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Hearing Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968) teaching is very different from reading his books, wonderful as they may be. Readers of THE SEVEN STORY MOUNTAIN (1948) will be familiar with the story of a worldly Columbia University student surprising his New York literary pals by converting to Catholicism and then becoming a Trappist monk at Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, Readers of NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION (1962) will be familiar with Merton’s mysticism and commitment to nonviolence, which made him a leading Catholic voice in opposition to the Vietnam War. Readers of THE WAY OF CHUANG TZU (1965) will be familiar with Merton’s exploration of Eastern religions and his discussions with D.T. Suzuki on Zen and the Dalai Lama on Buddhism.
All of those books are terrific. But actually hearing Merton teaching classes for the young men studying for the priesthood at the monastery is a completely different experience, and a rewarding one. In the books, some of Merton’s wit survived the editing of his monastic superiors but a reader would be forgiven for thinking Merton was a pretty serious guy.
Lucky for Merton fans, the monks at Gethsemani had the brilliant idea of recording Merton’s lectures to the young monks in the 1960s. Recorded on the reel-to-reel machines available at the time, the lectures were available on cassette tapes in the 1990s.
For those of us who loved Merton’s books, the cassettes were a treat. In a classroom full of young men, there emerges a Merton, who was not available in his writings. Merton was a great teacher. Obviously he was a polymath, able to discuss T.S. Eliot’s poetry, the politics of the Second Vatican Council, American politics, Catholic theology and Zen Buddhism. He was also very funny. His often self-deprecating humor kept the novices laughing throughout many of his classes. His language was free of stuffiness often associated with professors and prelates. On the tapes, you hear Merton refer to the novices as “you guys” and explaining theological concepts translated from Latin into 1960s slang. Suddenly he exclaims: “This is the kind of junk you can get out of this Latin stuff.” Leading a discussion of contemplation in terms of the CLOUD OF UNKNOWING, the classic book on Christian mysticism, Merton warns his students not to take “this unknowing kick too far.”
Had Merton stayed at Columbia, he would have given Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith a run for their money as best professor of their era. (Merton died while Bill Moyers was still working in LBJ’s White House press office and so he didn’t get to be featured in the PBS interviews that made Campbell, the lapsed Catholic, and Smith, the Methodist minister, famous as teachers of mythology and comparative religion.)
As iTunes and other digital audio download services emerged since 2000, cassette tapes in general and the ones featuring Merton’s lectures became harder and harder to come by. While trying to preserve my small cache of surviving Merton tapes, I began to despair of finding any more even though I knew that there were hundreds of hours of original reel-to-reel tapes of Merton’s lectures. They were available to academics but not to uncredentialed fans like me.
This spring a publisher with the unlikely name Now You Know Media, Inc. began selling digitally remastered Merton lectures on Audible.com. The quality of the digital version is superior to what was available on the old cassettes. Among other things, the questions and comments by the novices has been enhanced so you can hear their originally un-miked voices much clearer.
The first release, Thomas Merton on Contemplation, is three hours and 50 minutes of lectures on the heart of his spiritual practice. In simplistic terms contemplation is what Trappist monks and Catholic-tradition practitioners do where Buddhist and Hindu monks and devotees do mediation. Of course, these lectures will not be for everyone since contemplation is not everyone’s cup of tea. But then neither is Zen meditation or Kriya Yoga. But for those of us for whom Merton’s teachings have resonated, these recorded talks are a joy. So I optimistically say this digital download is a “first release” because I am hopeful there will be more.
18 of 18 people found this review helpful
I would have rated this 5 Star but for some reason the system would only allow 4. Listening to Thomas Merton in a live recording adds much more in understanding his message. His voice inflection, humor and demeanor emphasizes key spiritual points, which otherwise may be lost in a text format. Best of all, he's talking to monastic novitiates and in some wonderful way I felt like I was there as one of them sharing and learning with this modern Christian mystic.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
I've heard and read a fair amount of Thomas Merton and I'd say this short collection is probably my favourite. Even better than New Seeds (maybe). He has such a down to earth and realistic style. His words are honest and simple but deep and profound. I will be listening again.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
Best introduction to prayer, the Christian way of life and Thomas Merton himself you could find.This audio book is permanently pinned to the front of my phone because it contains reachable, do-able, bite sized teaching on living life for God the best way we can. I find them an oasis to retreat with again and again. Highly recommended.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful