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Inhaltsangabe: This winner of the Best Spiritual Book Award for 2003-2004 from the Sacramento Publishers & Authors is a penetrating fact-based study of what could have occurred on the last day of Merton's life. It is the first book to provide a radical reinterpretation of Merton's character. Hourihan provides a convincing answer to a question that a multitude of Catholics, and others, have asked themselves: Why did the famous Catholic monk, and acclaimed writer die so mysteriously and suddenly? The author probes the enigmatic December 1968 event, which occurred at an international monastic conference outside of Bangkok, with such insight that the significance of Merton's death is illuminated for the first time. He sees Merton as a tragically divided soul unable to resolve his conflicts within a Christian framework, and who was driven for release - too late and unsuccessfully - into the world of Oriental mysticism. He was a man who should not have become a monk in the first place; falling victim as he did to his own spiritual inadequacies, as well as to fame, and uncritical hero-worship from both laity and clergy alike lacking knowledge of what constituted a true mystic. Hourihan dramatically reveals why Merton was not a 'spiritual master or mystic' as he has been referred to by followers. His basic conclusion is that Merton is typical of Westerners who lack grounding in a mystical orientation that would instruct them about the nature of spirituality. This dramatic portrayal, written by an American who writes from an Eastern philosophical perspective, will appeal to ex-Catholics and others with a Christian background searching for guidance outside of their traditional faith. It is not recommended for warm admirers of Thomas Merton who want to maintain their cherished image of him.
Vom Verlag: This new interpretation of Thomas Merton, the Catholic hero of the 1950s and 60s, contradicts the image of him as a spiritual master, or "mystic" as he's been called by some admirers and fellow monks.
Merton wrote on mystical themes, and was held to be a mystic. While reading biographies of Merton’s life, the author came to a different conclusion. Dr. Paul Hourihan, who had studied great mystics and mysticism for the greater part of his life, and had experienced spiritual transformation himself, had a sound basis for making this evaluation. To correct this false image he was moved to reveal sides of Merton’s character which the Catholic establishment has naturally not seen fit to explore.
The question logically arises: how could Merton write so convincingly about the contemplative life and mysticism if he wasn’t himself a true contemplative or mystic? To write on spirituality is one thing but quite another to live it. Merton had a great capacity to absorb ideas and then, as a gifted writer, to convey them. However, one of the signs of a profound mystical experience is the transformation of character. Did this happen to Merton? Nothing that indicated a fundamental change was evident. As an example: when he moved from the communal monastic life into his own hermitage and a greater degree of freedom, he resorted back to type--despite his 23 years as a monastic. He invited his old friends and new (women included) to visit him, giving them directions to reach his hermitage by the back way, and reminding them to bring beer. It seems that any apparent change he underwent was due to external restraints rather than to a permanent internal shift that one would expect after 23 years as a monk.
As the author says in the Preface: "This will be a disturbing train of thought for many devoted Merton followers … but the need to know is more compelling." Even so, Dr. Hourihan’s objective was not to expose Merton personally--he was a congenial, likable, and at times a great man--but to uphold the uniqueness of the mystical tradition in the world, which seems so little understood in the West, in both Catholic and Protestant circles.
Even though this is a novel and the protagonist is a character based on Merton, it has disturbed the Merton establishment because of the fact-based content. One of their criticisms is that "the author suggests that … traditional Christian paths to God are mistaken & Eastern religions, especially India’s Vedanta philosophy was the path that Merton should have followed." Hourihan does suggest, and Merton himself discovered, that we have a lot to learn from the East regarding spirituality and the inner life, just as the East is learning from the West on matters of science and technology, for example. In his book, "Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story," Monsignor Shannon sums up Merton’s spiritual insights that prepared him to understand the Eastern outlook. These were: the importance of the experience of God; the limitation of words to articulate the experience of God; and a growing intuition of the unity of all reality*--which also summarize some of the basic principles of the Vedanta philosophy. Merton was open to other religions and believed them to be different paths to God, which is another principle of the Vedanta philosophy--the universality of religious truth. Since Merton already believed in much of the Vedantic principles, it’s no stretch to suggest, as the author does, that he should perhaps have followed that path more consciously.
The book is not actually anti-Catholic so much as anti-organized religion. It is true that some of the author’s views on Catholicism, derived from his own Catholic upbringing, are reflected here, but that does not obscure the truth-content that gives this novel its force. Along the way we find that the truth about Merton becomes the truth about many other things as well, among them--the nature of spirituality, itself; what religion has become in our age; and why Eastern philosophy has attracted so many people in the last 40 years with Thomas Merton himself one of the forerunners! Merton, like many of us, not finding in Christianity what we are looking for, have turned to Eastern philosophies for answers and spiritual sustenance.
To conclude: if Thomas Merton was a spiritual master, then "The Death of Thomas Merton, a Novel" should not have been written. But, if he wasn't a true mystic or spiritual master, it is a serious offence to present him as such and the truth should be told. We invite the discerning reader to be the judge.
* pp. 279-281
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