This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton. Merton was one of the most captivating religious figures in the 20th century. His book The Seven Storey Mountain made him an important public figure—the country’s most popular monk—and remains popular among Catholics today. But his legacy extends far beyond his famous biography, as Catholics and other admirers continue to find wisdom in a variety of his works from No Man is an Island to New Seeds of Contemplation. Given the fascinating nature of the subject, therefore, it’s not surprising that The Unquiet Monk by Michael W. Higgins offers a unique exploration into the life of Merton, one that should interest those who are familiar with the works and legacy of this “journalist, photographer, novelist, poet, social and political critic, calligrapher, essayist, priest.”
Higgins explores Merton’s life through a variety of prisms: Erasminian critic, Swiftian satirist, Camusian rebel, Cistercian prophet, and Blakean visionary. Higgins draws on decades of scholarship on Merton and numerous interviews with experts on Merton’s life and legacy.
He describes Merton as a “perpetual pilgrim: a pilgrim of the mind, the imagination, and the spirit.” He sees Merton as “an icon of wholeness for a fractured, alienated postmodern generation.” This perhaps helps to explain the enduring appeal of Merton. Materialism, consumerism, and the race for acclaim and affirmation afflict most of us. They foster a narcissism that leaves us not only fractured, but alienated from others, while Merton reminds us of the need for authenticity—an authenticity grounded in who we truly are at the most fundamental level, not what we consume—and the reality that no man or woman is an island.
Higgins touches upon another explanation of Merton’s enduring appeal, saying, “Merton’s honesty compelled him to chronicle his search for the true self in such a way that his readers could and can continue to vicariously share in both the light and dark sides of spiritual growth.” Even if our lives and personalities differ from his own, Merton remains a real person who is relatable on some level, not an otherworldly, esoteric figure who feels a world away. His honesty and authenticity have drawn readers in to his world and his inner life for decades.
Higgins seems to offer quite distinct, bold interpretations of Merton’s life and thinking, while providing a concise overview of his life, including key relationships and lines of thinking. Having only read a couple of Merton’s works, including The Seven Storey Mountain (which I read later in my life, despite receiving a copy from grandmother as a teenager), I hardly qualify as a Merton expert and cannot properly assess these interpretations, but I read Higgins book with great interest, learned more about Merton, and finished it with an even greater desire to learn more about this giant of the 20th century.