Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

Daniel Horan – The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton [Review]

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A Feature Review of

The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton:  A New Look at the Spiritual Inspiration of His Life, Thought and Writing
Daniel Horan, O.F.M. 

Paperback: Ave Maria Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Michelle Wilbert

 

In this engaging and accessible work by Daniel Horan, O.F.M., we are presented with an enthusiastic and insightful book that asserts that Thomas Merton—Trappist Monk, Mystic, and arguably the most influential spiritual writer of the late 20th century—was not only demonstrably influenced by the beloved medieval Saint Francis of Assisi but continued to be a Franciscan at heart, if not in his professed vocation. While Horan makes intriguing and correct connections to a vigorous Franciscan influence in Merton’s life and work, offering the strongest support in discussing his engagement, during the last decade of his life, with the social issues of the 1960’s, the author, currently a Ph.D student in systematic theology at Boston College, perhaps takes the premise too far, generating the impression of an attempt to obscure the overriding fact of Merton’s unwavering devotion to the life of a cloistered, and later solitary, monastic.  This is however, a compelling book which stands as a very worthwhile addition to the Merton canon; it is well-researched, although some notable omissions might arouse a concern that there are “inconvenient truths” avoided out of a desire to shape the narrative in the desired direction—omissions that, in truth, might have made this a stronger book, not so much by detracting from the central thesis as possibly altering it to more closely conform with what was certainly closer to the truth—that the Franciscan intellectual and spiritual tradition were formative and exerted a subtle and occasionally more concrete influence on Merton’s evolving thought and work, yet neither eclipsed nor interrupted his commitment to the eremitical life—the life of solitude, prayer and contemplation he clearly discerned as his vocation in the earliest days of his Christian conversion. It is that vocation that was central to Merton’s mind and heart.

Horan’s thesis, offered in the first paragraph of his introduction, is both certain and oblique, and therein lies the problem:

Thomas Merton’s mind and soul might have been monastic by virtue of his embrace of Cistercian life and prayer, but his heart was undoubtedly Franciscan.  It is not at first apparent, and it has long been overlooked, but among the myriad influences that combine to shape and inform the life, thought and writing of Thomas Merton stands the Franciscan intellectual and spiritual tradition.

 

There is ample evidence offered to support the early influence of Franciscan thought and spirituality on Merton’s early development, and Horan does a fine job exploring and articulating these early years: he explores Merton’s early life compassionately and with deliberation, making excellent use of the historical contexts and extant writings on Merton to support his case: Merton’s time teaching at Bonaventure College, a Franciscan liberal arts school, introduced him to the readings of the preeminent Franciscan scholars, St. Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus.  Prior to taking the teaching position at St. Bonaventure, his friend and mentor at Columbia University, Dan Walsh, had suggested that Merton had a “Franciscan Spirit.” For a young man discerning a vocation almost on the heels of his conversion, baptism, and first ideas about a potential life as a vowed religious, this provided direction and affirmation of spiritual gifts. Merton’s inherent curiosity and intellectual prowess would have led quite naturally to an immersion in the material at hand: St. Francis and the spiritual and intellectual tradition that extended from him. Further involvement in the Order as a Third Order Secular Franciscan is explored only briefly and without sufficient support—the fact remains that Merton’s active involvement with the Franciscan Order seems to have largely ended early—he entered monastic life in 1941, and specifically Franciscan themes do not appear in Merton’s writing again until the mid 1960’s. There is strong evidence in Merton’s later writings, most notably in the 1966 essay entitled “The Eremitical Franciscan” — not included as a reference in this book — clearly indicating a continued interest in the Franciscan tradition, especially as he considered the ways in the which those committed to a monastic life could—and should—find a way to engage with the larger world, especially as it concerns issues of peace and justice—and that omission is both confounding and unfortunate; including it would have made the last four chapters—the strongest in the book as it stands—very convincing.

Horan acknowledges at various points in the book that it is hard to make a case that life in the Franciscan Order, given its apostolate of active community involvement and service, would have been compatible with the overriding attributes of Thomas Merton, nor would he have become the Merton known to us—Thomas Merton required solitude from his earliest days—a requirement spoken to at length in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and that requirement only became more entrenched and necessary as his life—and spirituality—grew and deepened.  Horan does, however, seem to imply that Merton would have considered such a move later in his life although he offers no evidence in support—in fact in 1965, according to Merton biographer Jim Forest, he seriously considered, and requested, permission to join the Carthusian Order which would have meant a further retreat into solitude. The Carthusians, an Order formed by St. Bruno in the 11th century and independent of the Benedictines from which virtually all other Christian monastic Orders derive, was the strictest order in terms of temporal isolation—existing as something of a paradox, the Carthusians are a “community of hermits” isolated not only from the world, but from each other.  The evidence that Thomas Merton grew more committed to the life of a hermit is overwhelming—evidence that is given a bit of short shrift in this book.  While Horan acknowledges that Merton clearly discerned and chose a vocation offering stark contrast to the life of a Franciscan Friar, he maintains throughout that “Merton’s heart was undoubtedly Franciscan.”

The strength of this book is found in its general readability and personal enthusiasm—one cannot be offended or put off by the author’s genuine interest in the subject or in his desire to place Merton well within the current of Franciscan spirituality. In truth, another related work entitled, The (Not So) Secret Son of Francis: Thomas Merton’s Franciscan Lens for Seeing Heaven and Earth by Cornell University scholar Timothy Shaffer (also not included as a reference in this book) makes a more convincing case for Merton’s ongoing Franciscan world-view precisely because he doesn’t attempt to inflate the inclusion of Merton’s formative interest and devotion to the Franciscan charism as more than one component in what are indeed “myriad influences” on his “life, thought and writing.”  Shaffer maintains a scholarly detachment that doesn’t become overly speculative or claim to know Thomas Merton’s heart.  While Fr. Horan’s book is compelling, interesting and factual as far as it goes, it fails the central point of its thesis and in some ways it fails Thomas Merton by minimizing the most important contribution Merton made to modern spiritual literature: expressing the need for solitude, silence, and contemplation as it informs and supports a wisely discerned service to the world. We can better follow the lasting roots laid down by St. Francis in the life of Thomas Merton if we start not with his fascination for and intellectual interest in Francis, but in the devotion to God that grew from that nascent period of formation into a worldview of inclusion, hope and love.

 





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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


 
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