The Strength of Hyphens: Mary Gordon on Thomas Merton

Originally Published in Dialogue Magazine, Volume 32-4, Summer 2019

Review of Mary Gordon's On Thomas Merton (Shambhala, 2019)

by J.S. Porter

for Jim Forest

If Thomas Merton had been a writer and not a monk, we would never have heard of him.
If Thomas Merton had been a monk and not a writer, we would never have heard of him. -- Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon writes writer to writer in her new book, perhaps the first time in Merton Studies where a novelist of considerable achievement turns her eye towards the literary quality of a famous, and inspirational, monk.

Thomas Merton was a writer-monk, someone whose way of being in the world was to make things (poems, essays, journals) out of words and share them with the world. He was a writer before he became a priest and a monk, and was a writer all his days as a monk. A man who could swallow paradoxes as easily as a whale swallows plankton, he was ever-talkative, even within his vow of silence within the Cistercian Order. With 50+ books in his lifetime, he seems to grow a book a year, with yet another anthology or compilation of his work appearing somewhere in the world.

Mary Gordon recognizes that words were his homeland and writing his instrument for growth. And what growth it was: a pious Catholic-convert when he writes the international bestseller The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948, critical of the world and ways of being in it different from his own, to the open-hearted, open-minded writer-monk who embraces the world and revels in its diversity in The Asian Journal in 1968. Writing is how he learned who he was and accepted himself and shared himself.

Merton seemed to be always under construction, always in process. He tattooed on his flesh, so to speak, a single radical idea: you grow and change or you pay the price for staying the same. Merton chose to grow. In his journals, he writes of "[t]he need for constant self-revision, growth, leaving behind, renunciation of yesterday, yet in continuity with all yesterdays... My ideas are always changing, always moving around one center, always seeing the center from somewhere else. I will always be accused of inconsistencies - and will no longer be there to hear the accusation." Any reader of a specific Merton work or utterance needs to ask in rapid succession - what's the date? what's the mood? who's the audience?

As he makes clear in his journals, " write is to love." As early as December 20, 1939 Merton is able to say to himself, and hence to us as eavesdroppers on his private confessions, "I only know I am writing well about the things I love: ideas, places, certain people: all very definite, individual, identifiable objects of love..."

Merton comes to the realization that "writing is one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude ...Also I find that it helps me to pray, because when I pause at my work I find that the mirror inside me is surprisingly clean and deep and serene and God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if He had come close to me while I was writing..."

Later in The Sign of Jonas, Merton writes, as if coming to new insight while in the act of writing, "I must also put down on paper what I have become... To be as good a monk as I can, and to remain myself, and to write about it: to put myself down on paper, in such a situation, with the most complete simplicity and integrity, masking nothing... without exaggeration, repetition, useless emphasis." Few writers, past or present, more completely communicate their fullness--all their hyphens and hybridities-- than Thomas Merton.

If Merton had been a monk and nothing else, he would have become a footnote perhaps, a name, with dates, on a cross in the Gethsemani cemetery just outside of Bardstown, Kentucky. If Merton had been a writer and nothing else, he would have become a different kind of footnote: a minor poet who translated Latin American poets from the Spanish and translated, along with John Wu, The Way of Chuang Tzu, a work of great spirituality and wisdom. Take away that all important hyphen between the nouns writer and monk and you have a man's lifework without spark, flame or fire.

With the hyphen, you have a steady flame, which includes The Seven Storey Mountain, New Seeds of Contemplation, The Asian Journal and the private journals. Merton is, of course, more than a singlehyphenated man; he's multi-hyphenated. His hybridity is as vast as his artistic and spiritual production.

Thomas Merton is the poet-monk, the photographer-monk, the calligrapher-monk, the intellectualmonk, the political-monk, the translator-monk and so on. If you get tired of him in any one of his masks, or identities, you can pick up another one. Tired of the visual art, you can turn to his words. Tired of his politics, you can turn to his meditations and prayers. The strength of Merton's hyphens is to make him seem almost inexhaustible.

Mary Gordon touches on the inexhaustibility with great finesse and elegance. She speaks writer to writer about her personal relationship with Merton's writings, on his Seven Storey Mountain, on his novel My Argument with the Gestapo and, most importantly, on her engagement with his posthumous journals. She spends no time on his poetry, which is for me a shortcoming, yet correctly implies that his best poetry lies in his prose, especially the prose in his journals.

A discerning reader, herself a hybrid, a writer-critic, she writes in a personal, conversational voice everopen to the ambivalences and ironies of a complex man. She, like many before her, recognizes that Merton was a failed novelist-- novelist-monk is a hyphenated self that doesn't quite work--and yet his novel My Argument with the Gestapo brims with startling imagistic phrasing such as:

Window glass falls all around me like a
shower of money.
The windows of the shops glowed like bright
and friendly aquariums.

She rightly observes that these sentences could serve as first lines in a poem.

Gordon has a knack of saying things incomparably well. Merton's mission? "His goal was to combine the sacred and the secular, preserving the breeziness of American informal speech while retaining the grandeur of the European Catholic tradition." Gordon writes in a warm, folksy style, not unlike Merton's own.

She, like her subject, is not afraid to express her feelings. Merton to her is not some object to dissect, but a subject who has presence within her and within the society she is a part of. She acknowledges that she "fell in love" [her phrasing] with Merton through her first reading of the seven posthumous journals. That's where Merton is at his ardent, heartfelt, headlong best. He reveals himself most in the journals. He's like a Stephen De Staebler sculpture - mixed materials, some smooth parts, some rough parts, parts finished and parts unfinished, but ever striving, ever expanding.

She writes: "The journals present us with a person who is above all volatile, alternately tormented and ecstatic, but I feel most deeply his conflicted anguish about his role as a writer and a monk." Merton wrote under the threat of monastic censorship, but also his own self-censorship. He "had taken a vow of silence and had a compulsive need to write." Out of his writer-self rubbing up against his monk-self comes the fire of his work.

Before reading Merton's journals, Gordon "had never encountered such an articulate and extended examination of these grueling and insoluble problems..." Gordon sees deeply into Merton as someone who "didn't know who he was, moment to moment, until he wrote." He wrote in order to know himself, and to be himself. According to Gordon, "What makes Merton so approachable and so lovable are his inconsistencies, his rare ability to name and to own them, to move from one phase of life, one image of himself, to another."

She notes his talent for description, particularly description of nature's fluidity:

"A thousand small high clouds went flying
majestically like ice-floes, all golden and
crimson and saffron, with clean blue and
aquamarine behind them..."


"Large dogwood blossoms in the wood, too
large, past their prime, like artificial flowers
made out of linen."

The strength of these images lies in "their capturing of disparate elements, netting them in an image that startles and satisfies." For example:

"There was a tanager singing like a drop
of blood in the tall thin pines."

Gordon is intrigued by Merton's "hyphens" in their "whirling, sensual overfullness." His signature is not only I write, therefore, I am, but also I love, therefore, I write. When I read Gordon on Merton, I have the feeling that she is drawn to his personal, intimate voice for the same reason I am. He tells us what it's like to be a human being alive now.

This is simply the voice of a self-questioning human person who, like all his brothers, struggles to cope with turbulent, mysterious, demanding, exciting, frustrating, confused existence in which almost nothing is really predictable, in which most definitions, explanations, and justifications become incredible even before they are uttered, in which people suffer together and are sometimes utterly beautiful...

Merton never forgets the utterly beautiful within turbulent, mysterious and demanding existence.

J.S. Porter, co-author with Susan McCaslin of Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton's Dance with the Feminine, reads and writes in Hamilton, Ontario with his wife Cheryl
and his dog Sophia.

Last update: