The latest biographer of one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers has come to terms with the monk’s contradictions and restlessness
How could the monk who was so often upset about his own lack of quiet and solitude also become the most loquacious of communicators? In the last decade of his life, Merton enjoyed correspondence with hundreds of people, including the most renowned literary and religious people of his day – from Boris Pasternak to Joan Baez to Pope John XXIII. When he’d first become a monk, in 1941, Merton thought he was leaving the world behind, before his abbot instructed him to sit at a typewriter in an office, during work hours, and tell his life story. Then, look what happened.
There’s a letter, for instance, that he wrote to one of his publishers in February 1948, several months before The Seven Storey Mountain would be published and make him famous, and in it he begins with a confession: “The devil is trying to mess up all that I do by getting me to do too much and involve me in such a network of projects that I will be neither able to work nor pray.” He goes on to detail his writing projects one by one. Fr Abbot is annoyed that one of his books of poems is out of stock. He needs a Spanish text of St John of the Cross to work more on a project that’s been previously discussed. He needs to write more poems. Meanwhile, another book – which he calls his “book of pensé´es” – is coming along nicely. (This would become New Seeds of Contemplation.) And his autobiography (Seven Storey) is much too long, and needs trimming. No wonder Merton had trouble balancing things and finding time to pray.