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Another journal shows Merton still speaks to us

volume three, 1952-1960

Edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham
Harper San Francisco, 394 pages, $27.50


"Out here in the woods," he wrote, "I can think of nothing except God, and it is not so much that I think of God either. I am as aware of God as of the sun and the clouds and the blue sky and the thin cedar trees. ... Engulfed in the simple and lucid actuality which is the afternoon: I mean God's afternoon, this sacramental moment of time when the shadows will get longer and longer, and one small bird sings quietly in the cedars, and one car goes by in the remote distance and the oak leaves move in the wind. High up in the late summer sky I watch the silent flight of a vulture, and the day goes by in prayer. This solitude confirms my call to solitude. The more I am in it, the more I love it. One day it will possess me entirely and nobody will ever see me again" (Sept. 15, 1952).

Merton's silent life still speaks to us. His third is the best of his journals so far.

A Search for Solitude traces his frustrations with the Abbey of Gethsemani and his dream of founding a new monastery in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua or Ecuador. By the early 1950s, his fame was well established. Inside the monastery, Merton was an elder, first as master of scholastics and later novice master. While he taught, prayed and studied, he also did his share of manual labor, kept up his correspondence, wrote 10 books and many essays.

These pages record his exploration into Zen, existentialism, Latin America, Marxism, Russian Orthodox theologians, literature, in particular Boris Pasternak, Martin Buber, Czeslaw Milosz and Gandhi. He mentions in passing his Portuguese and Russian lessons, visits from Mark Van Doren and his publisher, J. Laughlin, the election of John XXIII, the editing of his manuscripts Thoughts in Solitude and The Secular Journal and the spirituality of Mary Lou Williams' jazz.

At the heart of these difficult years -- and this fascinating journal -- is Merton's effort to find out what it means to be a monk, not only at Gethsemani but in the 20th century.

New questions about monasticism and a deep longing for solitude led to bitter clashes with his abbot, Dom James Fox, and a protracted vocational crisis. For years he hoped to become a hermit in another order, then to found a new monastery and finally to build the first hermitage at Gethsemani. As his hopes came crashing down, he turned inward and reexamined his own soul.

"There is one thing holding me at Gethsemani," Merton wrote Oct. 10, 1952, as the crisis unfolded. "And that is the cross. Some mystery of the wisdom of God has taught me that perhaps, after all, Gethsemani is where I belong because I do not fit in and because here my ideals are practically all frustrated."

"I cannot escape the fact that the stagnation of my prayer life here, especially in community exercises ... is due to deep involvement in the collective sin of American society and American Catholicism, a sin of which we all refuse to be aware," Merton reflected.

His vocational struggle climaxed Dec. 17, 1959, when a letter arrived from the Vatican. On his knees before the Blessed Sacrament, Merton read the Vatican's denial of exclaustration. After years of anguish, he felt surprisingly at peace: "Actually, what it comes down to is that I shall certainly have solitude but only by miracle and not at all by my own contriving. Where? Here or there makes no difference. Somewhere, nowhere, beyond all where. Solitude outside geography or in it. No matter. Coming back, walked around a corner of the woods and the monastery swung in view. I was free from it."

In these tormented years, Merton's greatest consolation came from the surrounding woods. "My silence is part of the whole world's silence and builds the temple of God without the noise of hammers," he pondered from a woodshed in 1953.

The struggle to leave Gethsemani in search of solitude led to the breakthrough immortalized in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: "Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were or could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream -- the dream of my separateness, of the special vocation to be different. I am still a member of the human race. Thank God!"

This long prelude of silent suffering and inner anguish paved the way for his prophetic witness in the 1960s. As all his dreams went out the window, the journal closes with news of a small retreat center being built on the edge of the monastery woods. Here at last, as he later shared in A Vow of Conversation, Merton will settle into solitude and happiness -- and a whole new set of struggles.

Lawrence Cunningham's fine introduction, editing and glossary of monastic terms complete this spiritual search.

Jesuit Fr. John Dear is author, most recently, of Peace Behind Bars: A Journal from Jail (Sheed & Ward), and Apostle of Peace: Essays in Honor of Daniel Berrigan (Orbis).

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996