Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Rivier College, NASHUA, NH 03060
Lawrence Cunningham has written an insightful, perceptive, and thoroughly readable biography of Thomas Merton. The author's in-depth knowledge of Merton's life and writings focus this biographical examination within the context of his monastic life. His basic thesis is that "Merton can be understood only if he is understood as a monk who spent twenty-seven years under a monastic rule and within the rich tradition of monastic ascesis, spirituality, and prayer." (p. 190) Such a focus allows the reader to read the text of Merton's life against the background of the Cistercian tradition and practice which he both embraced and worked to transform. It also allows us to read the "signs of the times" from Merton's perspective as a contemplative monk.
One cannot understand Merton the monk without knowing something of the life which brought him to the monastery, and so Lawrence Cunningham gives the reader an overview of the first twenty-seven years of Merton's life in an eighteen page Prologue. The basic material here is familiar to anyone who has read The Seven Story Mountain, but Cunningham manages to make it fresh and interesting. He makes it clear, however, that while the standard biographies examine these early experiences in detail-sometimes in too much detail-his intention is to understand Merton as a monk. Toward that end he explores the simple but persistent question which occupied Merton's attention for the twenty-seven years of his life as a Trappist: "What is a monk?" This question "involved not only his own sense of identity but his identity in relationship to the larger world about him." (p. 17) Cunningham examines Merton's gradual definition of this identity within Merton's own writings, and uses chapter headings that offer a series of signposts along the way: "The Making of a Monk," "The Conversion of a Monk," "Towards Mount Olivet," "Taking Up the Hermit Life," "Solitude and Love," and "The Final Years: 1967-1968." A final chapter, "Summing Up A Life," offers a reflection on Merton's place within the broad sweep of American Catholicism and the Western experience of the first half of the twentieth century. The book concludes with bibliographical notes, a valuable selection of material which Cunningham himself has found useful in his own work on Merton.
Cunningham's own work on Merton--he is the editor of Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master and A Search for Solitude: The Journals of Thomas Merton, 1952-1960, as well as a number of articles on Merton--makes him a valuable companion on this journey. He understands the monastic life and spirit, an "intuitive monk" as Abbot Timothy Kelly of Gethsemani Abbey calls Cunningham in his Forward to the book. His deep familiarity with monasticism, enhanced by a certain scholarly distance, enables him to read Merton with a valuable combination of academic integrity, spiritual discernment and friendly admiration. Making careful use of Merton's letters and journals, he accompanies the reader through the books, essays and poems produced by Merton while living a full monastic observance. Here we meet the Merton who sought "deep dialogue" with a wide group of seekers from a foundation of silent encounter with God. His seemingly paradoxical commitment to dialogue and solitude, finally as a contemplative hermit, grew out of a continuing search to discover how "he could express his compassion for the poor, his desire to communicate at a deep human level, to translate his experience of union with God into some kind of understandable language (even though the language always faltered), and to critique the worst of what he saw in the world he had left." (p. 204) Cunningham guides us along this journey of dialogue and solitude with insight and grace.
Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision is the most recent in Eeerdmans' Library of Religious Biography which includes original biographies of such important religious figures in American and British history as Billy Sunday, George Whitefield, Aimee Semple McPherson, Charles G. Finney, Emily Dickinson, and others. "Marked by careful scholarship yet free of footnotes and academic jargon, the books in this series are well-written narratives meant to be read and enjoyed as well as studied." If Lawrence Cunningham's biography of Thomas Merton is an indication of the quality of this series, it is a valuable series indeed.