I was asked yesterday to recommend which Thomas Merton book I would read first if I was starting out on a Merton journey. It is an important question in approaching Merton’s works.
Merton’s writing is a mixed bag. Because he became famous so early in his career with the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948, almost anything he wrote was published. Merton was enormously prolific, writing quickly without a lot of revision. Consequently, his writing is often spontaneous and energetic but can also be wordy and at times a bit tangled. However, almost every book published with Merton’s name as author includes passages of magnificent prose and stimulating, thought-provoking insights and inspiration.
His writing is always human, humble, often deeply vulnerable and filled with luminous passionate faith.
It is helpful when reading Merton to make certain translations in one’s mind. When Merton speaks about the life of the “monk,” it is almost always possible to translate the word “Christian” for “monk.” Most of Merton’s reflections on the monastic life can be equally applied to the non-monastic Christian. Similarly, his reflections on monasticism and the need for renewal and change in monasteries, can be applied to the life of the contemporary church with fruitful results.
It is best to read Merton slowly, reflecting upon his thoughts before moving on too quickly to the next insight. Reading Merton requires patience, but will always repay the diligent reader with encouragement to live a deeper and more authentic spiritual life.
Some years ago when I was speaking fairly often about Merton, I developed a list of his works in the order in which I would read them. Here is that list and a few other items relating to reading Thomas Merton:
Works Of Thomas Merton in the order I would read them
The Sign of Jonas. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1953. Excerpts from journals 1946-1952, scenes from Merton’s early monastic years, includes “Fire Watch,” one of Merton’s greatest pieces of writings
New Seeds of Contemplation. NY: New Directions, 1961. 39 short meditations on spiritual life, a Merton “classic”
Thoughts In Solitude. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc., 1993. (originally pub. 1958) Short meditative evocation of the spiritual journey, needs to be read slowly
Disputed Questions. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1953. Collection of essays on various topics, “A Philosophy of Solitude” is particularly important, long essay on Pasternak
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. NY: Image, Doubleday, 1966. Random excerpts from notebooks 1956-65, can profitably be read by dipping in anywhere
The Wisdom of the Desert. NY: New Directions, 1961. Merton’s versions of 150 sayings and stories of 4th & 5th c. desert tradition, excellent introduction
Love and Living. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979. Collection of essays teaching on love as guide to spiritual life
The New Man. London: Burns & Oates, 1961. One of Merton’s most theological works expressing need to discover image of God within
No Man Is An Island. NY: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1955. Essays reflecting on love, creation, solitude and problem of materialism
Contemplation in a World of Action. NY: Image Books, 1971. Begins with long section on monastic renewal which may discourage reader, interesting if thought of in terms of contemporary church
Other Merton Works in order published
The Seven Storey Mountain. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948. Classic autobiographical account of early years – keep in mind written when still young man and recent convert (see note at bottom of this post)
The Ascent to Truth. NY: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1951. Reflections on St. John of the Cross, shaped by Scholasticism, Merton himself said would have been a different book if written later
Bread In The Wilderness. NY: New Directions Books, 1953. notes on Psalms
The Last of the Fathers: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Encyclical Letter Doctor Mellifulus. NY: Harcour Brace Jovanovich, 1954.
The Silent Life. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1957. Description of monastic life
The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton. NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. 1959. Account of early years leading up to entry into monastery
Spiritual Direction and Meditation. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1960. An odd little book
A Thomas Merton Reader, rev. ed. Thomas P. McDonell, ed. NY: ImageBooks, 1974. (originally published, 1962) good introduction to Merton’s pre-‘62 writing, includes many selections from Seven Storey Mountain
Life And Holiness. NY: Doubleday, 1995. (originally published, 1963) spirituality of ordinary life
The Way of Chuang Tzu. NY: New Directions, 1965. Merton’s versions of Taoist writer
Mystics and Zen Masters. NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1967. Studies of spiritual traditions
Zen and the Birds of Appetite. NY: New Directions, 1968. Demonstrates Merton’s grasp of the Buddhist tradition
Contemplative Prayer. NY: Image Books, 1969. Reflections on prayer
Opening the Bible. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1970. Guidance in the spirituality of reading the Bible
The Monastic Journey. NY: Image Books, 1977. Essays on monasticism
Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation. Volume 1: 1939-1941. Patrick Hart, O.C.S.O., ed. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995.
Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer. The Journals of Thomas Merton.Volume 2:1941-1952. Jonathan Montaldo, ed. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996.
A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life. Volume 3: 1952-1960. Lawrence S. Cunningham, ed. San Francisco HarperCollins, 1996.
Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years. The Journals of Thomas Merton Volume4: 1960-1963. Victor A. Kramer, ed. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996.
Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage. The Journals of Thomas Merton. Volume 5:1963-1965. Robert E. Daggy, ed. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997.
Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom. Volume 6:1966-1967. Christine M. Bochen, ed. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997.
The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey. Volume 7:1967-1968. Patrick Hart, O.C.S.O., ed. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998.
(nb: Merton’s journals would be heavy laborious reading for most normal people. I found them captivating and delightful. They are filled with the humanness and vulnerability of this man, sometimes to an embarrassing degree.)
Works On Thomas Merton
Bailey, Raymond. Thomas Merton on Mysticism. New York: Image Books, 1975.
Cunningham, Lawrence S. Thomas Merton & the Monastic Vision. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1999.
deWaal, Esther. A Seven Day Journey With Thomas Merton. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, 1992.
Finley, James. Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self. Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1978.
Furlong, Monica. Merton: A Biography. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Mott, Michael. The Seven Mountains Of Thomas Merton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.
Padovano, Anthony T. The Human Journey: Thomas Merton, Symbol of a Century. New York: Image Books, 1984.
Shannon, William. ‘Something Of A Rebel’: Thomas Merton, His Life and Works. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1997.
– Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey: Writings on Contemplation. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger, 2000.
Merton’s Evaluation of his own writing
BEST: none listed
BETTER: *Thirty Poems, The Seven Storey Mountain, Seeds of Contemplation,
*Tears of the Blind Lion, Sign of Jonas, Silent Life, Thoughts in Solitude,
Wisdom of the Desert, New Seeds of Contemplation, Seeds of Destruction,
The Way of Chuang Tzu, *Emblems of a Season of Fury,
Raids on the Unspeakable, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
GOOD: *A Man in the Divided Sea, No Man Is An Island, *The Strange Islands,
The New Man, Disputed Questions, Mystics and Zen Masters
FAIR: *Figures For an Apocalypse, Waters of Siloe, Ascent to Truth,
Bread in the Wilderness, Last of the Fathers, Life and Holiness
POOR: Living Bread, Spiritual Direction and Meditation, Seasons of Celebration
BAD (or VERY POOR): Exile Ends in Glory
AWFUL: What Are These Wounds
NOTE ON THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN from Merton scholar
Thomas Merton is not always an easy writer to get into. His most famous book, The Seven Storey Mountain, which many people pick up first, is an uneven work. The story is a very engaging one, and Merton’s combination of high style and slang keeps us reading in the narrative sections. But it also contains turgid chunks of semi-digested theology; and there are places where his satisfaction at having found a faith, a working religious tradition and a place in the world transmutes unattractively into rigidity, smugness and triumphalism. These were less noticeable when the book came out, and when Roman Catholicism appeared to be a fortress build on a rock of unchanging truth and practice… But readers today are more aware, more critical and more individualistic; and too many potential friends of Merton have been put off by these features of The Seven Storey Mountain.