Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Notes from a Reading of Thomas Merton

Last evening, I was in the splendid company of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, priest, writer, and poet. 

Sadly, Merton died in 1968. However, he left for us a tremendous literary legacy, much of which is accessible to the 'lay person' and not just meant for those of an academic mind. Through his books, one can truly be in his company and be inspired by his words of insight and wisdom.

Anyway, back to my reading of last evening. I was engrossed in what Merton said about (and indeed, wrote to) the Russian writer, Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr Zhivago. Dr Zhivago is one of my all-time favourite books. It falls into the literary genre of an historical-novel; the love story of a beautiful woman and a physician-poet, set amidst the social turmoil of Russia between the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Second World War. 

To Pasternak, Merton wrote:

'all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.'

He continued:

'All great writing is in some sense revolutionary. Life itself is revolutionary, because it constantly strives to surpass itself.'

The act of reading, alongside his writing, was extremely important to Merton. To further quote from him:

'I always have at least three books going at the same time'. 

That sounds familiar, and I can further concur with him when he says:

'The real joy of reading is not in the reading itself, but in the thinking which it stimulates and which may go beyond what is said in the book.'

In Merton's mind, for a monk, reading and thinking are inseperable processes from that of meditation. I am sure the idea is not confined to monks. Anyone with a love of silence and contemplation will warm to his words.  

Continuing that theme, Merton wrote that the books he read (which were, not surprisingly, mainly theological and philosophical in nature, although also including some novels such as Doctor Zhivago and also the poems of William Blake)...

'and others like them, have helped me to discover the real meaning of my life, and have made it possible for me to get out of the confusion and the meaningless of an existence completely immersed in the needs and passiveness fostered by a culture in which sales are everything.'

That world to which Merton refers still exists. It is the materialistic world of capitalism and commerce, and it is not a world that I warm to. As I sit here writing in my library, I know that it is a world metaphorically and literally "on the other side of the wall" to my own world of God, love, and books. However, it is increasingly a world that is strange and unrecognisable to me. It may be a product of age, but I find myself retreating further and further from that world, and in the process, rejecting what it stands for - with the exception, of course, for the ability to purchase more books...

and ice-cream.

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