Monk, poet, activist, mystic, celebrated author, bridge between East and West—Thomas Merton was all of these, and he had a signal influence on the culture of mid-20th-century America. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Trappist monk, best known as an author for his 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton, who died in 1968, wrote some 70 books on a wide range of topics, and, like C.S. Lewis, has become a cottage industry that generates a consistent stream of books each year. Some are about Merton, others are new collections or editions of his work. This centenary year brings a richer feast than usual, from a variety of perspectives.
Merton's wide circle of friends included publisher Robert Giroux; the two met as undergraduates at Columbia College in New York City in the mid-1930s. Giroux went on to edit 26 of Merton’s books, both as editor-in-chief at Harcourt Brace--where he acquired The Seven Storey Mountain--and later at his own publishing house, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In August, University of Notre Dame Press will publish The Letters of Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton, edited and annotated by Patrick Samway; the book also includes transcripts of Giroux’s unpublished talks about Merton.
Merton’s prolific correspondence also included letters exchanged with Evelyn Waugh as the famed author edited the British edition of Merton’s autobiography. Waugh challenged Merton—in sometimes cranky language--to become a better writer. A collection of their letters, Merton and Waugh: A Monk, A Crusty Old Man, and The Seven Storey Mountain by Mary Ann Coady, was published in March by Paraclete Press.
Merton belonged to the Cistercian order (commonly called Trappists), and its publishing house, Cistercian Publications, offers three 2015 titles. In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Prophetic Spirituality (Mar.) by Ephrem Arsement looks at the last decade of Merton’s life and examines the philosophers and authors who shaped his prophetic vision. Thomas Merton: Early Essays, 1947-1952 (April) is a new collection; and Charter, Customs, and Constitutions of the Cistercians (April) is a never-before-published collection of Merton’s teachings for the Trappist monks when he was master of novices at the Cistercian Abbey in Gethsemani, Kentucky.
Other publishers associated with religious or monastic orders also have new books this year. Orbis Books, publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers, releases The Unquiet Monk: Thomas Merton’s Questioning Faith (April), a new introduction to his life and work by Michael W. Higgins; and Thomas Merton, Peacemaker: Meditations on Merton, Peacemaking, and the Spiritual Life (May) by John Dear, who writes about Merton’s commitment to peacemaking through his social activism and writings. From Liturgical Press, publishing house of the Benedictines, comes At Play in Creation: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine (Jan.) by Christopher Pramuk, a meditation on Wisdom-Sophia--defined as the feminine aspect of God--and how that theology influenced Merton’s spirituality.
Interfaith understanding was key for Merton, and in April interfaith publisher Fons Vitae releases We Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope: Reflections on His Centenary (Fons Vitae Thomas Merton Series). The collection of essays by more than 100 prominent contributors is a testament to the breadth of Merton’s cultural influence, with authors across the faith spectrum—such as Buddhist Robert Thurman, Muslim Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Catholic Richard Rohr—writing about how Merton shaped their lives.
The natural world was another of Merton’s passions, and in January Sorin Books, an imprint of Ave Maria Press, published When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature by Thomas Merton.
Finally, Shambhala, best known for books on Buddhism, will publish Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down: The Long Encounter of Thomas Merton and his Abbot, James Fox by Roger Lipsey in May. Merton explored Buddhist ideas and practices and established dialogues with the Dalai Lama, Zen writer D.T. Suzuki, Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and Thai Buddhist monk Buddhadasa. He also wrote books on Zen Buddhism (Mystics and Zen Masters; Zen and the Birds of Appetite) and Taoism (The Way of Chuang Tzu). This mixing of Eastern and Western spirituality was among the points of conflict between Merton and his superior, Fox, who chastised Merton for being too much in the world outside the abbey.