Sunday, November 06, 2022

Review: Man of Dialogue: Thomas Merton’s Catholic Vision

Man of Dialogue: Thomas Merton’s Catholic Vision Man of Dialogue: Thomas Merton’s Catholic Vision by Gregory K. Hillis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this biography of Thomas Merton in my library and really glad that I virtually picked it up. It is probably the best of the several I've read in the recent past.

What Hillis is trying to address is the conservative Catholic critique of Merton, that, in the later part of his life, he was drifting away from the Christian monasticism he originally exemplified towards an Eastern, Buddhist or non-Christian monasticism in his later life. Hillis addresses this by making a case (and a strong case, in my opinion) that Merton's writing and his monastic practice was always a very Catholic one, so his approach to Eastern monastics was in the spirit of dialogue, not a desire to change allegiances. I think Hillis makes his case, but then I'm sympathetic to Hillis' and, I think, Merton's dialogue style.

What I found most helpful in this book is the effort to engage in Merton's theological underpinnings. So many of the biographies I've read have focused on other things, but I had been looking for something to understand the background of what Merton was trying to say- both theologically and personally. Like most of us, Merton was a complex man and he was as unfaithful at times as he was faithful, so understanding what he was trying to do as well as what he did is really quite important. Hillis does this with a thorough understanding of Merton's writing (both published and journals) and a strong understanding of the theology behind it. I found myself learning more about Catholic, especially monastic, spirituality which was a plus.

I strongly recommend this book because it does take Merton seriously, both theologically, but also as a person. That is an achievement in any biography, but, with Merton, who rapidly becomes a cipher for whatever cause one might have (and this is both progressives and conservatives), that is a huge accomplishment.

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