As Merton recalled of one of his favorite authors, “The Providence of God was eventually to use Blake to awaken something of faith and love in my own soul – in spite of all the misleading notions, and all the almost infinite possibilities of error that underlie his weird and violent figures.” God can use any avenue to bring people to his presence. Blake was not always a man of faith, and therefore his poems were not strewn with Christian illusions. Yet God used Merton’s love of literature to draw him nearer; He might use art or even sports to do the same for another. It just so happened that Merton had a consistent stream of books which held his interest and therefore God entered the pages to come to life through his persistent reading.
So “just as his reading helped him in moving toward these goals, so our reading of Merton’s works can do the same for us.” We can take his example and draw nearer to God through reading, if that is a love of ours. Spiritual reading as a whole can “assist in the reformation of our hearts and minds into the likeness of Jesus Christ.” Utilizing books for this purpose involves interacting with the words for the personal formation aspects rather than the head knowledge that can be gleaned.
After his conversion, Merton wrote “to help people to be better Christians” just as so many writers before him had done. He appreciated the custom of Saint John of the Cross, who wrote out “short meditative phrases…that could be used as a meditative preparation for contemplative attention.” Merton utilized such a practice to help young monks approach meditation. His theological writing assisted the deepening of faith for his fellow monks as well as superiors and even for readers today. This practice was used in Merton’s own practices as one of his favorite things to do was to meditate “in silence on a spiritual author.” I think this is a very practical takeaway from how Merton utilized his love of literature to further his spirituality.
The act of reading is not merely for pleasure, but it invokes a response. Personally, I have found certain quotes from Merton helpful in my own spiritual journey as I am able to contemplate his words as they relate to the Christian life. He was able to “juxtapose whatever he reads and contemplates…with the reality of his monastic existence.” Likewise, the reader of Merton works and other spiritual writings can contemplate the words on the page in their own setting. I, too, can appreciate the aspects of creation that are touched upon in Blake’s poems and the vividness of Hopkin’s verses. Writers have the unique gifts to bring to life things that are often passed by without much thought since “words can travel beyond their confines into the mystery of God.” The importance of spiritual reading is to see how God works through these writers to bring his people closer to Him. This was evident in Merton’s life as he became the same literary influence that other writers had been to him.