A Feature Review of
A Course in Desert Spirituality
Reviewed by Mark A. Jenkins
Thomas Merton served as master of novices at the Abbey of Gethsemane for ten years, from October 1955 until he moved permanently to his hermitage in August of 1965. Beginning in April of 1962, his lectures to the novices and later to the entire community were recorded on reel-to-reel tapes. More than 400 hours of these recordings are housed at the Thomas Merton Center of Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. Researchers and visitors are given access to these recordings, now remastered and transferred to compact disks.
Through the years, the audio of many of these lectures have been made available by various publishing houses. Now You Know Media sells a somewhat pricey series of 35 disk collections as well as audio downloads. I myself have purchased some of Merton’s lectures through Amazon’s Audible.com. And, while I was reading A Course in Desert Spirituality, I received an offer from MertonTalks, a subscription service that weekly issues selections from his conferences for a reasonably priced $7 per month (https://mertontalks.com/).
One thing that comes through in the recordings is Merton’s caring and congenial nature as a teacher. Clearly, he had a good rapport with the novices in his charge and his lectures are spiced throughout with humor and asides that I am all but certain are missing from his notes. Listening to the lectures, I have come to the conclusion that some of his best material and insights are found in such side comments. Abbot John Eudes Bamberger, has written of him:
As a teacher Merton conveyed not only lively interest in these fields of knowledge but a real enthusiasm. He was invariably well prepared for his classes and had an informal manner of delivery that resulted in a friendly spirit that we carried with us into the various activities of the day that included attendance at choir offices and manual labor in the fields and vegetable gardens. (”Thomas Merton: Memories of a Brother Monk” at http://www.abbotjohneudes.org/TM-100th.pdf.)
Merton was a formidable scholar, a quality demonstrated in ample measure in the 15 lectures included in this book. The bulk of material is from Patrick F. O’Connell’s edition of Cassian and the Fathers: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition (Cistercian Publications, 2005). That edition is heavily footnoted and filled with enough scholarly apparatus to frighten off many a reader. Editor Jon M. Sweeney, whose oeuvre is fast approaching 40 books, has done a yeoman’s job of abridging this material, making it much more user friendly and far more accessible to a wider, general audience. “My task,” he writes, “has been mostly to pare the talks down to more digestible size.” (170)
Each lecture can and does stand on its own. Very little attempt seems to have been made to present a systematic treatment of the desert abbas and ammas. This is an observation not a criticism. Systematics has very little to do with the traditions of these men and women whose lives and commitments seem so foreign, yet somehow attractive to our modern sensibilities. I was especially appreciative of Merton’s treatment of the Cappadocians. It is not often that one encounters Basil or the Gregories set so firmly within the context of desert spirituality. But, even though they spent much of their lives in service of church hierarchy, it is clear that they were each drawn to more ascetic, less worldly, expressions of spirituality. Of equal interest is the amount of time Merton spends exploring the clear connections that exist between the theologies and practices of the desert and the many contemporaneous heresies confronting the early church. As I read, I could not help but be carried back to undergrad studies of Byzantine history and seminary surveys of early church controversies.
If one is drawn to this book not because it contains the words and teaching of Thomas Merton but rather in order to learn about the spirituality and practice of these ancient ascetics, there are probably other, more helpful and less rambling, works available. But that’s not likely to be the motivation of most potential readers. This is not simply another book on the desert. It is a book of writings by a figure that, even now more than 50 years following his untimely death, many of us still find compelling in both his biography and his thought. In that respect, this book does not disappoint. Anyone who knows the many struggles Merton had with obedience and monastic discipline will find themselves generously rewarded. Again and again, in his comments to the novices regarding the life of the monk, one can see his inner life on display. Quoting Melania the Younger he defines obedience as “doing what you do not like to do, for the satisfaction of the one who commands you” (67). And in his discussion of the rule of Pachomius, his own personal struggles with his abbot lurk constantly just beneath the surface:
The danger for hermits is individualism and anarchy. The danger for cenobites is excessive organisation, totalitarianism, and mechanical routine. … In the cenobium, the responsibility rests first of all with superiors, but the subject too must be careful not to let himself become merely a passive cog in a machine. A monastery must be an organism, not just an organization. (36)
Listening to audio versions of such lectures, Merton’s humor and grace is almost always present. His passion and concern for those for whom he has been given the responsibility of formation is constant and unwavering. To some extent, the same can be said of these chapters based on his notes. But I find myself wondering if, aside from the sometimes not so subtle way his own personal biography shows up, the printed word is really capable of communicating the person captured by the recordings. One thing, though, is certain. Those who have spent a lifetime in Merton’s (literary) company are not likely to find themselves disappointed with this book.
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