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Day of a Stranger Paperback – 1981
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In much of Merton’s later writing, one sees the effort to identify and retrieve a meaningful idea of paradise joined to a fierce resistance to the increasing presence of “false paradises” within contemporary thought and practice. This is particularly clear in two important late essays, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” and Day of a Stranger, which frame the ideal of contemplative living as being both utterly “purposeless” and necessary to the work of social criticism and political resistance.
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This world is one that we recognise as readers on the outside, but can also appreciate the sometime strange interpretations that Merton puts on things. Merton's contemplation of the workaday world, of the jet planes flying overhead, and the other aspects of modern life contrast profoundly with the contemplation of the silence broken physically only by the sounds of the wind and the birds. However, the world is very present with Merton in other ways, as one discovers from his discussion on his 'mental ecology'. This includes a landscape that includes Rilke and Lao Tzu, Tertullian and Sartre, John of Salisbury and Flannery O'Connor.
'The spiritual life is something that people worry aout when they are so busy with something else they think they ought to be spiritual. Spiritual life is guilt.' These are strong words from Merton, but it contains an interesting truth - if we make spiritual life one more thing that has to be done, we miss an important point. If we do it because we 'ought' to do it, we start from the wrong standpoint, and thus likely cannot follow the right path.
Merton pokes gentle fun at his own practices and ideas of what religious life should be. He writes a brief sermon to birds, a very good one - but the response from the birds is that even this very good, very short two-sentence sermon was one sermon too many.
Merton included many black-and-white photos of the woods, the hermitage (which he insisted should be called a house rather than a hermitage), and the monastery. These include bookshelves, chairs and tables, slowly disintegrating wagon wheels, sunlight through the woods - his surroundings, but no pictures of people. This helps to convey the sense of silence.
Merton recognises that his day is very different from that of most who will read this text, wherever in the world they may be. His day is strange, and he is a stranger, to most of our lifestyles. Yet he is a welcome friend, an interesting character with which to compare and contrast our own thoughts and feelings. This is an excellent essay with which to begin the study of Merton, as well as a wonderful treat for those who already know his work.