The trouble with anthologies like Echoing Silence
is succinctly expressed by Merton himself in a letter to Henry Miller: 'There is very fine material everywhere, one insight on top of another.' The nice thing about anthologies like Echoing Silence
is the contemplative quality of the work. Certain passages return to you in the midst of conversations, while you're out walking, as you sit down or rise to do your work, when you consider what must be done next. Thomas Merton's unique contribution to modern literature was signaled by his book of social criticism, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
(1966). As editor Robert Inchausti writes in his introduction, Merton was transformed into 'a contemplative culture critic whose essays built a bridge from the sacred to the secular and from the modern to the millennial mind.' It's doubtful Merton would have seen himself this way. He says as much in a journal entry from 1949: 'They can have Thomas Merton. He's dead. Father Louis--he's half dead too. For my part my name is that sky, those fence-posts, and those cedar trees. I shall not even reflect on who I am and I shall not say my identity is nobody's business because that implies a truculence I don't intend.' He had no interest in solitude for it's own sake. 'We need a profound questioning,' he writes in 'Message to Poets,' 'which will not separate us from the sufferings of men.' Merton eventually came to terms with his dual and often dueling vocations of monk and writer. It was an uneasy peace, though also, thankfully, edifying for those of us who followed. 'It seems to me that writing, far from being an obstacle to spiritual perfection in my own life, has become of the conditions on which my perfection will depend. If I am to be a saint--and there is nothing else that I can think of desiring to be--it seems that I must get there by writing books in a Trappist monastery. If I am to be a saint, I hve not only to be a monk, which is what all monks must do to become saints, but I must also put down on paper what I have become. It may sound simple, but it is not an easy vocation.'
An Eighth Day View:
When Thomas Merton entered a Trappist monastery in December 1941, he turned his back on secular life--including a very promising literary career. He sent his journals, a novel-in-progess, and copies of all his poems to his mentor, Columbia professor Mark Van Doren, for safe keeping, fully expecting to write little, if anything, ever again. It was a relatively short-lived resolution, for Merton almost immediately found himself being assigned writing tasks by his Abbot--one of which was the autobiographical essay that blossomed into his international best-seller "The Seven Storey Mountain." That book made him famous overnight, and for a time he struggled with the notion that the vocation of the monk and the vocation of the writer were incompatible. Monasticism called for complete surrender to the absolute, whereas writing demanded a tactical withdrawal from experience in order to record it. He eventually came to accept his dual vocation as two sides of the same spiritual coin and used it as a source of creative tension the rest of his life. Merton's thoughts on writing have never been compiled into a single volume until now. Robert Inchausti has mined the vast Merton literature to discover what he had to say on a whole spectrum of literary topics, including writing as a spiritual calling, the role of the Christian writer in a secular society, the joys and mysteries of poetry, and evaluations of his own literary work. Also included are fascinating glimpses of his take on a range of other writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Flannery O'Connor, Dylan Thomas, Albert Camus, James Joyce, and even Henry Miller, along with many others.