Between now and Epiphany I have a reading plan. Nothing all that ambitious. Just several big biographies I want to read or re-read. One I've just started re-reading is the still definitive biography of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott, published in 1986. Since then the seven volumes of Merton's Journals have been published and Merton scholarship has developed into a major and still growing field of academic research.
For myself, Merton has been a constant annoyance ever since I read his Thoughts in Solitude in 1976. I hesitated over that word, "annoyance", but it's the right choice. Annoyance tends to suggest something negative, irritating the way gravel in your trainers bothers you; something to get rid of. But I mean positively annoying, and Merton is annoyingly good. Take The Seven Storey Mountain, that great flawed masterpiece of religious testimony and autobiography, seen and told through the lens of the still to mature spirituality of an as yet unformed character. It is opinionated, self-centred in that negatively self critical way that still makes the self the centre of attention. He is dismissive of others, far too critical of good people, the zeal of the convert rubbishing alternative ways of discovering and following Christ. In later years the book embarrassed him, but for thousands of post war seekers for God, this honest raw account of primary religious experience touched the deep places, created an inner longing for somewhere firm to stand.
Merton is one of those select spiritual writers who is at his most penetrating in his critique of heart and conscience, often when he doesn't mean to be; for example when he is writing out of the need to articulate his own heart, and through his writing, build an hermeneutic of the self and his own experience of God. That experience combined frustration with longing, gregarious need for others with a desperate desire for solitude, and so set up a permanent inner tension between contemplative prayerfulness and activist urgency. There are astonishing juxtapositions in Merton's life and writing of contemplation and action; spiritual retreat and world engaging critique, a coalescing of passion for personal sanctity and social justice, a lived through contradiction of desires that at times felt like crucifixion.
One of the signs of an interesting saint is that they defy our ad hoc criteria for sanctity. There are few entirely reliable benchmarks for holiness other than encountering the real thing, that which is almost by nature indefinable, elusive, enigmatic. That's another reason I find Merton annoying. He doesn't give up his "secret", solve our "problems", dispense straightforward "answers", accede to our demands for practical solutions to spiritual dilemmas. He could never have written a handbook on holiness, say Sanctity for Dummies, or one of those pragmatic, technique, do-this-and-it-will-work books on Christian living and existence, purpose driven or otherwise. Books like Love and Living, Contemplative Prayer, No Man is an Island, New Seeds of Contemplation, are so different from the run of the mill books on prayer and spirituality, they should be on a different shelf. They are in a separate class from much of the mass produced, word processed, consumer oriented, short shelf-life spiritual journalism flitting across the 21st Century Christian consciousness.
For those looking for spiritual guidance that has psychological depth; for those determined to be honest and authentic before God; and for those who courageously seek God in the ambiguous reality of their own experience and the unreliable company of their own hearts, Merton is a gift from God. The four books noted above are amongst his most important - and in each of them the reader is infected by Merton's enthusiasm for God, and unresigned frustration with his own limited capacities to write and pray, and act and live, and feel and think, in ways sufficiently lucid and fluid as to capture enough of what makes life vibrant and full of meaning - God.
And then there are the Journals, the five volumes of Letters, the books on spiritual themes and social criticism, on monastic practices and political ethics, the poetry and the prayers, a smorgasbord of spiritual reflection, theologuical engagement, social comment, political critique, poetic yearning. Again Merton is annoying, annoyingly diverse, impossible to reduce to a few major themes and concerns. He defies the compulsion of scholars to find a "centre" to his thought, an "explanation" of his popularitry as a spiritual writer, a few primary themes to extrapolate into a valid thesis that would inevitably be reductionist. That said, Michael Mott's biography is one of the most comprehensive and plausible attempts to help us understand the enigma of this strict order Cistercian whose vow of silence compelled a writer to become one of the most important voices of 20th Century Christianity. It would be an interesting exercise for 2010 Christians to read and discover some of Merton's best writing, to see if Merton's voice yet speaks with considerable corrective force and in tones of urgent compassion, to a 21st Century world where truly prophetic voices of the Spirit are rare, so very hard to hear, and increasingly costly to listen to.