Following in the Footsteps of Francis?
A Feature Review of
The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton: A New Look at the Spiritual Inspiration of His Life, Thought and Writing
Daniel Horan, O.F.M.
Paperback: Ave Maria Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Michelle E. Wilbert
In this engaging and accessible work by Daniel Horan, O.F.M., we are presented with an enthusiastic and insightful book that asserts that Thomas Merton—Trappist Monk, Mystic, and arguably the most influential spiritual writer of the late 20th century—was not only demonstrably influenced by the beloved medieval Saint Francis of Assisi but continued to be a Franciscan at heart, if not in his professed vocation. While Horan makes intriguing and correct connections to a vigorous Franciscan influence in Merton’s life and work, offering the strongest support in discussing his engagement, during the last decade of his life, with the social issues of the 1960’s, the author, currently a Ph.D student in systematic theology at Boston College, perhaps takes the premise too far, generating the impression of an attempt to obscure the overriding fact of Merton’s unwavering devotion to the life of a cloistered, and later solitary, monastic. This is however, a compelling book which stands as a very worthwhile addition to the Merton canon; it is well-researched, although some notable omissions might arouse a concern that there are “inconvenient truths” avoided out of a desire to shape the narrative in the desired direction—omissions that, in truth, might have made this a stronger book, not so much by detracting from the central thesis as possibly altering it to more closely conform with what was certainly closer to the truth—that the Franciscan intellectual and spiritual tradition were formative and exerted a subtle and occasionally more concrete influence on Merton’s evolving thought and work, yet neither eclipsed nor interrupted his commitment to the eremitical life—the life of solitude, prayer and contemplation he clearly discerned as his vocation in the earliest days of his Christian conversion. It is that vocation that was central to Merton’s mind and heart.