Merton: in flight from the world?; Merton, by Monica Furlong. New York: Harper & Row. $12.95.

Most of us know Thomas Merton as the author of the youthful aubiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," a confession of a lost soul's redemption, conversion to Roman Catholicism, and entrance into the life of a monastic priest. Following in the best Augustinian tradition, this testimony of one man's spiritual journey captured the public imagination upon its appearance in 1948 and turned the cloistered contemplative ito an overnight celebrity. Inadvertently, Merton had acquired the image of a fully realized holy man, an image as disturbing to him as it was inaccurate.

Monica Furlong's biography dynamically demythologizes this public persona -- the saintly ascetic -- to reveal the far more complex and appealing character of an earnest main in profound conflict with himself. With a novelist's mastery of character illumination, tension, and suspense, leading to one subtle revelation after another. Furlong presents us with a portrait of an eminently likable and emphatically human, rathen than etheral, being.

Merton appears as a man whose loney, uprooted childhood and somewhat dissolute youth had created an aching need for the eassurances of structured routines, a tightly knit family, and a higher authority to whom he could commit himself in absolute devotion and obedience. Enter Catholicism and the Trappist life.

The Trappists, also known as the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, are the most ascetically rigid of all the monastic orders; at the time Merton joined them, monks were bound to vows of absolute silence. Merton was a questioning intellectual in an order that demandd unquestioning faith, a writer in an order bound to silence, a man who needed period of both hermitic solitude and stimulating conversation in a communal order where both privacy and social intercourse were virtually impossible.

Furlong's portrayal raises the possibility that in the Trappists Merton chose the brotherhood least suited to his particular gifts and nees. His desire to do strict penance for what her regarded as youthful sins while guarding himself from future temptations had moved him to flee the world, but his maturing an increasing independent religious conscience told him that the truly Christlike man must join himself to the world and other peopple if his vocation was to have meaning.

The conflict between Merton's vows and his chancing view of what constituted a genuinely religious life is the central theme of Furong's biography. While some may see Merton as a tragic figure, unable to summon the strength to free himself from a repressive order, she implies that Merton's decision to persist within the Trappist framework, rather than transfer to one of the less doctrinaire ordrs or renounce his vows and return to the secular world, was a courageous act of self-affirmation, not self-denial. Sustaining the internal battle between conscience and obedience, constantly questioning which was obedience owed to God and which, mere submission to a fallible human authority, led Merton, she idicates, to an understanding of himself and a peace that he wouldn't have achieved without the imposed constrains and the consequent need for unremitting self-examination.

Drawing heavily on Merton's own writing, as well as on the written and oral recollections of his friends, Furlong presents Merton's life as a novelist would a protagonists's, as a seamless tapestry, the pattern of which becomes clear as the sum of the plots and subplots combines to produce an ordered whole.

I'm not sure whether I agree that te pattern she discovers is implicit in Merton's life or whether it is an artistic rationale, imposed after the fact. Had Merton achieved peace at the time of his accidental death, or would the internal conflict have continued, unabated, if he had lived? The answer is debatable and of questionable significance; it is the conflict we are concerned with here, how it was suffered and why rather than the resolution.

In this regard, Furlong's insight, her compassion and respect for her subject , and her uncommon gift for narration invest this book with a vitality, depth, and satisfying sense of completeness rarely found in biography. Merton's life assumes the power of a novelists's artistic creation and raises profound questions for us to contemplate.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.