Tuesday, April 14, 2009

FW: Two recent reviews of “Living With Wisdom”

From: Jim Forest <jhforest@gmail.com>
Sent: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 2:22 AM
To: OPF List <opf-l@earlham.edu>
Subject: Two recent reviews of "Living With Wisdom"

Two recent reviews of "Living With Wisdom."

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America magazine / April 20-27, 2009.

A Monk's Life; Earth's Life

Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (Revised Edition)
By Jim Forest
Orbis Books. 262p $22 (paperback)

As a Jesuit novice making a 30-day retreat many years ago, I was
happy to stumble across a book in the retreat house library called
Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biography, written by Jim Forest and
published by Paulist Press in 1979. A clearly written, short biog-
raphy of the Trappist monk's life, accompanied by photographs, it
introduced me through words and images to the world of Thomas
Merton in a way that his own writings had not.

Twelve years later, Forest, a friend of Merton's (it was to him
that Merton wrote his famous "Letter to a Young Activist") and a
founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, revised the book and
published it with Orbis Books as Living With Wisdom: A Life
of Thomas Merton.

Now, to mark the 40th anniversary of his friend's accidental death,
Forest has again revised the text, and Orbis has added many more
photographs, with the result that this is the best short introduction
to the life of Thomas Merton that you will find.

Forest has an unadorned style that propels the reader through the
remarkable story of perhaps the most influential of all 20th-
century Catholics. (His nearest "competition" Fulton Sheen). The
black-and-white photos add to his tale. It is one thing to read about
young Tom tomcatting around Columbia University in the 1930s;
it's another to see a photo of him arm in arm with his college pals,
trying to look cool. As you move through his life, you can see
Merton growing paradoxically older (more lines on his face, less
hair on his head) and younger (more alive, less confused).

Forest is especially good on Merton's influence on the peace and
nonviolence movements in the 1960s, and on his anguished romantic
relationship with "Margie," the young nurse he meets during a
hospital stay near the end of his life.

Living With Wisdom
does not aim to be a scholarly biography like
the magisterial Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, by Michael
Mott, but if you want a short, lively, accessible introduction to
M. Louis Merton, O.C.S.O., for yourself or for friends, this is it.

-- James Martin

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The Most Accessible Yet Discerning
Account of Merton's Life and Work

Ordinarily a revised edition of a book that is fairly well known hardly
merits yet another review. However that is not the case with this
expanded, updated and beautifully designed (by Roberta Savage)
biography of Thomas Merton, by Jim Forest. The first version was in
1979, then a further, larger one in 1991, and now this latest edition
timed for the 40th anniversary of Merton's death, commemorated on
December 10, 2008.

The revised edition is to the best of my knowledge, the largest and the
richest collection of photos of Thomas Merton published in one
volume. It accompanies one of the most accessible yet discerning
accounts of his life and work, crafted by Jim Forest. There are other
photo collections, such as the out-of-print Hidden Wholeness, and of
course, the most comprehensive biographical effort is Michael Mott's
The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. Yet Living with Wisdom
possesses an intimacy and vision unmatched in other publications.

Jim Forest knew Thomas Merton — a number of the photos,
particularly in Merton's hermitage — were taken by Jim. And Jim is a
most skillful biographer, as this and other of his efforts attest.

In fact, when you leaf through it, you immediately realize that many
elements combine to produce a singular volume. The sheer number of
photos, many previously unpublished, document the entire sweep of
Merton's fascinating life. Finally it is good to see the faces of Amiya
Chakravarty, D.T. Suzuki and Merton's old guru the monk
Bramachari, also Jacques Maritain, Dom Jean Leclerq, Thich Nhat
Hanh, the Dalai Lama, among others whom Merton treasured.

Not only in the photos but also in Forest's introduction there is a rare
encounter with the energy, the hilarity, the restlessness of the person
that Merton was. Forest's first sight was of a monk rolling on the
floor, convulsed in laughter! Likewise, I treasure Merton's comments
about his great love for beer, that he drinks as much as he can get his
hands on — an admission that for me, balances everything else he says
about reading the psalms, the liturgical services, his hermitage quiet as
ideal for prayer and the spiritual life in general.

Somehow the photos are a visual counterpart to these accounts of
Merton's humanity. Whether smiling or concentrated on a text, this is
the face of someone I wanted to know, immensely interesting, as the
Dalai Lama said, "deep." One photo is incorrectly captioned, the one
on p. 218. It shows not the Trappistine nuns at Redwoods, California
but the Precious Blood sisters in Eagle River, Alaska, to whom
Merton gave a retreat on his way to the Far East.

The photos alone would make for a splendid book, but the core of
the volume is, as indicated, Forest's lively biographical portrait,
generously interlaced with quotations from Merton's writings. Though
included in other publications, the self-assessment of his own
authorship by Merton in 1967 is revealing and there is a photo of
the graph he constructed himself adds greatly to the narrative.

In his new afterword, Jim Forest notes the now notorious decision by
then Bishop Donald Wuerl to omit Merton's profile in an American
Catholic Catechism because, among other reasons, "the generation we
are speaking to had no idea who he [Merton] was," and because the
"details of his searching at the end of his life" were uncertain. The
facts, as Forest reminds us, make these charges ridiculous and

Most of Merton's books remain in print over a half century after their
original publications. The number of new books about him or new
editions of his books and correspondence increases every year. Amply
documented accounts of his commitment to monastic life and
priesthood in the Catholic Church are available and have been now for
years — not to mention the testimony of fellow monks such as Frs.
John Eudes Bamberger, Matthew Kelty and Brother Patrick Hart, to
mention only a few.

I began reading Thomas Merton when I was 13. I am now 60. To
describe his shaping of my life is beyond the limits of this review, but
I want to affirm his importance to me as a teacher, a critic, a prophet,
and above all a man of prayer, as Evagrius Ponticus says, a "true

To say that I grew up with Merton's writing, pursued a vocation to
religious life, later to marriage, academic work and the priesthood is to
simply acknowledge the ways in which his life and work shaped my
own. And in saying this, I am giving voice to the experience of
thousands, in many different churches and religious traditions or
outside these.

The title of this book comes from Merton himself, who in Dancing in
the Waters of Life, wrote: "What more do I see than this silence, this
simplicity, this 'living together with wisdom.' " Readers of Merton
may immediately connect the mysterious feminine figure "Proverb,"
a young woman who appeared in his dreams.

He later connected her with Sophia, the Wisdom of God, with the
Mother of God, with Christ the Wisdom of God, and with every
creature who is a child of God. Someone to whom I gave an anthology
of Merton's writings as a gift admitted that reading him now, many
years after first doing so, she discovered that he had grown up,
deepened—or perhaps she had.

For those who know Merton, for those yet to make his acquaintance,
Jim Forest's book will I think, offer the same realization. Something,
it seems to me, Fr. Louis would smile at and approve.

– Michael Plekon, Cistercian Quarterly

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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

home: (31)(72) 515-4180 / mobile (31)(6) 510-11-250

Jim & Nancy site: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
In Communion site: www.incommunion.org
photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
revised, expanded edition of "Living With Wisdom: a biography of Thomas Merton":
revised, expanded, all-color edition of "Praying With Icons":
"The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life":
"Silent as a Stone," a children's book about a community of rescuers in Paris:

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On Pilgrimage:

A Tale of Two Kidneys:
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