Review: A Book of Hours by Thomas Merton

By Anna Foote

I think of Thomas Merton first as a writer—he did leave us plenty of books. Second, I think of him as an activist, engaged in conversation with the world around him; his stance against the Vietnam War comes to mind.

But with these images, I overlook the life he chose when he was 26 years old, when he walked through the gates of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, when he chose to become a cloistered monk.

As a monk, Merton entered into a life of contemplation. I was reminded of this recently, when I ran across a lovely new book of his words, A Book of Hours, edited by Kathleen Deignan. She explains why Merton drew her into this project of finding and organizing his words for daily prayer.

“The experiential contact with the Living God encompassed Merton on all sides: in the glories of nature, the pathos of society in the stimulating conversations with countless dialogue partners across the planet, and in the monastic liturgy of ceaseless prayer,” she writes.

It is this monastic liturgy of ceaseless prayer that the book evokes; it offers an invitation to slow down—an act so essential this time of year—and pray as monks have for centuries. With entries for Sunday through Saturday, this Book of Hours gives readers words for contemplation and prayer four times per day: at dawn, day, dusk, and dark.

Craving silence and slowness, I entered into prayer with Merton. Pausing four times a day to make a short prayer went a long way in slowing me down, but the experience was enhanced by Deignan’s choices from his books.

Dawn:
We are what we love. If we love God, in whose image we were created, we discover ourselves in him and we cannot help being happy…
(Merton, from The Waters of Siloe, Deignan’s choice for Tuesday’s Reading)

Day:
Set me free from the laziness that goes about disguised as activity when activity is not required of me…
(Merton, from New Seeds of Contemplation, Deignan’s choice for Wednesday’s Kyrie)

Dusk:
The contemplative life is then the search for peace not in an abstract exclusion of all outside reality, not in a barren negative closing of the senses upon the world, but in the openness of love.
(Merton, from The Hidden Ground of Love, Deignan’s choice for Friday’s Epistle)

Dark:
I have prayed to You in the daytime with thoughts and reasons, and in the nighttime You have confronted me, scattering thought and reason.
(Merton, from The Sign of Jonas, Deignan’s choice for Saturday’s Psalm)

Praying with these words led me to a deeper understanding of Merton as contemplator: He could write, argue, protest because he grounded himself in prayer.

And with this grounding, he was aware he could offer all of us a path into the contemplative’s life, a realization that flowers in his Final Benediction:

I hope these few words from me will be of some help. I send you all my blessings and I join you in your happiness. I am glad to have had some small part in God’s work for you.
(Merton, from The Hidden Ground of Love)

You can find A Book of Hours here.

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