Embracing the Life of Thomas Merton to Find Deeper Meaning in the Daily Work for Justice
Thomas Merton: An Introduction to His Life, Teachings, and Practices
by Jon M. Sweeney
Book Review by Victor Narro
A few years ago, I picked up a copy of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation to find spiritual nourishment for my work as an immigrant rights and labor activist. The book uplifted me in many ways. After all, many civil rights and social justice activists sought Merton out for support and guidance. What I realized, however, was how little I knew about Merton and how much his life journey could guide my activist work. To find this deeper connection, I searched for the right introduction to Merton’s life and became bombarded with all the countless books, academic and literary scholarship, classes and workshops, conferences, and organizations devoted to him. I was overwhelmed and intimidated by this experience. Jon M. Sweeney’s book, Thomas Merton: An Introduction to His Life, Teachings, and Practices, provides the welcoming opportunity and window to Thomas Merton’s life that has eased all my discomforts.
I am no stranger to Sweeney’s work. For the past few years, I have used his writings as sources of inspiration and guidance. I have read, and re-read, all of his books about St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, and I use them for spiritual direction in my work for justice. Now, Sweeney has opened a door for me into life of one of the most influential spiritual figures of the 20th century. More importantly, Sweeney put me on a journey to get to know Thomas Merton, the human being who embraced a life of joy in contemplation, but also struggled with his own frailty and challenges.
In his introduction, Sweeney invites us to see this book as our own journey to learn about ourselves as we get to know Thomas Merton. He invites the reader to find their way as they read the book and engage with Merton’s life. This book is transparent and unfiltered. Sweeney presents us with Thomas Merton completely unplugged. The structure of book follows the chronological trajectory of Merton’s life with occasional moments of flashes forward and backward. Sweeney’s special gift as a writer is how he weaves in Merton’s teachings and lessons as we learn about his life story. I felt like I was in an actual conversation with Merton about his life experiences. This interconnectedness that I developed throughout the book helped me to better embrace and understand Thomas Merton.
Sweeney encourages us to become part of Merton’s endless search for wholeness in society and within ourselves. For me, this search is a connection of contemplation in my daily work for justice. For, as Sweeney reminds us, one of Merton’s greatest gifts was how he revealed the mysteries of monastic life to people outside the monastery, who knew nothing of the monastery before reading his books. As Sweeney points out so eloquently, Merton was not saying that we can all live the vocation of a monk, but rather we can more be “monk like” in our daily living. Merton was able to reach into the monastic life of prayer and pull its fruit and practices out for all to use. He provided monastic spiritual gifts for ordinary people. He showed us that it is possible to strive to attain what monks are reaching for, while having jobs, families, and busy lives. He wrote about monastic spirituality with such hope, promise, and confidence that we want to find ways to integrate it in our daily tasks and activities.
Throughout this book, Sweeney connects us with Merton’s lessons on solitude. For Merton, true solitude is to be deeply aware of the world’s needs. It does not hold the world at arm’s length. True solitude is not merely separateness, it must tend to unity. For Merton, moments of solitude enabled him to fight for the spiritual lives of others. He came to fully engage with the crises of the world. He was in dialogue with the world, not preaching to it. Solitude connected him more deeply with the world. We need our time of deep solitude in order to tap into the gentleness that enables us to go back into the work with love and compassion for others. From a social justice perspective, this is solidarity on a radical level.
Towards the end of the book, Sweeney engages us with his deep perspectives about the life of Thomas Merton. Through all his writings up to the very end of his life, Merton would always speak from a place and platform that was clearly defined, but in an idiom that had a way of communicating almost universally to the spiritual needs and desires of people everywhere. Those of us seeking deep meaning in life love Merton because he had the unusual quality of being a priest willing and able to be honest about his problems. He leaned into his uncertainties, doubts and vulnerability. He was constantly trying to learn, and he teaches us to do the same — to be endlessly curious and always ready to listen to another’s truth. These are important lessons for the daily life of a social justice activist.
Thomas Merton: An Introduction to His Life, Teachings, and Practices, is a spiritual gem of a book, and I am truly grateful to Jon M. Sweeney for writing it. Sweeney’s literary style is so captivating, engaging, and full of life that I was able to develop a meaningful connection with Thomas Merton. I can now read New Seeds of Contemplation again and Merton’s other great works with deeper understanding and clarity.
Victor Narro is Project Director and Professor of Labor Studies for UCLA Labor Center and Core Faculty for the Public Interest Law Program of UCLA School of Law.
To order a copy of Jon M. Sweeney’s book, Thomas Merton: An Introduction to His Life, Teachings, and Practices, please to the following link: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250250483