Festivals/Seasons & Holy Days

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John Moses’ new book looks at the life and thought of Thomas Merton from a new angle. Despite living the highly structured, outwardly quiet life of a Cistercian monk, Merton’s hunger for knowledge of God and of himself was driven, Moses suggests, by a kind of Godly restlessness, or ‘divine discontent’ (p. ix). Merton’s great energy for prayer, writing, and human relating owed something, says Moses, to his sense of the incompleteness of things, and the need to keep working and struggling in the face of a troubled world.

Divine Discontent stands out among the myriad literature on Merton as a well-researched, well-written, authoritative account of the great monk’s life. It would be a good companion for anyone seeking to learn about Merton for the first time, and also for the many who have already read something of Merton and are looking for an intelligent and refreshing way in. The book has been beautifully produced by Bloomsbury, and includes some well-placed photographs of Merton and the environment in which he lived.

Those who are more familiar with Merton might come away from the book wishing that some of the more biographical sections had instead been devoted to developing Moses’ ideas about divine discontent. So much has been written about the events of Merton’s life, but relatively little work has looked deeply, as Moses begins to, at the anxieties and nervous energy that energised Merton’s dance with the Spirit. The pages Moses spends on Merton’s fragile mental health, for example, have the special merit of telling the much-told Merton story in a way that casts provocative new light on the subject. Having enjoyed the groundwork laid down in Divine Discontent, I would be keen to read more of Moses’ reflections on how restless energy, as well as contemplative stillness, can nourish our life with God.

Philip Seal

University of Oxford