- The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation
The back cover of The Inner Experience declares it to be "Thomas Merton's Last Major Work." In smaller print it is called "his final work," but also "his last major work to be published," which is quite a different statement. To the question, "Is it his last work?" the short answer is "no," but needs some qualification. To the question, "Is it a major work?" the short answer is an unqualified yes, but needs some explanation and contextualizing.
The existence of an unpublished manuscript entitled "The Inner Experience" has been known to Merton readers since Raymond Bailey's Thomas Merton on Mysticism was published in 1975, and especially since William Shannon's Thomas Merton's Dark Path, subtitled The Inner Experience of a Contemplative, came out in 1981 with a lengthy analysis of the work and extensive excerpts. Both authors indicated that Merton's trust agreement and will had prohibited its publication in book form. In 1983 and 1984 most of the manuscript appeared in eight parts in Cistercian Studies, and reprints of the sections were subsequently made available in two bound booklets; the first four parts were also included in Lawrence Cunningham's influential 1992 anthology Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master—The Essential Writings.
Thus "The Inner Experience" was available in part (it was unclear just how much was omitted in the journal publication), and in somewhat accessible form (more so for the first half than for the second), and was frequently referred to and quoted by scholars writing on Merton. There, it seemed, because of the provision in the will, it was fated to remain, except for two circumstances, related by Shannon in his informative introduction to the work (x-xii). In a 1972 letter to Abbot Flavian Burns, Merton's friend and former teacher Daniel Walsh indicated that in the spring of 1968 Merton had given him the typescript of the book to evaluate. In an accompanying letter Merton wrote that he "had previously decided against" publication but that he had recently done some revising and was reconsidering the matter, and that he wanted Walsh's opinion. They were to discuss the matter after Merton returned from his trip to Asia, but of course they never had the opportunity because of Merton's death (x-xi). Walsh strongly argued for publishing the manuscript, and though the abbot agreed, Merton's lawyer determined that the will could not be set aside on the basis of this evidence of Merton's second thoughts. Though the Merton Legacy Trustees and Cistercian authorities were in favor of making the work available in toto, it seemed that this was not possible. But eventually it was realized that "The Inner Experience" had already been published—by binding the Cistercian Studies reprints into booklets and making them available to the public, the journal's editor (as a call to the Library of Congress made clear) had inadvertently "published" the bulk of the work, so that the will had already been broken, and consequently there was no longer a legal impediment to a more substantial publication of the book, as Shannon puts it, "in a form that would do justice to Merton and to the manuscript he wrote" (xii).
It is in this context that The Inner Experience can be considered Merton's "last major work to be published." But to call it his "last major work" tout court is another matter entirely. As Shannon makes clear, the revisions from the last year of Merton's life—often single words or phrases, occasionally a new sentence, and only [End Page 226] a single paragraph-length insertion—while they sometimes affect the tone of a particular passage, amounted only to a total of about 450 words, hardly enough to qualify the final version as a work of 1968. The editor convincingly demonstrates on the basis of excerpts from journals and letters and from examination of the various drafts of the work that The...