Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton (revised edition)

The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.
— Pope Francis
speaking before both Houses of Congress in Washington, DC
(Pope Francis has read the Italian translation of Living With Wisdom)

A book written with love by one who understands Merton and followed in his steps. The best introduction I can think of to Merton, his life, and work.

— Bob Lax (poet and close friend of Merton’s)

A superb introduction to the life of one of the most extraordinary monks of our time.

— Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s former secretary

This is the best short introduction to Thomas Merton ever written. Superlative!

— James Martin, SJ
associate editor of America magazine, author of My Life With the Saints

If you have to read one book about Thomas Merton, this is the one to read. It is concise, insightful, complete.

— Paul Wilkes, director, writer, co-producer of the PBS documentary, “Merton”

Living With Wisdom is the most complete, balanced, readable, wide-ranging and up-to-date biography of Thomas Merton.

— Gerald Twomey
editor of Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox

Numerous readers discovered Merton through his hefty autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Forest is one of them. In Living With Wisdom, Forest introduces the many facets of the 20th-century Trappist monk whose life included not only the physical work, worship, and contemplation of a monastic community, but prolific writing as well (a partial list of Merton’s works is two pages long). Forest lucidly chronicles Merton’s life, illuminating it with the events that shaped it and the insights that emanated from it. Although his esteem for Merton and his contributions to the peace movement are apparent, he treats Merton’s weaknesses frankly. As a result of Forest’s clarity and conciseness, his work is an excellent choice for general religion collections.

— Library Journal

The most accessible yet discerning account of Merton’s life and work

Ordinarily a revised edition of a book that is fairly well known hardly merits yet another review. However that is not the case with this expanded, updated and beautifully designed (by Roberta Savage) biography of Thomas Merton, by Jim Forest. The first version was in 1979, then a further, larger one in 1991, and now this latest edition timed for the 40th anniversary of Merton’s death, commemorated on December 10, 2008.

The revised edition is to the best of my knowledge, the largest and the richest collection of photos of Thomas Merton published in one volume. It accompanies one of the most accessible yet discerning accounts of his life and work, crafted by Jim Forest. There are other photo collections, such as the out-of-print Hidden Wholeness, and of course, the most comprehensive biographical effort is Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. Yet Living with Wisdom possesses an intimacy and vision unmatched in other publications.

Jim Forest knew Thomas Merton — a number of the photos, particularly in Merton’s hermitage — were taken by Jim. And Jim is a most skillful biographer, as this and other of his efforts attest.

In fact, when you leaf through it, you immediately realize that many elements combine to produce a singular volume. The sheer number of photos, many previously unpublished, document the entire sweep of Merton’s fascinating life. Finally it is good to see the faces of Amiya Chakravarty, D.T. Suzuki and Merton’s old guru the monk Bramachari, also Jacques Maritain, Dom Jean Leclerq, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, among others whom Merton treasured.

Not only in the photos but also in Forest’s introduction there is a rare encounter with the energy, the hilarity, the restlessness of the person that Merton was. Forest’s first sight was of a monk rolling on the floor, convulsed in laughter! Likewise, I treasure Merton’s comments about his great love for beer, that he drinks as much as he can get his hands on — an admission that for me, balances everything else he says about reading the psalms, the liturgical services, his hermitage quiet as ideal for prayer and the spiritual life in general.

Somehow the photos are a visual counterpart to these accounts of Merton’s humanity. Whether smiling or concentrated on a text, this is the face of someone I wanted to know, immensely interesting, as the Dalai Lama said, “deep.” One photo is incorrectly captioned, the one on p. 218. It shows not the Trappistine nuns at Redwoods, California but the Precious Blood sisters in Eagle River, Alaska, to whom Merton gave a retreat on his way to the Far East.

The photos alone would make for a splendid book, but the core of the volume is, as indicated, Forest’s lively biographical portrait, generously interlaced with quotations from Merton’s writings. Though included in other publications, the self-assessment of his own authorship by Merton in 1967 is revealing and there is a photo of the graph he constructed himself adds greatly to the narrative.

In his new afterword, Jim Forest notes the now notorious decision by then Bishop Donald Wuerl to omit Merton’s profile in an American Catholic Catechism because, among other reasons, “the generation we are speaking to had no idea who he [Merton] was,” and because the “details of his searching at the end of his life” were uncertain. The facts, as Forest reminds us, make these charges ridiculous and embarrassing.

Most of Merton’s books remain in print over a half century after their original publications. The number of new books about him or new editions of his books and correspondence increases every year. Amply documented accounts of his commitment to monastic life and priesthood in the Catholic Church are available and have been now for years — not to mention the testimony of fellow monks such as Frs. John Eudes Bamberger, Matthew Kelty and Brother Patrick Hart, to mention only a few.

I began reading Thomas Merton when I was 13. I am now 60. To describe his shaping of my life is beyond the limits of this review, but I want to affirm his importance to me as a teacher, a critic, a prophet, and above all a man of prayer, as Evagrius Ponticus says, a “true theologian.”

To say that I grew up with Merton’s writing, pursued a vocation to religious life, later to marriage, academic work and the priesthood is to simply acknowledge the ways in which his life and work shaped my own. And in saying this, I am giving voice to the experience of thousands, in many different churches and religious traditions or outside these.

The title of this book comes from Merton himself, who in Dancing in the Waters of Life, wrote: “What more do I see than this silence, this simplicity, this ‘living together with wisdom.’ “ Readers of Merton may immediately connect the mysterious feminine figure “Proverb, ” a young woman who appeared in his dreams.

He later connected her with Sophia, the Wisdom of God, with the Mother of God, with Christ the Wisdom of God, and with every creature who is a child of God. Someone to whom I gave an anthology of Merton’s writings as a gift admitted that reading him now, many years after first doing so, she discovered that he had grown up, deepened—or perhaps she had.

For those who know Merton, for those yet to make his acquaintance, Jim Forest’s book will I think, offer the same realization. Something, it seems to me, Fr. Louis would smile at and approve.

— Michael Plekon, Cistercian Studies Quarterly

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