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A Life in Letters

Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters: The Essential Collection
by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen
Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2010
402 pages
Reviewed by Monique Keffer

The Dalai Lama once said, "Thomas Merton is someone we can look up to. He had the qualities of being learned, disciplined and having a good heart” (Bodo Murray, “The Dalai Lama Visits Gethsemani,” St. Anthony Messenger [Jan. 1997]). Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters offers spiritual seekers an enlightening read precisely because of Merton’s intellect, commitment, and heart displayed on every page.

The authors, of Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, USA, state in their introduction that Merton was a prolific writer, writing in excess of ten thousand letters. The medium of the letter coupled with Merton’s clear and honest style of writing allow us an intimate look inside his spiritual life. The reader not only gets a clear picture of Merton but also sees himself or herself in Merton. Merton’s voice, consistent across the letters, allows readers to feel as if they are having an extended one-on-one conversation with him. Indeed, the distance between narrator and reader is so close that it at times feels like an interior monologue, or maybe even ceaseless prayer.

These letters reveal a well-informed, well-read individual and a gifted writer who can make connections and weave sociocultural observations with historic events and poetic metaphor. The clarity gained from this combination communicates beyond mere words toward deeper understanding of what spiritual growth can look like over an entire lifetime.

When exploring these letters, readers cannot help but feel a kinship with Merton. His journey is agonizing, seemingly slow, and full of hard-earned lessons. Spiritual directors and spiritual directees alike can read this text and realize that if Merton struggled this much with transformation conflicts (such as balancing action and contemplation) and discernment between possible life paths and still be the great human being that he was, then perhaps we all have a chance of struggling through and finding our higher selves.

The Dalai Lama is certainly right when he says that we can look up to Merton, but the treasure in these letters is discovering that Merton is not perched on a pedestal high above us but rather walks beside us, shoulder to shoulder in the struggle toward spiritual transformation of self and the world.

Monique Keffer, MA, is a spiritual director trained at Sacred Ground in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, and a writer.

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