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Book Review: a Seven Day Journey With Thomas Merton by Esther De Waal

by Peter Menkin  
1/18/2009 / Book Reviews

Helpful meditation-retreat for going into the heart with God:

Today, again, I asked myself during centering prayer, to let my heart be open to God. This is the Christocentric God of the Trinity about which I speak. The book, "A Seven Day Journey with Thomas Merton" by Esther de Waal is an excellent exercise for home retreat that helps one come to opening the heart to God. The book does so in words, and it has photographs by Thomas Merton.

Irregardless, through the words or by looking at the photographs, one can find a way of looking at the world in the everyday and finding God. Set out as a seven day journey, take the book kindly and give it attention during the day, setting aside the time to go into the retreat. In the notes on Thomas Merton, the writer says, "The message of love, the primacy of love, this is the most basic definition of monastic life as Merton discovered it..."

Thomas Merton was a man who lived a life of love, learning so much about it and Esther de Waal, a Benedictine, is a good person to help us along the way with this love that Thomas Merton knew.

She asks questions in the days of the retreat. In day one, she asks, "Who am I before God at this point in my life?" She goes on in an intimate way, teaching us to become intimate with God: "...I am overawed to think of the person that I am, that unique person, so lovingly created by God in all the fullness and riches of my own individuality, a person made to be His daughter, His son." Is this too close for some readers (what I think is these are starting points for considerations). So, as to being too close, I think not; the book is personal. If the reader has a starting point of relationship with God, and is not afraid to explore both the sensitive and open areas of relationships, he or she will find these more meaningful statements as time goes on. This is a book to be used more than once, is what becomes apparent.

Another thing this book helps with is the way of contemplation. As she quotes Thomas Merton, using his poetry throughout the book, we have a guide to help us in our spiritual exercise and quest. On "Day Three--The Solitary Within: The True Self" Merton is quoted: "What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?" From Psalm 139 she quotes a response for this retreat exercise. "For it was you who created my being/knit me together in my mother's womb/I thank you for the wonder of my being,/for the wonders of all your creation."

"Day Four--Encounter With Christ" is the fourth day, and the central day of the retreat. Remember,this book is a retreat for seven days read a chapter at a time, day by day. The great gift Merton offers readers is a sharing of his experience in contemplation, his spiritual journey, and mostly his coming to know God. The book is kept under the section of books for "Spirituality/Prayer" and those interested will find that they too are with "..the Christ of God who in the spirit of his love lives in the people of God..." This is a book that is open to the reader, and open to people who are seekers of God who desire to pray. This is a prayerful book, need I say.

How religious is this book? I ask the question so that you as a reader will know that this is a book that is approachable. It "answers" the statement by John Cassian, in his "Conferences" which I am now reading about the relationship with God that a seeker may look for in his life. Even the advanced who are spiritually inclined will find this an approachable book by this measure of Cassian's: "...We ought to know where we should fix our mind's attention and to what goal we should always recall our soul's gaze." That can be an advanced question for many of us, and this book is helpful in meeting the statement's intent for one's life. This is a book that has life moving possibilities, one step at a time.

I would be missing a significant aspect of this book if I did not mention the photographs by Thomas Merton. One can say that one has seen his photographs, if one reads this book. Something worthwhile for an educated person in the 21st century. If you are a reader of the journal "Weavings" you may come to Thomas Merton's photographs better prepared for seeing the contemplative in everyday things. The Journal is a quarterly series of articles from Upper Room publications on such topics. "A Seven Day Journey with Thomas Merton" does a comprehensive job of helping one to see. Thomas Merton sees things in his world, and one must look at the photographs and then make the connection with the common things of ones world and life. That for me is a good entry point of understanding these photographs in a book that is a retreat.

A commentary on Thomas Merton by a woman who is well prepared and able to make such commentary, essentially this book is her interpretation of Merton's writings set as a retreat for people at home or use in a retreat setting away from home. With a foreword by Henri Nouwen, and photographs by Thomas Merton (including a most intriguing one of him next to a cross -- large, large one) on the cover, the title by Esther de Waal is published by Servant Publications of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I listened to a webcast some years ago, from Trinity Church in New York if memory is correct, when a woman editor with Publisher's Weekly said that one of the things that competed with Church life was good reading -- in other words books. This is one of those books that can compete with a retreat time away from home, and for me that was the value of it. I could have the book at home, use it for study and prayer on a seven day course and come closer to God in my relationship with Him by the book. This book is a good thing in the world.

--Peter Menkin, Mill Valley, CA USA

Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA where he writes poetry. He is an Oblate of Immaculate Heart Hermitage, Big Sur, CA and that means he is a Camaldoli Benedictine. He is 64 years of age as of 2010.

Copyright Peter Menkin

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