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Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free Hardcover – November 10, 2009
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“[This book] can only deepen and add weight to our respect for this scrupulous, devoted, and tormented man.” ―Ron Carlson, author of Five Skies
“An accurate portrayal of Thomas Merton. He had a great need for love.” ―Dr. Rudy Bernard, Merton's fellow monk at Gethsemani
“This book will provide people with a new view of the deeply human, but transcendent, love story of Thomas Merton--loving God and loving a woman. [It will be] a great contribution to the spiritual journey of thousands of people.” ―Dr. Lewis Rambo, Professor of Pastoral Psychology at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and conversion expert
“This book permits us to find what is inspirational about Merton--his strength and determination to overcome, and at times accept, his human frailness and vulnerability all while battling for self-discovery and solace.” ―Patrick Hasburgh, author of Aspen Pulp
About the Author
Mark Shaw is the author of fifteen books. He holds a Masters degree in theological studies and is a member of the International Thomas Merton Society. A former defense attorney and columnist for the Aspen Daily News, he has been a television legal analyst for ABC, CBS, and ESPN. He lives in East Lansing, Michigan.
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Top Customer Reviews
This book is trash. Not just because the "new" facts of Father Merton's life he presents are taken from the published works of many others, mostly from Father Merton's autobiography and journals. But because he uses the same, lazy formulaic approach to a famous man's life that others have used for known figures in order to make a quick buck. Padded with irrelevant allusions to historical events, endless repetition of facts from previous chapters, paraphrased paragraphs, pages and chapters from Seven Storey Mountain and other sources, breathless revelations that come as news to no Merton scholar or reader of Merton, and quotations liberally lifted from the painstaking research of others, the author likely thinks that the longer the book and longer the list of footnotes, the easier to defend himself as a serious scholar.
In the end, I had a good laugh over the book because I know that this work will not be taken seriously by anyone who has studied Father Merton or his work. Why? Because there is nothing new, insightful or original here. The book adds nothing revelatory to the cannon of scholarship about Merton.
But here is the real kicker. After excoriating Father Merton and everyone near him for hiding scandalous information about Father Merton's life, the author's main sources about "the real truth" is Thomas Merton's published journals!
The author flatters himself when he implies early on that fans of Father Merton will be scandalized, and likely pillory the author for speaking the unspoken. On that score I can only say, "Ho-hum."
Oh, and the writing is poor.
One star because I am not allowed to post no star.
The author purports to write "a complete portrayal of the true Merton....an unbiased account." But his biases practically leap off the page. He expresses admiration for Merton's writings, calling him "a gifted wordsmith" with "an outstanding body of work." But he doesn't seem to like the man himself. He refers to Merton as "the celebrity monk," "a poster boy for the Catholic Church," known for his "holier-than-thou writings." In his pre-monastic days, he was "a sinner of the first degree," who experienced the "depth of depravity."
Merton was often incredibly hard on himself, but Shaw gives him some competition, proclaiming him "spoiled, morally weak, ethically handicapped, narcissistic, deceptive, secretive, independent to a fault, and by all accounts, irresponsible."
Readers of The Seven Storey Mountain are said to have been "hoodwinked and misled," because of a "conspiracy" and "cover-up" perpetrated by Merton and his "enablers"--"a concerted effort to disguise a tormented sinner as some sort of plastic saint rehabilitated through monastic practices." Merton is seen as "the abused spouse in a marriage to Gethsemani and the Catholic Church," who remained "confused and tormented" throughout his monastic life, until he fell in love with Margie, "a sensual student nurse half his age." Their relationship, called a "wondrous, magical story" in one place, is referred to elsewhere as a "sordid affair."
Shaw's treatment of the Catholic Church and Merton's religious superiors is thoroughly negative and one-sided. While Merton may at times have felt like a prisoner, he was in fact free to walk away at any time, as countless others have done. He chose to stay, remaining a Catholic priest and a monk of Gethsemani for the rest of his life. As for Merton's complicated relationship with his abbot, Dom James showed his trust and respect for the monk by choosing him as his personal confessor. Weekly, for fifteen years, the abbot literally got down on his knees and confessed his sins to Merton. As Dom James said years later, "I knew he was the best."
In terms of style, the book is a curious mixture of term paper and pulp novel. Errors in syntax and word choice abound, and logical connections are often elusive. Some sentences are almost impossible to parse: "For pages on end, the character while writing in the summer of 1941 months before he entered Gethsemani, Merton addressed his uncle in adoring terms." And Merton would surely be amused to see his first confession referred to as "confessionary tribunals"!
More significantly, there are factual errors, along with many instances where the author has misread or mischaracterized passages from Merton's own journals. Despite hundreds of footnotes, the book is not even an accurate of the available details of the love affair itself.
The reality is that Merton actually saw Margie on very few occasions, all of them duly noted in his journals. So it is puzzling that Shaw cannot seem to keep track of when and where they met, and who else was present. His account certainly suggests that there were more private "interludes" than the evidence supports. Even after rereading portions of Beneath the Mask alongside a copy of Merton's journal, I continue to be baffled by some bits of Shaw's chronology. Such details might seem trivial, were it not for the fact that the author uses specific dates and passages from the journals to support his own conclusions about the nature of the relationship.
Finally, Merton's all-too-human weaknesses have hardly been a secret all these years. When I first heard about him back in the sixties, his youthful transgressions were pretty much understood to have included heavy drinking and an active sex life. (In those years, he was far more likely to be regarded as a dangerous radical than a plastic saint--especially by many Catholics.) Information that he had likely fathered a child has been out there since Edward Rice's book was published in 1970, and is acknowledged in the introductory notes to the 1998 edition of The Seven Storey Mountain.
Merton's love affair with Margie was written about in detail a quarter of a century ago by his official biographers: his close friend John Howard Griffin (Follow the Ecstasy, 1983), and Michael Mott (The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, 1984). Both accounts are balanced and well-written, as is Jim Forest's Living with Wisdom (1991, revised 2008). For Merton's own thoughts and feelings, there is no substitute for going directly to the source: his journal, Learning to Love.
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