BOOK REVIEW BY PETER COYOTE:
The Other Side of the Mountain
The End of the Journey
By Thomas Merton
Edited by Patrick Hart,
HarperCollins; 348 pages; $30
Merton's Quest Was to Transcend His Own Contradictions
On the morning of Dec. 10, 1968, two days after the final entry in his seventh and last journal, "The Other Side of the Mountain," Thomas Merton presented a paper to a conference of Christian monastics in Bangkok, Thailand. Later, at his cottage, preparing for an afternoon discussion session, he stepped out of his shower, reached to adjust a standing fan and was electrocuted.
This sudden death terminated the tireless spiritual pursuits of a contradictory and fascinating man: a Catholic priest, poet, devout spiritual seeker, a dedicated hermit perpetually striving for a more perfect isolation; and a vigorous and earthy intellectual with a predilection for human fellowship, alcohol, politics and culture.
The grinning front cover photograph of Merton might be of a tanned and relaxed laborer, confident in his physicality, regarding the camera with a cool, appraising good humor, exuding intelligence and sophistication. His journals culminating in this, the seventh volume, enhance and deepen the iconic gloss to reveal a complex and abundantly human man.
The book's first entry includes observations about the constellations, the beauty of the moon, rain. Merton discusses friends, his digestion, current reading ("Eliot, Graves, Lawrence, Leonard Woolf") and a Janis Ian record someone has lent him. A catholic curiosity crochets these realms of nature, community, literature and music into the cloth of Merton's engagement with the world - a world he became vividly alive to only after "dying" from it by taking vows to live as a Trappist monk at a monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky. Merton's first and widest-known book, "The Seven Storey Mountain," was published in 1948 to great acclaim and referred to as a 20th century form of "The Confessions of St. Augustine.'' It is a somewhat different Merton one meets there: younger, more didactic and somehow a less certain man, whose occasional religious lectures seem as dedicated to self-conviction as they are to proselytizing:
"And yet now I tell you, you who are now what I once was, unbelievers, it is that Sacrament, and that alone, the Christ living in our midst, and sacrificed by us, and for us and with us, in the clean and perpetual Sacrifice, it is He alone Who holds our world together and keeps us all from being poured headlong and immediately into the pit of our eternal destruction."
What distinguishes the tone of "The Other Side of the Mountain" from such vaguely intolerant exhortations is Merton's 20-years-older, evolved and mature self-confidence. After two decades of living the contemplative life, he has now become (or nearly become) what he once hoped to be. He can now entertain contradictions between his spiritual aspirations and his quotidian personality as a work in progress rather than a measurement of failure.
"Go on! Go on! There is no place left," Merton urges himself, and his "going on" indicates his mission: "to . . . find something or someone who will help me advance in my own spiritual quest." He identifies that quest in one of the book's most lyrical passages:
"The moment of take-off (for India) was ecstatic. The dewy wing was suddenly covered with rivers of cold sweat running backward. The window wept jagged shining courses of tears. Joy. We left the ground - I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. May I not come back without having settled the great affair."
The "great affair," expressed as a classic Buddhist homily, is revealed as Merton's deepest purpose: to know and transcend his myriad contradictions (vividly expressed in his journal); to merge with the great pregnant energy Buddhism calls the void, the pre-Genesis formlessness which, in a Christian context, might be God itself.
As his journal (and journey) progresses into the Far East, Merton quotes so extensively from Buddhist texts that his editor, Merton's last secretary, includes a glossary of Buddhist terms. Merton seeks out Tibetan teachers, has three audiences with the Dalai Lama (who refers to him as "a Catholic geshe" - a learned lama) and practices various meditations under their guidance. He grapples with conventional Christian theology, sharpening his focus on the riddle of the self, wrestling with ultimate transcendence. Whether the problem ended for him at the moment of his death, we never know.
The familiar Zen aphorism goes, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." Each step of Merton's quest feels deliberately placed, solid as a well-placed flagstone. The fact that we do not know "how it all turns out" highlights our own lives as unfinished spiritual journeys. The pages become transparent and we can see through them into our own inner landscapes. In such convoluted territory, we could ask for no better mentor and guide than Thomas Merton.
This review was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 27, 1998.
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