A Review of
Shaped by the End You Live For: Thomas Merton’s Monastic Spirituality
Reviewed by Jeff Nelson
Any writer whose work has endured as a rallying point of ongoing study, meaning-making, devotion, or wisdom-seeking seems to inevitably cause their readers to fall into common temptations and tendencies of how they interpret what they have left behind. Among these, for instance, might be a tendency to read one’s own life back into the words of another so as to lift up the desired message regardless of original intent. Another, related to the first, might be to remove the writer from their original context and approach their work as if it had been written in a vacuum, devoid of the particular time and place in which it was produced.
Those who love, appreciate, and derive meaning from the writings of Thomas Merton are not immune from these sorts of actions. Arguably one of the most prolific spiritual writers in Christian history, his reflections on life, faith, devotion, prayer, contemplation, service, and justice are still held in such high esteem; his work kept close to the hearts of millions seeking to deepen their own journey with God. And thus the commentaries on his writing have been just as numerous, as others have sought to aid devotees in their reading.
Shaped by the End You Live For by Bonnie Thurston is another such commentary, but its specific aim is to remind the reader of the specific circumstances out of which Merton wrote: the monastery of Gethsemani, with all its practices, discipline, solitude, and community. This particular rhythm of life, she argues, grounded his writing in a unique understanding of God’s presence and of discipleship in the world. To understand what life in the monastery meant to him is to better appreciate the books, journals, and correspondence that resulted from his hand.
In the opening chapter, Thurston explores how Merton understood the heart of monastic living. In his own words, “the ‘contemplative life,’ as the life of the monastic orders is usually called today, is a life entirely devoted to the mystery of Christ, to living the life of God who gives Himself to us in Christ” (1). In other words, Merton saw monastic living as a Christ-centered enterprise above all else. The outward practices such as times of prayer, worship, and community life were secondary; a greater devotion to Christ was all to which the rest pointed. While others might find that central purpose through other vocations, Merton came to understand this path as the way he was called to pursue it himself.
As monastery life shaped Merton’s understanding and observance of prayer, Thurston devotes two later chapters to how this was so. In the first, she lists five general principles of prayer that seemed to guide his reflections and teaching on the subject. Overall, these principles reflect an approach to prayer that does not necessarily involve words, that guides all of one’s life and not just the times one is consciously observing it, that is felt more than taught, and that nurtures a deeper consciousness of God in the practitioner. The practice of contemplation that Merton encouraged arose from a sense that God is always with us, a sense that his time at Gethsemani shaped.
The second of these two chapters builds upon the first, and focuses on the ways Merton saw prayer as shaping one’s identity and sense of freedom. Bonnie Thurston quotes him as saying, “The spiritual life is first of all a life[…]. If we want to be spiritual, then let us first of all life our lives” (122). Merton did not see prayer as another item on a to-do list, but instead a foundational way to live that shapes everything else.
As much time as Thurston spends on the positive elements of how Merton was shaped by monastic living, she also gives ample attention to the struggles and temptations that he faced in his vocation. Three chapters specifically highlight this: one dealing with the temptation to feel superior to those who haven’t chosen monastic life, one that questions whether the monastery is a way for its inhabitants to hide from or escape the hardship of the world, and one that addresses the temptation to leave.
As with most everything else, Merton worked out these issues in his writing, and they each make appearances in different ways. As Thurston quotes him, “A role is not necessarily a vocation. One can be alienated by role fulfilling” (29). Bonnie Thurston points out Merton’s differentiation between the specific role we may fulfill at any time and the larger vocation that that role may serve. The former may cause feelings of arrogance or superiority, or withdrawal and aloofness, which harms one’s ability to pursue the latter. Merton had his doubts about monastic living at times, and needed to be reminded of the greater Christ-centered end that it served so as to keep those temptations at bay.
Shaped by the End You Live For is not an exhaustive treatment of any of these topics, but it is an accessible overview that may serve as a primer for the reader who wants to delve deeper. Thurston has certainly done her homework, as she pulls from an extensive variety of Merton’s writings to give as comprehensive a view on her chosen subject matter as she can. The bibliography that she includes at the end will provide those curious enough to continue their delve into Merton with plenty to work with, including both works from his own hand and secondhand biographies and reflective works.
Throughout her book, Bonnie Thurston seems particularly interested in those volumes that present a more personal Merton. His journal entries and his early autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain are favorite sources in her reconstruction of his life in the monastery. Her work helps ground Merton in his context, and is an excellent beginner guide to show how this deep and rich spiritual catalog came to be as a result of a life shaped by a unique, Christ-centered vocation.
Jeff Nelson serves as Minister for Ministerial Calls and Transitions at the national setting of the United Church of Christ. His latest book is The Doctor and the Apostle: Intersections Between Doctor Who and the Letters of Paul (Wipf and Stock, 2020). He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at coffeehousecontemplative.com.