Thomas Merton

Garry Wills on Thomas Merton: Longform writing and the space for faith to breathe

Garry Wills on Thomas Merton: Longform writing and the space for faith to breathe

Shallow Calls to Shallow,” an essay by Garry Wills in the April edition of Harpers, is one example of an encouraging trend: longform magazine coverage that treats religion as worthy of reflection and an essential piece of the American cultural fabric.

I find this trend encouraging as one who left the daily morning newspaper in Baton Rouge in 1989 and began editing a magazine for Compassion International. I have worked with magazines, in varying degrees, ever since.

In a time of increasing pressures for listicles and factoids, magazines at their best offer a place for the longer view. A magazine seized by one ideology can be just as dreary as an ideological website, to be sure, but when a lively mix of editors choose the material, a magazine has the potential to dazzle.

What makes this Harpers essay more remarkable is that Wills, who has spent most of his academic and journalistic career as a liberal Catholic, takes Thomas Merton down several levels on the hierarchy of liberal Catholic saints. He does this by devoting nearly 3,600 words to reviewing On Thomas Merton by Mary Gordon (Shambhala).

Merton left a durable record of celebrity for a man who entered a monastery at age 26 (in 1941) and remained a monk (though not always abbey-bound) until his death in 1968. Merton was a prolific writer. A brief biography on the Abbey of Gethsemani website says that “more than 60 titles of Merton’s writings are in print in English.”

Merton gained a following through his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), but he broadened his audience during the 1960s because of his friendship with popular musicians like Joan Baez, his opposition to the Vietnam War and his later interest in Buddhism.

Paul Elie considered Merton’s literary legacy in The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), which counted Merton in the esteemed company of Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Conner, and Walker Percy. No less a progressive icon than former Dominican Matthew Fox (an Episcopal priest since 1994) has endorsed the book-length theory that Merton was not killed by a faulty electrical fan in his room during a trip to Bangkok, but by CIA operatives in Southeast Asia.

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