Today is the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth.
To celebrate this day here is a list of seven books I would recommend to anyone who wants a grounding in Merton’s life and wisdom, without having to read all of his many books. With over seventy titles to his name, it can be daunting to approach his work, especially for the first time. I hope this list will help readers to find the key themes and insights of his body of work; and even if you are a long-standing fan of Merton, maybe there’s something here that would be new for you.
The Seven Storey Mountain — The book that started it all. Merton would later be embarrassed by this book, written while he was a young man, both in years (it was published when he was 33), and in his life as a Catholic and monk. And the book does exhibit the flaws of youth: at times it comes across as arrogant and cocksure. But it’s beautifully written, spiritually heartfelt, and may perhaps be the most eloquent testimony of conversion in the western literary canon since Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, if not Augustine’s Confessions. Look for the beautifully described ecstatic mystical experience that overcame Merton at age 25 in a church in Havana.
- Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master — There is no one truly comprehensive anthology of Merton; his writing and interests were so broad that it seems no single volume can do him justice. But this compendium of autobiographical and spiritual writings is a worthy collection, especially if you read it after The Seven Storey Mountain. It features some of Merton’s best writing (“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”) and in it you’ll find the recounting of several key moments of mystical insight (on a street corner in Louisville in 1958, and at a Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka in 1968), and Merton’s most famous prayer (“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going…”).
New Seeds of Contemplation — When I worked at the Abbey Store of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, people would often ask me what was the one Merton book I would recommend. It was usually either The Seven Storey Mountain or New Seeds of Contemplation. If someone had a more casual interest in Merton and/or monasticism, I would steer them to the autobiography, but if they indicated that they really wanted to dig deeper into Merton’s spiritual wisdom, this was the book I’d suggest. It’s a collection of meditative pieces that reflect on what it means to be a spiritual seeker today. As beautifully written as the autobiography, this book offers a variety of meditations on the true heart of contemplative living.
- Mystics and Zen Masters — Toward the end of his life Merton became increasingly interested in Buddhism, but in fact he had been studying the dharma for many years. And of course, Merton was renowned, even in his lifetime, as a Christian mystic. This book, which surveys profound spiritual transformation both east and west, brings together those two dimensions of his spiritual life, weaving them together into a unified statement about spirituality seen from a global perspective.
- The Cold War Letters — While the Catholic Church loved Merton as an apologist for the spiritual life, the hierarchy (or at least certain segments of it) felt far less enthusiastic when the monk began writing about issues like racism and the arms race. In fact, Merton was instructed at one point to stop writing about war, and so this collection of politically conscious letters to other writers, activists, and agitators never was published until almost 40 years after Merton’s death. How good it is that we do have this collection now, for it reveals that Merton carried on a correspondence with a variety of amazing figures (such as Dorothy Day, Henry Miller, Erich Fromm, Ethel Kennedy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) and that his was truly a prophetic voice.
- In the Dark Before Dawn — Before Merton became a memoirist, or Christian apologist, or cultural critic, he was a poet, and he continued to write poetry until his untimely death at age 53 in 1968. This anthology is called “New Selected Poems” but the “new” refers to the selection, not the poetry itself. It’s a good one-volume overview of his poetic works from every phase of his literary career.
The Waters of Siloe — This book sometimes gets panned as a representative title from Merton’s weakest period as a writer — the decade after The Seven Storey Mountain was published, when his books often seemed to be characterized by a kind of narrow religiosity rather than the expansive inquiry which characterized his later, more controversial, work. And certainly this book would not offend a traditionalist Catholic. But this is a book which has something to say even within its rather conservative voice. The Waters of Siloe is basically a history book, chronicling the story of Christian monasticism, especially in its Cistercian form, and particularly in North America. Merton is a gifted storyteller, and his recounting of the adventures of the pioneer monks settling Gethsemani Abbey in 1848 is enjoyable reading. But it’s the book’s recurring theme — that Trappist monasteries are meant to be contemplative, and the monks have an obligation to safeguard this silent identity — that truly makes it an “essential” title.
So there you go, my list of seven “must have” or “must read” Merton books? Is there a title you think should have been included that I left out? Please leave a comment and make your case!