- In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, and: The Letters of Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton by Patrick Samway (review)
- Christianity & Literature
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 66, Number 4, September 2017
- pp. 720-724
- View Citation
- Additional Information
In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality. By Ephrem Arcement, OSB. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-87907-265-0. Pp. 248. $24.95. The Letters of Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton. By Patrick Samway, SJ, ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-268-01786-6. Pp. 408. $29.00 Starting with the extraordinary and unexpected popularity of his spiritual autobiography , The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the Trappist monk Thomas Merton became one of America’s most signiﬁcant and proliﬁc spiritual writers of the 20th century. It remains an enduring point of irony that he became such a widely known public and prophetic voice while living in the relative seclusion of Gethsemani Abbey in rural Kentucky, and that from behind those walls he became a font of wisdom on matters of social justice and active engagement in our complex modern world. Merton was indeed a miraculous man with a miraculous mind. His myriad interests ranged from ancient Scripture and early church history to poetry, the (im)morality of nuclear warfare, intersections of Christian monasticism and the Zen Buddhist tradition, and the spiritual roots of political and social protest, to name only a few of the weighty matters he wrote on. Further, his manifold interests never seemed at odds with one another. Rather than a jumbled hodgepodge , these various pursuits all ﬁt into Merton’s dynamic and evolving spiritual and intellectual journey. Like shards of a mosaic, the individual pieces helped shape and color a larger eﬀort to understand and ﬁnd unity with the divine. During his lifetime Merton kept up a high rate of productivity, a testament to his abilities as well as the privileges aﬀorded by the contemplative space of a monastic life. After his untimely death by electrocution in 1968, his many published works, as well as his extensive written correspondence and journals, have powered a cottage industry of Merton studies. A quick library search will reveal the depth of this constant stream of books, dissertations, and articles. Jesuit and social activist Daniel Berrigan, SJ, once complained of this phenomenon at its most extreme, calling it ‘‘Mertonmania,’’ and further observed how in the years following his friend’s death, ‘‘PhDs proliferated and the lode of Merton’s life was mined to exhaustion’’ (Testimony [Orbis, 2004], 103). While at times the ﬂow of Merton books may seem overwhelming or even excessive, particularly to a newcomer, this is not to say that Merton is undeserving of such extensive study. Two recent books have joined this parade of Merton works. While both are geared more toward the Merton enthusiast, each has unique contributions to the study of the monk’s life and thought. With In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality, Ephrem Arcement has oﬀered a nuanced analysis that explores the origins and evolution of Merton’s prophetic spirituality. Arcement pays particular 720 Christianity & Literature 66(4) attention to this vein of Merton’s thought as it unfolded in the last decade of the latter’s life following his profound 1958 epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Louisville. As Merton wrote, while running errands he gazed at the strangers around him and, ‘‘was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers’’ (xv–xvi). Arcement acknowledges that the prophetic nature of Merton’s spirituality is by no means a new topic. But he argues that the majority of works in this area have focused on Merton’s writings on peace and monastic renewal. In contrast, Arcement’s study constructs a genealogy of what he calls the ‘‘underlying impulses and motivating and formative forces of this prophetic ministry, namely, its spirituality’’ (xv), and expertly draws on Merton’s letters, journals, and published writings, and navigates the monk’s diverse intellectual interests and evolving curiosity and appetite for new ideas and thinkers. Throughout the book Arcement presents an impressive cataloging of the many interwoven thinkers and writers that Merton read...