Thomas Merton and The Oblate’s Confession

Thomas Merton4Now that the book’s official launch date is nearly upon us, I’m enjoying the unusual experience of being interviewed by a lot of different people in several different media. One question I’m getting asked regularly is which book, if any, most influenced my decision to write The Oblate’s Confession?

Truth be told, of course, any number of books, going back I suppose all the way to Dick and Jane, have influenced my writing, but if I had to point to one single volume that more than any other started me on the journey that ended in The Oblate’s Confession, that book would be Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It amounts to a journal of the years leading up to and then following Merton’s ordination to the priesthood in the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (often referred to as “Trappists”). There is a long passage at the end of the book, the “Fire Watch” section, that many—including this writer—consider among the finest pieces of writing produced in America in the last hundred years.

But in addition to the beautiful writing, Merton’s descriptions of the monastic life in general and the practice of contemplative prayer in particular lit a sort of fire in me to know and experience more of both. I began to go on retreats to a Cistercian monastery in the Shenandoah Valley (Our Lady of the Holy Cross Abbey). I began to read everything I could get my hands on about monasticism and contemplative prayer. I began to try to pray contemplatively myself. I converted (as Merton himself had) to Roman Catholicism. And, slowly but surely, I began to daydream a novel into existence.

Thomas Merton died tragically in Bangkok in 1968. Ironically, the body of this monk who had been criticized for his anti-war activism was flown back to the U.S. on a military transport returning from Vietnam. The world still misses him. I owe him a great deal. He changed my life.

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