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Progymnasmata

No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton

Rating: 7 votes, 5.00 average.
This post was originally made in the "Write a Book Review" form.

No Man Is an Island is collection of short, spiritual essays that often (but not always) revolve around monastic life. The author, Thomas Merton, was a Trappist Monk living at the Abbey of Gethsemani when he wrote this book.

Here is picture of Merton:



And here is a picture of the Abbey of Gethsemani:



The topic of each essay almost inevitably revolves around a single or group of virtues. "Love Can Be Kept Only by Being Given Away," "Asceticism and Sacrifice," "The Measure of Charity," "Mercy," "The Inward Solitude," and "Silence" are some of the titles of the essays in this volume.

Each essay follows a general pattern of defining the principle virtue and showing how one can develop the virtue on a spiritual trajectory from ignorance to understanding, to philosophical understanding, to application, to theological understanding, to theological application. I'll admit that I'm not a spiritual dogmatist, so the latter sections of these essays, when Merton ties the virtue into the beliefs of the Catholic church were less interesting to me than the earlier sections.

But I really enjoyed this little book: Merton's style and honesty are fresh and vital. His prose is calming. I came to his page hoping for a drink of spiritual spring water. And I wasn't disappointed.

And while this probably wasn't what Merton intended, it was his beautiful writing and inquiry into understanding the virtues that create a calm soul that, to me, were the most meditative and spiritually refreshing. Here are some of the many gems to be found in No Man Is an Island:

On the search for meaning . . . .
Our life, as individual persons and as members of a perplexed and struggling race, provokes us with the evidence that it must have meaning.
That freedom must have purpose. . .
Conscience is the soul of freedom, its eyes, its energy, its life. Without conscience, freedom never knows what to do with itself. And a rational being who does not know what to do with himself finds the tedium of life unbearable. Just as love does not find its fulfillment merely in loving blindly, so freedom wastes away when it merely "acts freely" without any purpose.
That love of humanity must be rooted in something more than abstraction. . . .(For Merton, G-d is not an abstraction)
Do not ask me to love my brother merely in the name of an abstraction --"society," the "human race," the "common good." Do not tell me that I ought to love him because we are both "social animals." These things are so much less than the good that is in us that they are not worth to be invoked as motives of human love. You might as well ask me to love my mother because she speaks English.
On truth. . .
There is no truth in pride. If our knowledge is true, then it ought to make us humble. If humble, holy.
On the challenge of our time. . .
The whole problem of our time is not lack of knowledge but lack of love.
I like that last one a lot. Good night LitNet!

Love,

The Comedian

Updated 05-04-2010 at 08:57 AM by The Comedian

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Comments

  1. applepie's Avatar
    I've never read this, but it sounds like I could learn a thing or two from him. This might just find its way onto my list of things to read.
  2. Buh4Bee's Avatar
    Comedian- this sounds really good! I have written it down and in an ideal world will actually have the energy to read it. thanks for sharing.
  3. Virgil's Avatar
    Sounds like somnething I would enjoy reading. Last time you reviewed something from Merton it motivated me to pick something up and I did - I picked up his collection of poetry. And while he's not known as one of the 20th century greats (at least he was never mentioned in college) I have to say his poetry seemed quite good. It was only a quick cursory flip through, but I was impressed. If I see this book around, I will pick it up. Thanks Comedian.

    By the way, that monastery looks beautiful. Where is that located? It can't be in Isreal. Looks nothing like the real garden of Gethsemani.
  4. The Comedian's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil
    By the way, that monastery looks beautiful. Where is that located? It can't be in Isreal. Looks nothing like the real garden of Gethsemani.
    You'll hardly believe this: It's in Kentucky. Seriously. I think he's buried there too.

    To your other points: I'm glad that you've picked up Merton; I've wanted to read his poetry, so I'll probably pick up a volume of it at sometime. He's a really good writer and I suspect that he deep religious connections keep his work from being seen as literature and more as "religious" writing.

    You'll like his stuff even more if you have Catholic leanings, which, (correct me if I'm wrong) I think you do.
  5. Virgil's Avatar
    Yes, there is a reaction to religious writers unfortunately. Good writing is good writing, and it shouldn't matter the subject if one is studying the writer.

    Yes, i do have Catholic leanings.

    And that does look like the Kentucky hillside. Actually I'm not surprised. I've seen a monastery or two located in Kentucky. I wonder why.
  6. applepie's Avatar
    Kentucky is an odd place for a monastery, but I suppose there is plenty of open ground to build on. I love Kentucky myself, and now that you mention it, I can see it. There are lots of sprawling green fields, some fenced and full of horses, but it is very beautiful.
  7. Lote-Tree's Avatar
    I am attracted to the life of quiet contemplation, reflection and meditation. I think I will feel at home in that kind of lifestyle. I could easily spend all my days walking the beautiful countryside as shown in the picture and grow my own things in my patch of the woods.

    However I don't think I could do the religious side of this kind of existence...
  8. The Comedian's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Lote-Tree
    I am attracted to the life of quiet contemplation, reflection and meditation.
    Maybe they could make a video game about this: the slow, quiet, reflective sort of game? (<-- kidding)

    Really, I'm totally with you Lote. There are many times in which a monastic life of contemplation, reading, and silence are highly appealing to me.

    It's the celibacy part that makes me wonder. . . do they still have indulgences?
  9. The Comedian's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil
    Yes, there is a reaction to religious writers unfortunately. Good writing is good writing, and it shouldn't matter the subject if one is studying the writer.
    Indeed. I often feel that any writer who gets grouped into anything other than mainstream "literature" (environmental writers, religious writers, science fiction writers, comics creators. ..) seem to pegged as spokesmen/women for their material and not rightly praised for their writing abilities.

    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil
    Yes, i do have Catholic leanings.
    Well, I didn't want to presume too much. . .
  10. Lote-Tree's Avatar
    Maybe they could make a video game about this: the slow, quiet, reflective sort of game? (<-- kidding)
    --------------

    lol :-)

    I am however looking forward to total immersion computer gaming where you can completely immerse yourself in the computer generated enviroments. We could be in Pandora like in Avatar, exploring it's rich environments or we could be in Venice riding a Gondola, or sitting on mount Everest :-)

    There are endless possibilities.... :-)

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    It's the celibacy part that makes me wonder.
    ----------

    I think yes. You still need to be celibate to be a monk.

    ------------
    . . do they still have indulgences?
    ------------

    You mean do they have wet dreams? ;-)

    Probably they do because of biological necessity...

    But I don't know.

    Dalai Lama in an interview said there are some techniques to supress sexual urges...