FIRST published in 1968 with the title The Climate of Monastic Prayer, this coyly re-named classic has a fascinating place in the Merton canon: it was his final book.
Should this set up an expectation in the reader? Is this the ultimate revelation, honed by his 27 years in the Trappist community at Gethsemani, Kentucky, by his worldwide success as an author, and by his engagement as a peace activist? Does it trace the path that led to his death in a hotel in Bangkok, after meetings with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhist leaders, and a retreat near Darjeeling? Is this book his Summa?
The short answer is “no”. Its wisdom was indeed honed in the monastery; its literary pedigree is impeccable; and its rigorous defence of activism goes far to explain why he would reach beyond the spiritual traditions of Western Christianity.
The long answer is more complicated, as Sarah Coakley’s excellent foreword explains. The attraction of Merton’s text — a collection of lectures delivered to his fellow monks — lies in the connections that he makes: contemplative prayer and liturgy belong together, so, too, social engagement and the desert, as well as the more usual “joy and dread; sin and redemption; wrath and mercy”.
This beautiful, scholarly book merits a slow read. Canterbury Press are to be congratulated for bringing it back to life. And they have raised the hope, in this reader at least, that the rest of Thomas Merton’s oeuvre might be resurrected for a new generation.
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.
Where Prayer Flourishes
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90