Susan McCaslin and J. S. (John) Porter, poets and Merton scholars, offer a fresh and fully embodied study of Thomas Merton in their book Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton's Dance with the Feminine (Wood Lake Publishing, 2018).
Merton, a Trappist monk who died in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968, was described as "superabundantly alive" by his friend Robert Lax. The book, Superabundantly Alive, with its insights and inquiry, was a joy to read.
Poems by both McCaslin and Porter open the book and are followed by McCaslin's essay about her discovery of Merton's work in 1968. She considers the late monk a spiritual mentor, "an imperfect pilgrim on the path to integral being. Increasingly, contemplation and action became his yin and yang, inseparable and complementary."
McCaslin says: "Poetry seems to be Merton's primary means of healing and transformation." She studied Merton's prose poem, "Hagia Sophia," which is centered on the feminine divine and considers it his master work.
Porter, in his enlightening essay, "The Unbroken Alphabet of Thomas Merton," explores the "key letters" in Merton's alphabet such as J for journals and W for writer.
"Journals are a form of autobiography for Merton," as Porter points out, "a way of keeping track of his days and preserving ideas and experiences that are important to him." As for writing, Merton linked it to love and wrote: "For to write is to love: it is to inquire and to praise, or to confess, or to appeal."
McCaslin and Porter have a dialogue entitled "The Divine and Embodied Feminine" in which McCaslin says: "The feminine for Merton is gentle, soft, fierce, strong, wild, and evolutionary. . . His God is masculine, feminine, liminal, androgynous, and mysterious beyond all our constructed categories."
"Yes. Beautifully put." Porter replies.
Another unique aspect of the book is "A Grotto of Sophia Ikons." The poems are by McCaslin with graphic design by Afton Schindel and are in the form of ikons to "holy persons, people like all of us, flawed but moving toward a kind of radical wholeness." They include Robert Lax, Joan Baez, Denise Levertov, Thich Nhat Hanh and Merton himself as St. Thomas Merton...
Cistercian monk, priest and writer, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was an influential post-Second World War figure for many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His writings--for example, his essay "The Root of War is Fear" and poetry like Original Child Bomb: Points for Meditation to Be Scratched on the Walls of a Cave-inspired both authors of this fresh revisiting of Merton's legacy.
"...your book moves me back time and again into silence... ...my experience of the two of you is that you are 'dervishes mad with a secret therapeutic love' (merton) :) ... i found myself hungry for your poetries."
--Craig Larson, a farmer in northern Manitoba who belongs to the Catholic Worker Movement.
The Parkland Worker.
"Thank you for your lively, loving, vivid and informing book. It's a fine work that reveals complexities in the soul of a mercurial, quixotic monk. It's also a necessary corrective, giving us a vision of the female presence in his life... you've helped to revive Merton's compassionate voice...It's his tone of voice, the outcry against injustice, the call to recognize suffering, that lingers with me. How fascinating it is--the untold story, the unruly mysteries, the vast implications, the vital ambiguities, the presence of Eros--what comes through, what can come through, in one book. Above all, there's the abiding warmth of you both, imprinted on these pages."
--B.W. Powe, author and Associate Professor of English at York University
"Writing on December 15, 2018, fifty years to the day of his death, I am struck how Thomas Merton still challenges readers to pursue dialogue on inter-religious, gender and other social issues. This book, a compilation of essays and poetry some of which have been published elsewhere, may inspire general readers who do not know Merton's writings to explore his ever-vital literary output. For Merton aficionados, this book captures afresh the prophetic spirit of one who, as Merton's friend Robert Lax wrote, was 'superabundantly alive.'"
--Paul R. Dekar
HA&L Rave Review.
"In Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton's Dance with the Feminine, Susan McCaslin and J.S. Porter combine their expansive resources of Mertoniana, theology, and third-eye poetics to compile a volume that is at once erudite, conversational, and spiritual. The work of seasoned poets who know how to direct and release the power of language with masterful economy and creativity, the book offers a diverse readership an impressive variety of tone and format, including scholarly analysis, confessional reflection, evocative shaped verse, lively authorial dialogue, and letters to influential women in Merton's life.
"At the book's vital core is a through exploration of the role of feminine wisdom in the life and works of Thomas Merton. With apt sensitivity to the delicate aspects of their subject matter, McCaslin and Porter pursue their central purpose from multiple angles, plumbing its depths through scholarship, imagination, and personal experience accrued from a lifelong engagement with the many facets of Thomas Merton. This unique publication is a fitting commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Merton's death as well as a valuable contribution to Merton Studies for generations to come."
--Deborah Pope Kehoe
Co-editor, The Merton Annual
"This is a bright and spirited homage to Thomas Merton's life and writings by two Canadian authors, Susan McCaslin and J.S. Porter. In comparison with the usual biographical analysis, we see these two writers lifting their wings as it were, held aloft by Merton's powerful current. In this, they join significant figures in Merton's life, such as those immortalized in McCaslin's poetic "Grotto of Sophia Ikons." One admires these authors' inventiveness as in J.S. Porter's transposition of Merton into the "paved desert" of Las Vegas where the scene is altogether similar to the consumer culture that Merton presciently depicted. Above all, one sees the legacy of Merton's devotion to language, which at times assumes a hybrid shape reflecting minds filled with Merton's speech. The book is given its thematic direction by Merton's enlarged awareness of woman in the 1960s following his romantic episode with a nurse, Margie, in what turned out to be the final years of his life. In particular, McCaslin argues that in the prose poem, "Hagia Sophia," Merton, who had lived in a community of men for most of his life, came to link the recovery of the feminine to the "world's salvation." With a balanced eye, the writers of this book do not hesitate to query Merton posthumously, with McCaslin questioning Margie regarding the relationship with Merton. "Did you ask yourself if he 'loved the idea of falling in love more than the act of loving?' Accompanying the feminist theme is the pervasive suggestion that Merton's life was a commitment to growth, to an always "surging, expanding process." Well said.
Professor Emeritus - University of British Columbia
Thomas Merton: Superabundantly Alive is a refreshing addition to Merton studies. As this book bears witness, each person who reads Merton attentively finds a magic mirror in which he or she sees both a familiar and a transfigured face--a face of surprise, a face unmasked, a face freed from fear."
--Jim Forest, author of Living with Wisdom: a biography of Thomas Merton
"Susan McCaslin and J. S. Porter have given us in this book their heart-felt appreciations of Thomas Merton as gifted and imperfect human being, brilliant writer, and intimate friend of his readers. Their synergy as collaborators is infectious: fresh, personal, sassy, substantial. They invite us their readers to join with them in 'the general dance of the universe to which Merton invites us all."
--Donald Grayston, past president of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada
and of the International Thomas Merton Society
"This splendid gallimaufry by two poet-essayists is part riff, part meditation, part invention, part testament, but withal, a brilliant kaleidoscope of impression, insight, and inquiry. The many lineaments of love, desire, and memory, the many strands of 'lived theology,' and the many stages of human and divine maturation are explored with a fetching honesty. A liberating read."
--Michel Higgins, Vice-President for Mission and Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University, CT;
his most recent biography is Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart (2016)
"It takes a certain fearlessness to attempt what Susan McCaslin and J S Porter have attempted in this remarkable book. It also takes tremendous humility and tenderness of heart. While reading I felt as if I was gazing on a living icon, and it was gazing back intently on me, through eyes of love. It is not just Merton who gazes from these pages but it is Wisdom-Sophia, the God of grace and mercy, who dares us each moment into loving communion and solidarity with the world.
Thomas Merton Abundantly Alive gives us a wholly unique reading of Merton's legacy, a "theology of encounter" in flesh and freedom, which always - always - includes, as in Merton's life, the risk of shipwreck and failure. Approach this book with "beginner's mind" and you cannot help but be drawn into the fire of divine-human vulnerability, rendered vividly, theopoetically, iconically, in a kind of literary-visual mandala--always evocative, sometimes provocative, and everywhere reverberant with hope. McCaslin and Porter have penned one of the finest and most original works on Thomas Merton in many years.
--Christopher Pramuk, author of Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton,
awarded the International Thomas Merton Society's 2011 Thomas Merton Award
Using different lenses and creating their own 'word dance,' seasoned writers McCaslin and Porter offer us a potpourri of fresh insights about Merton that creates both artistic tribute and epistolary conversation with Tom and with 'M'--an unconventional approach that maintains its "center of prayer-poetry-praise."
--Dr. Monica Weis SSJ, Professor emerita of English at Nazareth College,
former Vice President of ITMS,
and author of Thomas Merton's Gethsemani (with Harry L Hinkle) (UPK, 2005)
The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton (UPK, 2011),
and Thomas Merton and the Celts: A New World Opening Up (Wipf and Stock, 2016)
"Thomas Merton, Superabundantly Alive, is a strong, distilled meditation on the life and oeuvre of a remarkable poet-monk whose works of spirit illuminated a turbulent period of 20th century American history.
In a compelling series of essays the authors navigate the many corners of the 'uncaged mind' of this pragmatic mystic--gender equality, the wisdom of the East, capitalism, war and peace, the relationship between solitude and community, the sacred feminine--with great verve and clarity. They point out Merton's love of and sensitivity to nature which would qualify him as a precursor in the ecological field.
The book is particularly insightful on Merton' s ongoing journey toward the true self, his evolution from flight from the world toward openness and engagement with the social and political problems of his era and what it ultimately means to be fully alive and awake.
In a revealing dialogue ('The Divine and Embodied Feminine: A Dialogue') the authors also explore Merton's brief love affair with 'M' near the end of his life, calling it a breakthrough in his spiritual journey. For the first time in his short life Merton fell in love with a living, breathing woman. This healing "enjoined flesh/spirit" experience helped him bridge the duality of male/female into an inner wholeness.
In sum, the authors of this thoughtful, readable study show the reader how Merton, by sharing his brokenness, inspires all of us to embrace our wounded selves as we each climb our private seven storey mountain toward mystery and greater love. Superabundantly Alive offers a rich encounter with the heart-mind-soul of a modern spiritual master."
--James Clarke, a poet and retired Ontario Superior Court Justice
who has published over twenty collections of poetry,
including Stray Devotions (Novalis, 2018)