Lectory » Thomas Merton, My Brother: His Journey Into Freedom, Compassion and Final Integration
Basil Pennington has added another insightful volume to his own growing corpus of writings on his friend and fellow Cistercian with the collection of essays Thomas Merton, My Brother: His Journey Into Freedom, Compassion and Final Integration. Gathering papers which were prepared for a variety of formats and audiences over the years, Pennington manages to weave threads of continuity through these diverse essays that renders them whole even as they offer the reader a profound sense of Merton’s journey toward wholeness. Though Pennington describes the collection as an assemblage of memories shared in a series of vignettes, these essays more rightly are carefully inscribed illuminations of various facets of Merton’s multifaceted nature – a circular contemplation of a truly great person at those critical junctures in his itinerary toward authentic self-realization.
The hermeneutic guiding Pennington’s reading of his brother’s life and the one he likewise suggests is “Merton as existentialist” in quest of the God-experience. Pennington therefore underscores the centrality of Merton’s first great awakening when he turned the corner on himself at 4th and Walnut in the celebrated conversion that happened not at Gethsemani but in the teeming heart of Louisville. Grounded in this transformation experience of solidarity with every human other, Merton was dramatically re-oriented from the constrictions of a narrowly conceived monasticism toward the universalism that was to mark his way.
Pennington has us follow proto-liberationist Merton on a complex path of seven freedoms all routed toward compassion. Merton’s movement in the direction of authentic liberty is then chronicled in his own voice as Pennington’s renders a valuable synopsis of the journals in one chapter, and the famous circular letters in another. These highly condensed and focused essays allow us to witness Merton shedding illusions and distortions about himself as man and monk, in the discovery and recovery of the original sources of the monastic life.
The heart of Pennington’s project is to recollect a Cistercian brother, which he does in three reflections that illuminate Merton as exemplar and evolver of the great tradition in which both monks stand. Delineating the scheme of Merton’s first book, The Spirit of Simplicity, Pennington identifies, as only an insider can, the way Merton took the impress of the Cistercian character onto his person, and how the path and process of Cistercian simplicity was Merton’s route to freedom. In the essays that follow we encounter not Merton the spiritual master, but Merton the disciple of his mentor and father Bernard of Clairvaux, and brother to the celebrated community of Cistercian authors on the mystical life: Aelred of Rievaux, William of St. Thierry, Guerric of Igny, Isaac of Stella, and one of Merton’s favorites, Adam of Perseigne. Finally we encounter Merton himself matured into a twentieth-century Cistercian Father.
Pennington also traces the significance of Byzantine spirituality for Merton’s movement toward wholeness, noting the early and lasting influence the Christian East would have on his life, from his attraction to the desert elders of the fourth century to his correspondence with Russian writer Boris Pasternak in the twentieth. Merton avidly appropriated the eastern legacies of mystical darkness and silence, spiritual paternity, and a “sophanic” view of the cosmos to enrich his way of being in the world. Even more, as Pennington underscores, it was Merton’s ever deepening insight into the Greek fathers’ teaching on theoria physike or natural contemplation which gradually enabled Merton to reintegrate his natural loves, transforming them through poetics and artistry into the stuff of his earthy spirituality.
Essays on Centering Prayer and education flow into each other revealing Merton as a mature spiritual master whose own attainment of self-knowledge opens a way for his scholastics at Gethsemani and his disciples all over the world to move toward such integrity. The itinerary finally brings us East again as Pennington recollects Merton’s pilgrimage to India and his enlightenment at Polonnaruwa when all the elements of this luxuriant and diverse personality came together in a serene and joyous simplicity. The book ends with Pennington’s challenge to read Merton’s life as a paradigmatic process of spiritual evolution. The author has purposefully and effectively delineated the contours and stations of Merton’s journey to freedom, compassion and final integration by illuminating the pattern of a life that had a deliberate dynamic implicated into its design: “We have dedicated ourselves to rebirth, to growth, to final maturity and integration.” This is a valuable book for anyone desiring to join Pennington and Merton in that labor.