Saturday, May 2, 2009

Thomas Merton: Master of Attention, by Robert Waldron

101 pages, $19.95, Novalis.

Waldron develops an important aspect of the contemplative side of Merton, the use of attention in his prayer and wider spirituality, often comparing the monk with the French mystic Simone Weil. The author bases his ideas on the journals, books, and poetry of Merton rather than on other people's books about Merton. The reader therefore gets an immediate, simple notion of Merton, where the power of these original writings is drawn out.

The book's author himself groans at the idea of another Merton book. Yet the surprising depth of Master of Attention comes, no doubt, from the richness of Merton himself. The Cistercian monk's works are a jewel not only for Catholics but for all religious and spiritual types. In this way, Catholicism can sneak into the lives of people who may not otherwise have given the Church a glance.

Merton appeals to a wide audience because his elegant spirituality brings out the best in his tradition, and does so from many sides. In this sense he is one of the most important Catholic theologians of the past century.

Like Pope John Paul II or Saint Padre Pio, Merton renews the Church by unearthing the deepest, most beautiful parts of Catholicism rather than by focusing on the negatives. He reforms by bringing out the great gems of our tradition rather than by getting into all sorts of power struggles with the hierarchy.

Waldron mixes important biographical information about Merton so as to give the background and therefore fuller meaning to these spiritual insights and writings. The author discusses the importance of Merton's father, a painter and somewhat religious man, on the monk's sense of the spiritual value of art and beauty:

“Shortly after viewing the Byzantine icons, Merton sensed his [deceased] father's presence in his hotel room on the corner of Via Sistina and Via Tritone [in Rome]. He writes one of the most haunting passages in modern twentieth-century memoirs: '...The sense of his presence was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me ... I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul, and I was pierced deeply with a light that made me realize something of the condition I was in.'”

Master of Attention also examines how both Zen Buddhism and nature influenced Merton, though the author emphasizes that the monk always remained orthodox and steeped in Catholic culture and spirituality, something that not all Merton experts do.

The richness, variety, and depth of Merton's writings tempt many analysts to force their own feelings onto his thought, and Waldron falls for this trap at times. The author does a Jungian deconstuction of the monk's personality, perhaps reading too much into things. Like all books on Merton, then, readers should take this one with caution.

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