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'Something of a Rebel': Thomas Merton, His Life and Work, An Introduction.

William H. Shannon. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1997. $9.95 (paper).

Well conceived and executed, this book focuses information for readers who need an overview of Merton's voluminous production. The straight-forward text will help beginners build necessary connections about the complex writings of this prolific, paradoxically inward- and outward-turning writer, who still appeals to today's reader because of his rebellion against expected norms. Since William H. Shannon is well informed about all of the primary and secondary literature - he was General Editor of the five volumes of Merton's selected letters - his lively study functions on several levels: as an introduction to Merton's life and writing; as examination of recurring themes in the canon; and as a compendium of suggestions about how to continue reading Merton.

Was Merton a "rebel"? Shannon asks good related questions and thus designs an inquiry which excellently shows how Merton both was and was not, depending on how one views his relationships with various establishments. Part of the complexity of Shannon's answer is that Merton, more aware of the need to rebel as he engaged the contemplative life, became increasingly conscious of what was demanded of such a rebel in a society that had apparently forgotten its own need to make connections - a culture increasingly unaware of the contemplative.

Shannon's text first draws us into the life at its most engaging period - when Merton in his mid-twenties, surrounded by Columbia University friends, was hoping and planning to be a writer. That rebellion was perhaps a bit self-centered. The real one came later with religious vocation and, paradoxically, increased as the monastic career unfolded in tandem with that of the writer - but a writer less and less concerned with self.

"Is Merton for Today . . .?" Shannon asks, and answers by demonstrating Merton's wide range of interests and why, therefore, he has such an enormous number of readers who keep returning. Merton has not gone out of fashion because his range of interests speaks to so many who sense a need for the contemplative in a world increasingly active.

Shannon's most important accomplishment is in chapter three, "The Merton Galley: Themes to Look for in Merton's Writing." This sixty-five page critique is one of the best succinct overviews of Merton's thought. Shannon is clearly enthusiastic about bringing readers to this material, but he never talks down to them; he assumes they want to know what Merton can teach them about the contemplative life. He shows how Merton as a kind of rebel fought for an understanding of the significance of interiority and how this shaped his own dual career.

Shannon lets us see how particular topics were crucial to Merton's life and how they remain significant for contemporary readers. The first of these sections is called "Interiority: Speaking Out for the Inside." This carefully written essay about the value of the inner life suggests how important its subject was for Merton, and how committed he was to it- yet how difficult it was to interest main-stream culture in such an apparently esoteric topic. Shannon demonstrates this difficulty by looking at an article Merton was to write for the Saturday Evening Post. Merton informed his editor of the complexity of the subject and thereby wrote his own "rejection notice."

Shannon is so familiar with Merton's work that he can pull just the right anecdote or quotation into his argument. These sections about crucial themes are more than a defense of Merton's lifestyle; they demonstrate how he kept learning ways to know the Hidden God. Shannon frequently draws on Merton's correspondence to show how he made connections with the world beyond the monastery.

One might quibble with Shannon's recommendations for introductory readings. He chooses basic texts, but one wonders if it may no longer be a good idea to start with The Seven Story Mountain. Nonetheless, all the texts Shannon suggests and outlines are crucial to a full understanding of Merton.

Something of a Rebel is weak in hardly mentioning Merton's poetry, yet that major part of his work may be the most difficult for general readers to absorb. Because of space limitations, Shannon cannot offer detailed analysis of texts. Nonetheless, he has composed an excellent introduction to Merton's spiritual writings that should stimulate a new generation of readers.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kramer, Victor A.
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
Previous Article:Walker, Percy: A Life.
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