Reviews » A Book of Hours review: A road map for contemplation
Many years ago America magazine began to publish my poetry because of the interest of the poetry editor at the time, John Moffitt. John was a man of peace, a contemplative, a man of letters and he happened to be in the next room at the time of Thomas Merton’s death by accidental electrocution in Bangkok, Thailand, on Dec. 10, 1968.
John said to me, during my visit to his home, that the day before Merton died, he said to John, “Zen and Christianity are the future.” It is no wonder that Merton felt the tug of Eastern spirituality that in his mind could blend so well with the Western ways of exterior devotions to God.
We can learn a great deal on how to internalize silence, to return to the contemplative ways of our Christian heritage by way of looking deep within Buddhism. Kathleen Deignan, a scholar devoted, in part, to the continued consideration of Thomas Merton’s work and his continued influence on the church, edited a little book called A Book of Hours, published by Sorin Books, a collection of Merton’s thoughts from his many writings into a book that can be carried as a simple guide to daily living. Each segment of the book is broken down into the seven days of the week, and each day is broken down into wonderful parts: dawn, day, dusk and dark.
The original book of hours was created during medieval times, illuminated manuscripts that were collections of prayers, illustrations, psalms that offered Christians a guide for daily worship.
In many ways, a book of hours was a way for people to mimic some of the routines of a monastic life, praying to Mary, reciting the psalms, or giving thanks and honor to the saints.
These books were originally for the wealthy nobleman, but, as with other books, they became more accessible to everyone at the creation of the printing press.
Thomas Merton was not a nobleman, a regal, distant man of prayer squirreled away in theology and hidden behind high stone walls. He was a man of the people, living among us all with his human frailties and spiritual triumphs.
This Book of Hours beautifully illustrated by John Giuliani is a day book, a road map to the entire week. It is a book where each person can begin at dawn with the words of Thomas Merton whispering, “Open the secret eye of faith.” The book leads us to listen to Merton’s hymns “I am drunk with the great wilderness of the sixth day of Genesis.” Each day is filled with Fr. Merton cajoling us to recognize that “paradise is all around us,” that the beauty of dew, the morning sun, even the simple leaves crawling on the ground under a light, morning breeze, are things of wonder and beauty.
A book of hours is a spiritual companion. We can pick up Merton’s collection during the day and find his words reverberating in our own selves as we try to complete our work in the presence of a merciful God. “Fill my will with fire,” Merton prays beside us. As we move through the day, we ask God, in Merton’s words, “to burn in our hearts, burn in our living marrow.”
We are reminded by reading this little book that Merton was a poet, capable of expressing his devotion to God using concrete language filled with rich images. As we turn ourselves over to the closing of the day, in the section of the book labeled “dark,” Merton speaks of the approaching night as a “full choir” filled with “sweet delight.” Each reader can take great comfort from Merton’s words that can lull us to a sense of closure for another day.
Kathleen Deignan, using her obviously well-informed and sensitive heart, arranged this book in such a way that each day follows the patter of dawn, day, dusk and night using Merton’s words as a launching site for our own contemplative reconsiderations for the days’ accomplishments and failures.
The original book of hours from the medieval world contains most of what is preserved in literature from that time in the history of civilization.
We have here in Thomas Merton’s Book of Hours another work of illumination that will survive into the coming centuries because of the wisdom and beauty of Merton’s writing, because of Giuliani’s beautiful drawings, and because Kathleen Deignan has helped promote Merton’s work through the creation of a user-friendly daily prayer book that gives us a way into a Zen-like, Christian-like sense of peace and holiness.
“What was fragile has become powerful,” Merton writes at the end of this little book. Our day is filled with what is fragile, the most being our own searching, fragile souls. By living each day with Merton’s Book of Hours, we can recognize our own true power, which comes from the illumination and reminder that God is love, and salvation is within our reach each day.
Reviewed by Christopher de Vinck in the National Catholic Reporter