Patrick F. O’CONNELL, editor with introduction. Thomas Merton: Selected Essays. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013. pp. 493. $50.00 hb. ISBN 978-1-62698-023-5. Reviewed by Calvin MERCER, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858
For fans of Thomas Merton who have concentrated on his major works, this volume is a delight, providing some jewels not readily accessible. For newcomers to Merton, there are plenty of pieces here that entice to further reading.
O’Connell is professor in the departments of English and theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. Well equipped to deliver this collection, he is a founding member and former president of the International Thomas Merton Society, editor of The Merton Seasonal, and coauthor of The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Orbis). Patrick Hart provides a foreword.
Merton wrote about 250 essays. Collections of essays made up about half the books he published starting in 1960. The 33 essays selected here reflect the range of Merton’s interests and include pieces on monastic history, interreligious dialogue, social issues, contemplation, and literature. The essays are arranged chronologically, giving indication of his development over time. O’Connell wanted to represent the breadth and depth of Merton the essayist, and he accomplished his goal.
The collection includes some familiar articles, such as “Rain and the Rhinoceros” and “Day of a Stranger.” But there is plenty here for those who are already conversant with Merton’s work. Just to pick one example, “The White Pebble” is a little known autobiographical essay published in 1950 in a collection of conversion stories. Serving as a short reflective commentary on his life story, Merton here uses the image of the white pebble with a hidden name (Revelation 2:17) as a symbol of one’s authentic identity.
In this wonderful piece, Merton reflects on his journey from baptism through monastic vows and ordination. Here are some of his reflections on Mass, to give a taste of this piece: “If you are afraid of love, never become a priest, never say Mass. The Mass will draw down upon your soul a torrent of interior suffering which has only one function—to break you wide open and let everybody in the world into your heart. If you are afraid of people, never say Mass! If you want to guard your heart against invasion, never say Mass! For when you begin to say Mass, the Spirit of God awakes like a giant inside you and bursts the locks of your private sanctuary and calls all the people of the world to come into your heart.” (p. 13)
O’Connell begins the volume with an excellent introduction to Merton the essayist. The editor provides a valuable service by introducing each essay with meticulous bibliographic detail. An appendix gives in chronological order all of Merton’s essays.