A Review of
The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton
Reviewed by Cara Meredith
There are books that comfort and books that teach. Books that change the way a reader sees the world, and books that act as a trusted guide, as if the author herself jumps off a page and walks directly beside us. Sometimes, of course, there are books that eloquently, magically, achieve all of the above, and, again, the reader is left in want – in want of more conversation, more insight, more intertwining of the old and new.
Such is the case with novelist, essayist and leading contemplative thinker Sophfronia Scott’s latest release, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton. Merton, “a white Catholic monk who lived most of his life in a monastery in Kentucky and died over fifty years ago” changed the way mid-twentieth century readers in particular interacted “on matters of social justice, race, religion, and activism.” Scott, a black woman who is not Catholic but Episcopalian, is quick to point out how little the two have in common; except for their Ivy League educations and “a searching nature when it comes to faith” (2), Scott and Merton are an unlikely pair.
Their searching natures turn out to be more than enough, both for Scott, and ultimately, for the reader. In turn, the reader is invited on a most intimate journey with two contemplatives who are, perhaps, more alike than they are different. From Merton’s complaining and impatience, Scott grasps that she will “forever have to seek compassion and miracles, transcendence and revelation” (67). And from her, were Merton still with us today, Scott muses that he would be quick to realize that they share the same light: “I think we’re coming to the point of understanding that if we can properly nurture and, when necessary, nurse our faith, the light will be there in our hearts” (77). After all, the author’s approach is not to glean information from him, but to journey with him – to call him out and challenge him, to encourage him and maybe even get the “boisterous and slightly boorish” (2) man to lighten up a little bit.
Certainly, the two contemplative writers find commonality in the spiritual act of prayer. As she grows bolder in her dialogue with Merton, Scott asks herself this question:
What if all my previous prayers – especially the specific practices in church or in my prayer spaces at home – were the equivalent of a large bird flapping its wings in preparation for flight? Then in times of trial, when I cannot pray, perhaps that’s when I have somehow taken off. I’m supposed to glide – be present, trust the current air, of spirit, to uphold me so I can do what is necessary in the crisis. Gliding is silent – gliding is strong. God turns down the noise and lifts me, letting me know, You can do this, you are not alone. Instead of an absence of prayer, I am surrounded by prayer, effortless prayer.
After further rumination with Merton, she suggests that his cloistered existence hasn’t offered him the opportunity to soar and fly with God, “to remember that flight is in your nature” (123). She lays down her cards; she dares he make the next move, lay down his books and, perhaps, look up to the sky.
Of course, the conversation I only wish could have actually taken place, culminated in what Scott describes as a most hopeless issue: race. Readers of Merton will be aware of his turn toward writing about issues of social justice and activism, especially in the later years of his life. Because “Merton got it as few others did,” the author engages with him on the issue, desirous instead of “a way of resisting racism so that I don’t become what I behold … weighed down by anger, hopelessness and resentment” (139). After all, as a woman who has experienced betrayal simply because of the color of her skin, Scott has every right to feel hopelessness – but through Merton’s words, she clings to hope and chooses a way of redemption. With him, she finds that they are in the same position, “feeling as though we have no way to exert significant influence on a pressing issue” (150), but responding as best as both of them can: through the sacred act of writing.
As an aside, Scott’s writing style invites an intimate knowing both with the author and with Merton. Certainly, her conversation with the monk grows as the book progresses: early chapters are largely written in third-person, serving to give the reader necessary background information about Merton, as well as ease into their burgeoning camaraderie. When Scott begins to address Merton (in intimate, second-person language), but continues to address readers in equally intimate, second-person language, the jarring between “yous” can prove confusing. This, of course, is easily remedied by the fact that she always addresses “Thomas” when interacting with him, and then also begins to narrow her use of the second-person to Merton alone for the rest of the book.
A writer myself, I am aware of how everyday kinds of conversations change us, how ordinary musings tend to shape us when we’re most unaware. This proved true for a seeker named Sophfronia Scott, as she engaged and interacted with a mostly unlikely man, and it proves true for the seeker in you and me. As a reader, I am simply left in want of more, which is perhaps the best place to be – seeking more conversation between the two authors, more dialogue between the old and the new, and more connection around that thin place between heaven and earth.