Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dual Vocations: How Merton balanced the writer and monk within him (part 7)

Thomas Merton
Merton’s influence through his writing is special because it is tremendously detailed as well as open and honest, allowing his readers to experience the ups and downs in life with him.  His written life allows me to somewhat live vicariously through him, feeling as though I am right alongside him facing the same things.  The vivid imagery he utilizes captures the reader, pulling them into the broader spiritual autobiography.  This detail, coupled with intimate feelings, is what makes Merton’s writing so unique. 

Just as “his literary background and interest influenced the way he wrote about spirituality (and made it so different from other writers in the field), so his literary works – in a more hidden yet no less telling way – reflect and embody his spirituality.”[1]  Merton’s own writings have had profound influence on the generations following his life.  “Christian readers enjoyed a certain frisson in reading about the life of a person who turned from sin and evil to a life of graced conversion.”[2]  The Seven Storey Mountain, his first big success as a writer, was an honest reflection on his spiritual journey.  Not only that, but it was relatable because of its modernity; people could share in his intellectualism and jazz-loving ways.  

Peter Kountz discusses the importance of Merton’s dual vocations as writer and monk.  He states that “the two vocations affected each other, ultimately making the monk more worldly and the writer more contemplative (monastic).”[3]  Though he tells his own story, Merton draws the reader into the monastic life and thus into a closer union with God.  Merton’s influence spans the depths of what it means to be a contemplative.  One’s gifts can be utilized to further their life within the faith, rather than taking them out of it.  William Shannon articulated Merton’s influence through his writing perfectly in the following passage:

“Had Merton been forced to stop writing he would have shriveled up as a monk, perhaps even left the monastery.  God does not give gifts for us to throw them away.  Moreover, if Merton had persisted in believing (if he ever really believed it) that were he to use his gift as a writer he could not be a contemplative, his most important message for the contemporary world would have been muted.  For if one cannot be both a contemplative and a writer, it would follow that one could not be both a contemplative and a housewife, a contemplative and a truck driver, a contemplative and a teacher, a contemplative and a worker on the assembly line.”[4]
Merton’s main task, as Henri Nouwen put it, was “the unmasking of an illusion.”[5]  Though he would have done well to be in the frontlines of the civil rights movement, he was able to influence countless others through his writing for the purpose of bringing light to certain situations.  He allowed his readers to engage in the contemplative life regardless of various other pieces of their lives that could hold them back.  He wanted to help others approach prayer and solitude to dismantle the illusions the world had put in place.  He was aware of the power of language to oppress or to emancipate”[6] and used a bold approach with topic choices to do just that.

[1] William H. Shannon, ed. “Preface.” In The Courage for Truth: the Letters of Thomas Merton to Writers, (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1993), viii.
[2] Cunningham, 33.
[3] Peter Kountz, Chicago Studies in the History of American Religion, vol. 11, Thomas Merton as Writer and Monk: a Cultural Study, 1915-1951 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Pub., 1991), xxviii.
[4] Shannon, 35.
[5] Nouwen, 54.
[6] Fernando Beltrán Llavador, “Brother Silence, Sister Word: Merton’s Conversion and Conversation in Solitude and Society”, Thomas Merton Society (1996): 1, accessed May 20, 2014,

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