THOMAS MERTON'S DARK PATH: The Inner Experience of a Contemplative by William H. Shannon

THOMAS MERTON'S DARK PATH: The Inner Experience of a Contemplative

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A survey of Merton's mystical career that's too bookish (almost no biographical background), too theological (as if Merton were not also a poet and prophet), too serious (none of Merton's playful wit), and too expository (as opposed to critical)--but for all that not a bad book. Shannon traces Merton's evolution from the highly traditional What Is Contemplation? (1948) to the radical ecumenical insights of The Asian Journal (left incomplete at Merton's death in 1968). The early Merton, he argues, based his thinking on ""theological ratiocinations"" (The Ascent to Truth), whereas in his maturity Merton became much less dogmatic and more open to experience (Zen and the Birds of Appetite). As a bridge between these two phases Shannon points to The Inner Experience, a text that Merton never let anyone publish--either before or after his death. Drawing on the various mss. of this work, Shannon notes the emergence of such themes as the need to get rid of the ""illusory exterior self"" before proceeding to contemplation, and the linking of the Christian experience of spiritual enlightenment with satori--themes that would play a major role in Merton's later thought. Shannon indignantly rejects Edward Rice's quip that Merton was ""an Englishman who became a Communist, then a Catholic, later a Trappist monk, and finally a Buddhist""; but there's more truth to it than he allows. As Shannon's own meticulous presentation of Merton's changing views on spirituality makes clear, by the time he died the man was on the way toward abandoning his old Catholic identity. All this, in any case, will be of compelling interest only to Mertonians--a larger group than one might imagine. All other readers would be better advised to consult Monica Furlong's splendid Merton (1980).

Pub Date: April 29th, 1981
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux