Jim FOREST, Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton. Revised edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008. pp. xxvi + 262. $22.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-754-9.
Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541

This is actually the third version of Jim Forest’s life of Merton, which first appeared from Paulist Press in 1980 as Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biography, was issued in much expanded form by Orbis under the present title in 1991, and now appears in an updated revision to mark the fortieth anniversary of Merton’s death. The latest edition retains the attractive format, with its wide outer margins filled with photos and quotations, along with an abundance of larger photographs, many not found elsewhere, that has made this work one of the most accessible and engaging introductions to the life and work of the prolific Cistercian, while incorporating considerable additional material that has become available in the past decade and a half, particularly from the seven volumes of Merton’s complete journals (1995-1998).

A noted peace activist and distinguished spiritual writer in his own right, Forest first came to know Merton personally in the early 1960s, visited him twice at Gethsemani (the second time for the celebrated peacemakers retreat in 1964 that had a significant influence on religious resistance to the Vietnam War), and continued to correspond with him until his death, one of the most extensive and significant sets of Merton’s letters from this period (most of which is published in The Hidden Ground of Love, the first volume of Merton’s collected letters). The author describes this relationship in affectionate, sometimes humorous and often moving detail in his Preface (ix-xvi), but remains an unobtrusive presence in the body of the book, refraining from putting undue emphasis on his own contacts with Merton while including pertinent comments from letters or conversations that would be utilized by any good biographer. Forest provides an excellent overview of Merton’s “turn toward the world” in the final decade of his life and the incisive writings on issues of war and peace and of racial justice that resulted, but is no less insightful in his discussion of Merton’s commitment to his monastic vocation and to the renewal of monastic life, of his engagement in interreligious dialogue, his friendships with writers such as Pasternak, his quest for greater solitude that led to the hermitage in which he spent his final three years. Forest gives due attention to the problematic aspects of Merton’s life, including his apparent fathering of a child as a teenager in Britain, his chronic restlessness and recurring attraction to other, more eremitic forms of monastic life, his conflicted relationship with his abbot, James Fox, and his brief but intense romantic relationship with the young nurse in 1966. But Forest is also careful to include such details as Merton’s comment in his journal that Dom James “is an extraordinary man, many sided, baffling, often irritating, . . . who honestly and in his own way really seeks to be an instrument of God,” concluding “I am grateful to him” (190); he repeatedly notes Merton’s references to celebrating Mass during his Asian trip (224, 229 [twice], 230, 231, 234) to counter the unfounded rumors that Merton’s interest in Eastern religion was drawing him away from Catholicism. Forest provides a balanced, well-proportioned, reliable and extremely readable account of Merton’s life for those previously unfamiliar with Merton, while offering a wealth of information, insights and quotations, some quite extensive, from Merton’s own writings, that even those already well acquainted with Merton will find very rewarding.

This revised edition includes for the first time a detailed, virtually year-by-year chronology (xvii-xxv), a (very welcome) index (255-61) and running heads with chapter titles. Additional material has been added throughout: for example, in the chapter entitled “Father Louis” (altered from “Vows” to reflect the major focus on Merton’s ordination) (100-110), there is a new paragraph on the overcrowded monastery (100), more information on the lifestyle of the Carthusians (102), additional paragraphs on the Abbot General’s encouragement of his writing and early problems with censors (104), new material on St. John of the Cross and on Mary as a model for the contemplative (106), and mention of comments on current events made by friends present at Merton’s ordination (110). Numerous journal passages previously unavailable are added to the chapter entitled “A Proverb Named Margie” (193-203), as well as elsewhere throughout the book. Quotations from “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra concerning Giants,” the lovely poem “Grace’s House” and the essay “The General Dance” (actually the final chapter of New Seeds of Contemplation) are newly included to reflect the range of Merton’s mature writing (149-50). The increase in the number of notes from 331 in the 1991 edition to 403 here reflects the expansion of the text. Even the notes themselves are occasionally revised, as when a journal reference is added to the note on the phrase "Natura naturans" from the great prose poem Hagia Sophia (251, n. 261). The author has done a conscientious and thorough job of updating, which is reflected even in the small stylistic revisions that are found throughout the text.

There are a few minor misprints and errors scattered through the volume. Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, correctly titled in the 1991 edition, has unaccountably become The Spirit of Medieval Christianity here (49); Merton’s own misspelling (in the autobiography though not in the journal) of Hopkins’ biographer G. F. Lahey as “Leahy” is repeated (58); the reference to the narrator in the early novel My Argument with the Gestapo as “Merton in every detail but name” (74) misses the detail that the narrator is in fact named “Thomas Merton”; In the Dark Before Dawn, the new selection of Merton’s poetry, is referred to only by its subtitle in text (94) and notes (249); “St. Lutagarde” (98) has gained an extra “a” in her name, while “Oliver Clément” (139) has lost an “i” in his; the quotation on page 114 is not from “an essay written for monastic circulation” but from novitiate conference notes (which were later distributed to other abbeys of the order); the quotation on page 170 is from Raids on the Unspeakable rather than New Seeds of Contemplation; Jean Leclercq, the French-born monk of the Abbey of Clervaux in Luxembourg, is not Belgian (217) (and his name is missing its second “c” in the photo caption on page 235); Elected Silence, the British title of Merton’s autobiography, has become Eternal Silence in n. 69 (248); editor Jonathan Montaldo has become “Montalolo” (249, n. 184); Deba Prasad Patnaik has become “Prasad Patnik” (252, n. 307); and Garden City, NY has migrated to New Jersey (251, n. 262). The only mistake of any substance is that the Pax Peace Prize awarded to Merton in 1963 was given not by “a Catholic peace group that had grown out of the Catholic Worker and which eventually became the U.S. section of Pax Christi International” (164) but by a secular group of the same name from Massachusetts, organized by former Senate candidate H. Stuart Hughes (see the article by John Collins in The Merton Seasonal 33.1 [Spring 2008], 3-14). There is also some confusion in the discussion of the graph which Merton made of his own work in 1967; the details in the text (206-207) do not correspond to the graph used as an illustration but to a slightly later version that had actually appeared in Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biography (page 65). But these are quite minor imperfections that can easily be corrected in what one may hope will be a further edition (perhaps in 2015, to celebrate the centenary of Merton’s birth?) of this wise, instructive and immensely enjoyable portrait that Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s last secretary, has rightly called “A superb introduction to the life of one of the most extraordinary monks of our time.”


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