There are only three books I have read, more than once, where I can remember the exact circumstances of my first reading. On all three occasions, it is because I read them, with gathering excitement, at one sitting. In the first case - Andre Gide's slim novella, 'Straight is the Gate' this is not a surprising achievement, for the other two - Morris Berman's lengthy study of cultural exegesis, 'Coming to Our Senses' and Thomas Merton's thick autobiography, 'The Seven Storey Mountain', it was a case of enthusiasm conferring endurance.
I took Merton's book home with me on a Friday evening when at university. I was consumed by the romantic aspiration to be a monk and here was the autobiography of a modern exemplar (whose other, multi-faceted work I did not know). I sat down to read it, after supper had been cleared away, in my comfortable, if dismal, room in Stoke Newington and did not finish until in some mid hour of Saturday morning, I tumbled into bed, transformed.
The book was originally published at exactly the right moment to propel its author to fame (selling over a million copies in fairly short order). This was the immediate post-World War II world where people were in search of new values (and ordering meaning) after the chaos of conflict and the barbarity that it enfolded. A monastic life, even if an option only for a minority, was counterpoised to a world whose bearings had come adrift. Let us retreat into different possibilities and begin anew, it said, following the traditional function of monastic life.
In Merton, it found a brilliant expositor - a thoroughly modern man - running through 1930s liberalism, hedonism and a dash of (none too serious) Marxism to disillusion, a discovery of God, the Catholic church and the renunciation of the Abbey at Gethsemani (in Kentucky). Merton was a brilliant writer. This was his first vocation, one that settled into a comfortable duel with his second as monk. The book sings with both a rigorous intelligence and the poignant searching of a complex, myriad minded man. Its rather pious conclusions were to be tested and transformed by later explorations but never (or almost never) does the piety submerge this questing, unique individual, who is simply lovable.
For many it became the igniter (or confirmer) of a vocational quest.
Merton's reputation has swung back and forth (including in his own lifetime). The brilliant merchandiser of traditional spirituality became the questing soul of the 1960s replete with searching social conscience and a radical taste for inter-faith dialogue and experience. He even fell in love with a nurse in his 50s though ultimately settled for continuing as a monk until his untimely death in 1968 on a visit to Asia - his first prolonged trip out of the monastery since he had entered.
The book made me restless (even more so) with the rational niceties of 'studying theology and philosophy'. What was the point if reality only showed itself in its fullness through a transformation of being? That was itself the fruit of grace emergent in the context of practice. It was the book that unsettled my life and may in the process of changed it. It pointed me back to the core - to the quiet, constant, faithful practice of meditation (that I had been neglecting, having picked it up at the tender age of thirteen) and set me back on my way - not as a monk but as a contemplative (of a kind) in the world, wrapped in the world in way that Merton was not.
Like his reputation, my reading ebbs and flows.
At the moment it flows as I am reading Roger Lipsey's 'Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton'. Merton, like Tagore, came to the full practice of art late, in what proved his last decade (though both his parents were artists), and it proved a deep path of expression, both, paradoxically, of the concrete reality of the Spirit that transparently animates all (but that often goes missing in words). and, also, like Tagore, its abstraction allows spaces for the presence of doubt.
Merton loved Zen and he reminds you of a Zen monk, gifted with the brush, that adds a whole dimension to his contemplative teaching.
Like Zen, it tends towards a sense of emerging and disappearing within a sustaining emptiness. It tends towards reminding us of the transiency of the whole, that everything is unfolding, connected movement. It takes us to existential anxiety - if everything is flux do 'I' not dissolve? It takes through that anxiety - if everything is flux do 'I-ing' not dance?
For the world is verb, not a noun. Contemplation is the act of recognising this world's grammar - the beauty in it, the flowing connectivity of it, that arouses the love that is it.