Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 9, 1997
Local Professor Prepares Merton Texts
BY THEA JARVIS
DECATUR--The hardest part of preparing Thomas Merton's journals for publication was deciphering the celebrated monk's handwriting, according to Victor Kramer, editor of Turning Toward the World, the most recently released volume of Merton's daily reflections.
The 1960-63 journals, fourth in a series of seven planned volumes of Merton's personal writings, were published in late 1996 by HarperCollins. The complete journals, untouched at Merton's request until 25 years after his death, span the years from 1939 until 1968, the year he died.
Merton's tight, artistic script could sometimes be a mystery, said Kramer, professor of English and American literature at Georgia State University in Atlanta and longtime Merton scholar. The multifaceted monk, known as Father Louis within the Trappist community, wrote with ball-point pen in lined, bound, 300-page ledger books. The result, noted Kramer, could be "smudgy."
When he was really stumped, Kramer would journey to Bellarmine College in Louisville, Ky., where the Merton papers are housed. There he would pore over the original journals, then head to nearby Gethsemani Abbey where he and Brother Patrick Hart, OCSO, Merton's former secretary and general editor of the journals, would sift through their copies with a magnifying glass.
"I'd sit there and look and look and look until I could find something out," said Kramer, who grew in patience and a deeper sense of Merton's unique contributions.
"It's amazing that he was able to function on so many levels," Kramer said. At the same time he was filling a ledger with reflections on monastic life, his interior journey and events shaping the outside world, Merton was a busy novice master, spiritual guide, translator, poet, essayist and member of a contemplative religious order with a rigorous daily schedule.
The years 1960 to 1963 were "pivotal years" for Merton, said Kramer, because the monk, then in his late 40s, was developing strong views on world issues even as he became more and more attracted to the hermitic life.
"Precisely when (Merton) longed for more solitude and often debated about how much he should continue to publish," Kramer observes in his introduction, "he found himself asking complex questions about contemporary society, war, and the Church's role in the world."
The early ?60s saw the beginnings of the Gethsemani hermitage, Merton's personal retreat and a meeting space for visitors. There he confronted his "innermost self along with broad cultural questions," says Kramer, while cultivating an awareness of nature and an awakening of wonder.
The journals of these years inspired Merton's book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, published in 1966, just as earlier journals were the basis for his books, The Secular Journal and The Sign of Jonas. Merton's writing during the early ?60s, says Kramer, reflects an expanding awareness of his own mortality, a growing tolerance of others and an acceptance of God's creative plan.
"The Merton of these years clearly becomes much more willing to accept mystery on many levels," Kramer writes. The 1960-63 volume is a "record of his movement from cloister toward world, from novice master to hermit, and from ironic critic of culture to compassionate singer of praise."
Reading the latest volume of Merton's journals is like taking a walk with an old friend. As guide and companion, Father Louis shares his thoughts on unfolding world events, the latest books he's read and people he's recently seen or heard from. Often prayers or poems spring up spontaneously, while descriptions of monastic surroundings evoke peace and serenity.
"The first chirps of the waking birds, ?le point vierge (the virgin point)' of the dawn," writes Merton in June 1960, "a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in silence opens their eyes and they speak to Him, wondering if it is time to ?be'? And He tells them ?Yes.' Then they one by one wake and begin to sing. First the catbirds and cardinals and some others I do not recognize. Later, song sparrows, wrens...Last of all doves, crows..."
Merton is a masterful writer as well as spiritual guide, Kramer said. "He can write like turning on a water valve. He turns it on and it just runs." Because by the early ?60s Merton was conscious that his writings would be widely read, Kramer said, the journal is both a record of "a soul in process" and a spiritual resource for others.
"That's why he remains of value, why there's so much interest in him," he continued. Merton's humor, his "brutal honesty" about the vagaries of monastic life, invite the reader to join in his spiritual journey. "He writes what people understand and relates to their living in this modern era."
It took five years for Kramer to finish editing Merton's 1960-63 journal while still teaching. A founding member of the International Thomas Merton Society and editor of The Merton Journal, the 57-year-old professor is also author of Thomas Merton: Monk and Artist and co-author with his wife, Dewey, of a history of the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.
A recent recipient of a Fulbright award, Kramer will spend the first half of 1997 at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where he will teach three courses, including a class on Merton's journals. He returns to Georgia State, where he has taught for 27 years, next fall.
Turning Toward the World represents "a lot of labor and hunting, translation and speculation," said Kramer, and he is pleased to be part of a larger project that contributes to the store of Merton literature.
If editing the latest volume of Merton's journals will "help people to read Merton," said Kramer, he'll consider his efforts successful.
TURNING TOWARD THE WORLD: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Four 1960-1963, edited by Victor A. Kramer, HarperCollins, 352 pp, plus index, $30, hardback.