Well, the season's upon us, and I feel compelled to write about two of my favorite religious books of the last year. They are two deceptively small titles published by one of my all-time favorite presses, New Directions. The books are collections of related work by that 20th-century religious titan, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. The first is On Eastern Meditation; the second, On Christian Contemplation. Needless to say, they're published in uniform editions with French flaps and are nothing less than exquisite — just like anything you see from New Directions. Of course, there's nothing really new in these little books, outside of the editors' introductions, but the way they've been assembled and presented offers up a challenge and a source of solace and inspiration to seekers of whatever flavor.
The introductory material in each book is fabulous: learned, astute, and informative. On Eastern Meditation is edited by Bonnie Thurston, a founding member and past president of the Thomas Merton Society, and On Christian Contemplation is edited by Dr. Paul M. Pearson, the director and archivist at Bellarmine University's Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
Both books, it appears to me, can be approached in several ways. For example, one might randomly dip in and out, reading here and there, adopting them as guides to mining more depth out of one's life. Another means is, of course, to read them cover to cover as an introduction to Merton's thought on both subjects (I find this the least satisfying of the options). And then, in the end, they can easily and profitably be approached as an aid to prayer and discernment, to engaging, as it were, with the Mystery that surrounds us.
Bear in mind, these are very different books. The selections in the Christian volume are, for the most part, much longer and demand more focus; those in the Eastern Meditation book, on the other hand, are brief and radical, capturing an idea or a thought or a sudden insight that describes a Way of Being in relationship with the world.
This is from On Eastern Meditation (it's originally drawn from Merton's Asian Journal):
Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action. I pray that we may all do so.
One might think that such an insight would leave any other book in the dust. But I feel like this quote, originally issued in perhaps my favorite Merton book of all time, The Wisdom of the Desert, more than rises to the challenge:
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?
Ah. There you have it. I'm at a complete loss as to which I'd choose to take to the proverbial desert island with me; they both feed such different parts of my Self. But then, who, in the Spirit, could ever ask for more?
Books mentioned in this post