Book Review: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, by Thomas Merton

If you're not familiar with Thomas Merton, he was a Trappist monk, living during the first half of the twentieth century. NO MAN IS AN ISLAND is one of many books that he wrote, and a rather obscure one at that: he's predominately known for The Seven Storey Mountain and the printed volumes of his journals, but ISLAND is the only one I've read (so far--I suspect that this is about to change).

Now, when you're a monk in, say, Kentucky, like Merton, you probably have quite a bit of time to reflect on things like God and prayer and mercy and faith (or maybe you don't--I hear that monks work quite a bit in certain traditions, though I don't know about the Trappists), and so I'd bet that your "reflections" are worth more, spiritually, that those of an ex-NBA player who got religion during a midlife/post-retirement crisis and then felt compelled to write a bestseller--though, again, I don't know. But I'd be willing to bet that this is true.

In Merton's case, it's certainly true that his reflections carry a lot of weight, and deserve an awful lot of thought. To illustrate this, I might mention that it took me something like eight months to make it through this book. Eight months, for a girl who tends to plow through novels this length (264-pages) in under a week, depending on how absorbing the plot is--granted, there were weeks when I didn't pick ISLAND up at all, but there were also weeks when I dropped novels in favor of Merton.

See, NO MAN IS AN ISLAND is a series of chapters, each titled as a subject, like "Sentences on Hope," or "Pure Intention," or "Silence", and each chapter is filled with numbered segments of a few paragraphs apiece that examine aspects of the subject. Merton starts out relatively mild, I suppose, but by the end of the book the insights come fast and heavy--for the last fifteen or twenty pages, I could only take it one segment at a time, because the concepts covered were so vast. Some were no more than a prayer, others were terrible and convicting, and all were beautifully, gorgeously written. There is no way that I understood even a fourth of what Merton packed into this small book, but what I did grasp, however vaguely, was liberating. NO MAN IS AN ISLAND is a beautiful book, and not one to be passed over in favor of something easier to digest--just try it, please do.

I close with a little tidbit for you:
Whoever seeks to catch Him and hold Him loses Him. He is like the wind that blows where it pleases. You who love Him must love Him as arriving from where you do not know and as going where you do not know. Your spirit must seek to be as clean and as free as His own Spirit, in order to follow Him wherever He goes. Who are we to call ourselves clean or free, unless He makes us so?

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