Monday, March 07, 2005

Thomas Merton, Run to the Mountain: the Story of a Vocation, 1996. (Vol. 1 of Merton's Journals)

I took the first volume of Merton's journals with me to Cuba because of a 150-odd page section in the middle of it: Brother Patrick Hart calls it the "Cuban Interlude." It's a description of what Cuba was like for Merton when he visited it, some 65 years ago, and I thought it would be a neat thing to reread while I was in Cuba.

What was startling was how true some of Merton's pointed observations remain to this day. One of the most striking of these remarks was his comment that a view of some part of Cuba from a distance looks lush, and tropical and vibrant--and that the promise is invariably better than what that place looks like up close. It's hardly fair for me to generalize that statement to what things are like now--I visited Holguin during the middle of a rather depressing drought--but what I saw agrees, and quite a number of other people have made similar remarks to me.

Merton visited some 19 years before the 26th of July movement succeeded, and so his experience was well before the socialism that currently holds sway over the country. He describes a Cuba that is focused on goals: building a stronger, more palatable existence with the help of the United States. It's not so different a time from now, as Cuba builds a solid existence without the Soviet subsidies that supported it despite the American embargo. He depicts an earlier but not a simpler time: I envy the ability that he had to widely travel,and to get a feel for what life was like in Cuba. The only problem for me is that he's so terribly and morally earnest: he feels the need to keep his Catholicism and his enthusiasm for it solidly in the foreground of his writing. What's otherwise a fascinating travelogue is marred by the intensity of this focus; because I was reading this section for the parts about Cuba, I found it frustrating in ways that, when reading to learn about Merton's life-development, I hadn't previously encountered.

The non-Cuban sections of the journal, in New York City and then at St. Bonaventure's, as Merton prepares to enter the monastery are as thrillingly intimate as ever. This is a book I can come back to time and time again, thrilled to learn even more about Merton's life, and piecing together tidbits of information into a coherent understanding of how his life actually came together.

I'm always happy to recommend Merton: if you can get past the off-putting-ness of his earnest-ness, this book is a great read. All seven volumes of the journals are great reads, for that matter: the real trick for me now is going to be resisting the urge to reread the next six.