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Conjectures of a Disenchanted Reader

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Mary Jo Weaver
Indiana University


Twenty-five years ago I happily compared Thomas Merton to Flannery O'Connor, finding in each of them an “urgency of vision,” and although I have not changed my mind about Merton's importance, I have had to fight my way through a substantially diminished admiration. Reading him a quarter of a century later was disturbing because, bluntly put, I did not like him as much as I did when I was younger. He seemed neurotic, over-published, and extraordinarily self-centered. Had I outgrown him? The arrogance of that question paralyzed me for a month even when I could find colleagues who agreed with me, but I decided to pursue it and began by making a list of things about Merton that bothered me now in ways I never even thought of a quarter of a century ago.

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Copyright © The College Theology Society 2003

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1 “Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor: The Urgency of Vision,” Religion in Life 48 (1979): 449–61; reprinted in Grayston, Donald and Higgins, Michael, eds., Thomas Merton: Pilgrim in Progress (Toronto: Griffin House, 1983), 2741.Google Scholar

2 I have relied on the good graces and sage advice of many old friends and colleagues as I prepared this paper, particularly Luke Johnson, Susan Gubar, David Brakke, Connie Furey, and Anne Carr. I am also grateful to my brother, Larry, for ideas and for editorial suggestions.

3 Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948).Google Scholar All citations to this text come from the 1998 edition introduced by Robert Giroux and appear in parentheses by pagination only.

4 Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, chap. 9. See Kavanaugh, Kieran and Rodriguez, Otilio, eds., The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, vol. 2. Washington, DC.: ICS Publications, 1987), 100–04.Google Scholar

5 Turner, Denys, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 5073CrossRefGoogle Scholar, quotation from 56.

6 The Other Side of the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Vol. 7, ed. Hart, Patrick (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 323.Google Scholar

7 Turner, Darkness of God., 57.

8 The title of C.S. Lewis's religious autobiography which, like Merton's, does not tell the reader much about his inner spiritual life, i.e., it, too, is primarily intellectual.

9 John of the Cross in the “Precautions,” a text Merton took with him to the monastery, says that there is no end to stumbling blocks in the monastery, i.e., community life is a collection of individuals who have been gathered together for one another's spiritual purification. John thought the friar should be especially sensitive to the ways in which he was a stumbling block for others. John Eudes Bamberger says, “He [Merton] did not hesitate to make use of his considerable powers for criticism—the force of which has to be experienced to be believed—upon his own community, his beloved fathers and brothers,” (“The Cistercian,” Continuum 7 [1969]: 232).

10 The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concern, ed. Shannon, William H. (New York: Dimensions, 1993), 636Google Scholar (letter of Thomas Merton to June J. Yungblut, June 22, 1967).

11 The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, ed. Hart, Patrick and Montaldo, Jonathan (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 312.Google Scholar See 305 for graphing journals.

12 Ibid., 304.

13 San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984.

14 Published by Harper San Francisco (1995–98).

15 Learning to Love, xxiii.

16 The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 438.

17 The Intimate Merton, 336.

18 Cistercian Studies 2 (1967).

19 For the ways in which a dynamic concept of cloister, like the one Merton was describing, changed the lives of some American Carmelite sisters see my Cloister and Community: Life within a Carmelite Monastery (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 84–87.

20 The Catholic Counter-Culture in America 1933–1962 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 205–49.

21 Cited in Knight, Jim, “The Merton I Knew,The Merton Seasonal 27 (Fall 2002): 20.Google Scholar

22 Bowen, Elizabeth, “Autobiography as an Art,Saturday Review of Literature, 17 March 1951, pp. 911.Google Scholar Bowen is not writing with any reference to Merton, and, in fact, was probably thinking mostly about her own autobiographical work.

23 Fisher is the best interpreter of these men and their relationship to Merton's Catholicism in Catholic Counter-Culture.

24 Houselander (1901–54) was an English devotional writer (e.g., Rocking Horse Catholic, 1955) who worked with the poor and could have established a school of spirituality, according to Ronald Knox (letter to The Tablet [23 October 1954]).

25 “Young Man Merton” is chapter two in Massa's, book, Catholics and American Culture (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 3856.Google Scholar Massa uses Erik Erikson's, Young Man Luther as an interpretive grid for Merton, that is to say, in a time of socially generalized identity crisis, Luther's own struggle and its solution was culturally paradigmatic. The solution he worked out for himself also served the religious needs of an entire group.

26 “Thomas Merton: A Modern Man in Reverse” Atlantic 191 (January 1953): 70–74.

27 Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

28 “The Spirituality of the Future,” in The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality, ed. Rahner, Karl, Lehmann, Karl, and Raffelt, Albert (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 1826.Google Scholar

29 Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books, 1956, p. 79.

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