Mary Gordon, On Thomas Merton (Boulder: Shambhala, 2018), 147pp.
"If Thomas Merton had been a writer and not a monk," writes Mary Gordon, "we would never have heard of him. If Thomas Merton had been a monk and not a writer, we would never have heard of him." Gordon, an award-winning author and the Millicent C. McIntosh Professor in English and Writing at Barnard College since 1988, has written fifteen novels, memoirs, and works of literary criticism. This book originated as a keynote lecture that she gave at Columbia University on the 100th anniversary of Merton's birth in 1915.
Gordon focuses on Merton's paradoxical and conflicted dual vocation as both a monk and a writer. As his journals show, Merton was deeply anguished his entire life about the many contradictions that were provoked by his dual identity. The publication of his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948, which sold 600,000 copies upon release, made him an instant celebrity and success. By that time, he had been a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky for about six years. Having taken the Trappist vows of silence and seclusion, the world famous monk nonetheless had a compulsive need to write (more than 70 books). His work was subject to official censors. He was a proven cash cow for the monastery, where his superiors made him write things that he had no interest in for their cause. He deeply resented one of his superiors, who treated him as a commodity for sale, and who carefully crafted his public image. How could he reconcile his fame with his monastic solitude? How does one express the Inexpressible with mere words? "His anguishes were enormous," writes Gordon, "but so were his ambitions."
After an introductory chapter about this dual vocation, Gordon devotes one chapter each to three works by Merton: The Seven Storey Mountain, his novel My Argument with the Gestapo (1941), and then his seven volumes and 2500 pages of Journals ("his best writing"). In the end, Gordon concludes that the monk and the writer were "never at ease with each other, never at peace, but unable to uncouple."
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org