Book Review: The Unquiet Monk

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.


Around the Web (Part 2)

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Friends of Merton by Dan Horan: “Thomas Merton continues to exercise an ‘apostolate of friendship,’ bringing people together across many divides. If you haven’t met Merton and his friends yet, I encourage you to do so.”

The Five Lessons of Good Friday by Fr. James Martin, SJ: “If we do something sinful or make immoral decisions that lead to our suffering, we could say that this suffering comes as the result of sin. But most of the time, particularly when it comes to illness and other tragedies, it is assuredly not. If you still harbor any doubts about that, think about this: Jesus, the sinless one, suffered a great deal.”

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus by Timothy Shriver: “In this man’s moments of his most extreme vulnerability, he was supported, sustained, and accompanied by one consistent friend: a woman, Mary Magdalene.”

Two Homeless People Freeze To Death Just Miles From The White House by Scott Keyes: “Though just an inconvenience for many, cold temperatures can be extremely dangerous for those with no shelter. Indeed, life-threatening hypothermia can set in even at temperatures well above freezing. Dozens of homeless people have died this winter from exposure to the elements, from New York to Chicago to California.”

A gesture of defiance by The Economist: “But in this election ordinary Afghans have sent a message: to their own politicians that stability is more important than sectional interest; to the rest of the world that their country is worthy of continued support; and to the Taliban that its claims to represent Afghanistan are hollow.”

Grisly torture photos from Syria stun U.N. officials by AP: “The U.N. Security Council fell silent Tuesday after ambassadors viewed a series of ghastly photographs of dead Syrian civil war victims, France’s ambassador said. The pictures showed people who were emaciated, with their bones protruding, and some bearing the marks of strangulation and repeated beatings, and eyes having been gouged out.”

The economic culture war over the minimum wage by Paul Waldman: “With the national debate over the minimum wage likely to intensify into 2014, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin has signed a law passed by the Oklahoma legislature that would forbid any municipality in the state from passing its own law setting the minimum wage higher than $7.25. Not only that, it forbids cities and counties from requiring employers to provide paid sick days or vacation days. Above all, this is a reminder that in many ways, the minimum wage fight is taking on the feel of a culture war. Call it an economic culture war.”

Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion by Damon Linker: “The fact is that there are specific human experiences that atheism in any form simply cannot explain or account for. One of those experiences is radical sacrifice — and the feelings it elicits in us.”

Republicans and Democrats Both Claim to Be Pro-Family. Here’s How They Can Prove It by Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker: “We calculate that a child allowance of $300 per month per child would have cut child poverty by 42 percent in 2012. Such a reduction would have lifted 6.8 million children out of poverty, plus another 4.7 million parents.”

Just Friends by John Conley, S.J.: “In discovering other human beings as mature friends, we give the lie to our society’s myth that other people exist only to fulfill our economic or sexual ambition. The path to a truly humane life, one built on virtue, disinterested service and an ungrasping praise of God, is suddenly open.”

Victims of bullying live with the consequences for decades by LA Times: “Victims of bullies suffer the psychological consequences all the way until middle age, with higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicide, new research shows.”