titles that Cistercian Press has brought out in recent years, such as the Jon Sweeney-edited A Course in Christian Mysticism.


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