Thomas Merton was many things to many people Ė poet, political activist, spiritual writer, pioneer in inter-religious dialogue. At the core, however, he was defined by his vocation as a Trappist monk living in Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky. As part of this vocation, he spent time serving as novice master, instructing the young monks in the ways of Trappist life and the Rule of Saint Benedict which they followed. The present volume, the fourth Merton installment in Cistercianís Monastic Wisdom Series, presents his novice conferences on the Rule, given during the late 1950ís and early 1960ís, culled from the notes Merton used to give them.
Merton arranges the conferences in three parts Ė an introduction to the Rule, a discussion of St. Benedict, and a commentary on the Rule. Interestingly, as he notes early on, Merton chooses to leave out discussion of the Divine Office (one might assume this was covered at some other juncture in the novitiate), likely to disappoint those who appreciate Mertonís insights on liturgy and prayer (6). The overall style of the conferences is somewhat fragmentary and choppy, understandable given the context of their presentation as a guide meant to illuminate the Rule, working knowledge of which is presumed throughout. This does not mean, however, that Mertonís conferences lack insights for the layperson except as curiosities for the Merton completist.
Given as they are for monks, Mertonís conferences here do not take up directly his themes of living the Christian faith in the modern world or finding a place for prayer and contemplation in everyday life. They are, naturally, a guide for monks to the life that they have taken up in the monastery. Yet there are insights throughout the work that can be taken up by those outside the monastery, notably Mertonís warnings against rigidity in the interpretation of the Rule (46). Also notable is Mertonís discussion of the need to honor a person both by interior charity and in just action and respect for the personís rights (110). One can legitimately find here a foundation for Mertonís later writings on social justice, which would begin shortly after the time when these conferences were given.
As Patrick OíConnell helpfully points out in his Introduction, the main theme of the conferences given by Merton, especially in the last parts, is the humility that is necessary to live out the life of discipleship (xlv). Merton himself acknowledges that the whole work is fundamentally a prelude to the discussion of the ďDegrees of Humility,Ē which he calls ďthe heart of the Benedictine ascesisĒ (152). Those familiar with Mertonís biography will know that humility was a major spiritual struggle for him, especially in dealing with his superiors, and thus it is quite illuminating to read his insights in this area. He also comes up with some pithy remarks, notably his commentary on what he calls the characteristically American belief that ďpopularity and love are a justification and seal of approval upon our false idea of ourselvesĒ (169). Again, these conferences can certainly find an audience beyond their initial intended readership.
This edition includes a Preface by Joan Chittister that briefly remarks on the Rule and Mertonís conferences from a Benedictine perspective, highlighting especially the room for flexibility and change provided by the rule. Patrick OíConnellís Introduction summarizes Mertonís conferences and contextualizes them within Mertonís life as a monk and his oeuvre as a writer. Especially effective is his argument about the unity of Mertonís contemplative and activist writings, which I think bears out from the text. Overall, this edition provides a very helpful resource both for those with an interest in Merton and for scholarly and popular audiences looking for insights into Benedictine spirituality.