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Thomas Merton and Adolescents

 March 11, 2021

Thomas Merton and Adolescents – Book Review of Authenticity, Passion and Advocacy: Approaching Adolescent Spirituality from the Life and Wisdom of Thomas Merton, by Thomas Malewitz

I happened upon Thomas Malewitz’s book, Authenticity, Passion and Advocacy, while in my parish’s adoration chapel. I was immediately intrigued. What did Merton have to say about adolescents?

Thomas Merton’s Genius

Thomas Merton is one of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th Century. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, hit the best seller list in 1949 and continued to sell well throughout Merton’s life and beyond. He wrote books, collections of poetry and essays throughout his life and also many correspondences, including with adolescents and young adults, as Malewitz tells us. There were even more books written about him and his writings.

I love Merton’s writings, but not necessarily in large chunks at a time. I do better with quotes put into context by other writers. With the exception of Seven Story Mountain which is an easy read, his books require attention and thought and are not to be read through quickly. I have enjoyed reading through and praying through Esther deWaal’s Seven Day Retreat with Thomas Merton; James Finley’s, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere and Susan Zuercher’s, The Ground of Truth and Love – about Merton’s relationship with M. I also enjoyed Merton’s writings on nature in, When the Trees Say Nothing.

The Topic of Merton and Adolescents was a new one for me.

Merton and Adolescents

In my mind, I had this image of Thomas Merton, the monk, quietly and contentedly cloistered in his hermitage where he reflected on the world, church and social justice. Malewitz’s book introduced me to another side of Merton—a passionate man, seeking authenticity, leading others to authenticity, advocating for others and open to doubts. I particularly loved Malewitz’s selection of quotes.

About his writing, Merton said, “If it is so happened that I had written a best-seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naivete, and I would take very good care never to do it again.” I love this. As a writer who is far from a best-seller, this is a comforting thought. Maybe I’m better off without it! And yet, when asked for a statement about who he was, Merton self-identified as a writer.

Self-Discovery

I thought that once Merton’s journey of self-discovery led him to Gethsemani Abbey, as told in Seven Story Mountain, that his self-doubt and questioning about his place in life was over.  However that was not the case. Malewitz relates how Merton struggled with the thought of moving from Gethsemani many times in his life.

Merton recognized the importance of self-knowledge, part of the maturing process for adolescents. “We have to learn to communicate with ourselves before we can communicate with other men and with God. A man who is not at peace with himself necessarily projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him.” (No Man is an Island)

He was a passionate man, a trait shared with adolescents. “A voice says in m me—love, do trust love! Do not fear it, do not avoid it, do not take mere half-measure with it but love, believe in in, without any special program.”  (Journals)

Merton – A Catholic Myth

Merton was known to say he did not want to be turned into a Catholic myth. Perhaps that is the price of having written a best-seller. We can never truly know another person, no matter how many books are written about him. Just as we can never truly know ourselves. As Merton reminds us in his famous prayer:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.

We continue to learn from and about this man. Thomas Malewitz’s book is a welcome addition to this study. I recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this “Catholic Myth.”


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