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Featured Book for April 2022

The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton

by Sophfronia Scott

WINNER of the 2021 Thomas Merton Award awarded by The International Thomas Merton Society

What if we truly belong to each other? What if we are all walking around shining like the sun?

Mystic, monk, and activist Thomas Merton asked those questions in the twentieth century. Writer Sophfronia Scott is asking them today.

In The Seeker and the Monk, Scott mines the extensive private journals of one of the most influential contemplative thinkers of the past for guidance on how to live in these fraught times.

As a Black woman who is not Catholic, Scott both learns from and pushes back against Merton, holding spirited, and intimate conversations on race, ambition, faith, activism, nature, prayer, friendship, and love. She asks: What is the connection between contemplation and action? Is there ever such a thing as a wrong answer to a spiritual question? How do we care about the brutality in the world while not becoming overwhelmed by it?

By engaging in this lively discourse, readers will gain a steady sense of how to dwell more deeply within–and even to love–this despairing and radiant world.

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Community Questions

The Seeker and the Monk Community Questions by Claudia Love Mair

Week 1

  1. Sophfronia became a soul friend of Thomas Merton while engaging his writings. What is your experience of reading Merton?
  1. In the chapter "This Monk Who Follows Me Around," Sophfronia quotes Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: "Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand." p. 4. The monastic view on paradise is that it's here, rather than some far away idea. If paradise is here and now, how can you practice it in the midst of a pandemic, climate crisis, racial injustice, and all the struggles of daily living?
  1. In chapter 3, "Alexa, Where's My Stuff," Sophfronia writes that the key to living with few possessions is letting go of what you think you need. p.27. Examine the possessions you think you need. After some reflection share what it is that you really need, and why.

Week 2

  1. Sophfronia engages Thomas Merton as a writer in chapter 3, "Your Work and God's Work." She challenges Merton regarding his conflict around his internal struggles with ego, ambition, and overwork. On page 39 she asks, "Thomas, I wonder, Is it wise to starve the monster even as you hold it off?" Many of us share Merton's same struggles, as well as many others. Name a struggle you have--monster--that you find difficult to accept and would rather starve instead?
  1. In chapter 3, "Your Work and God's Work," Sophfronia quotes Merton as saying, "I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself--and if I accept myself fully in the right way I will have already surpassed myself. For it is the unaccepted self that stands in my way--and will continue to do so as long as it is not accepted. When it has been accepted--it is my own stepping stone to what is above me." p. 44. In your experience what is the right way to practice self-acceptance?
  1. Sophfronia describes her experience of following the call to go deep into the forest on her visit to the abbey at Gethsemani in chapter 6. She writes, "I didn't know how far I was going, and it didn't matter--I had surrendered to whatever would come next." p. 56. Describe a time when you surrendered to whatever came next. What came up for you as you found yourself yielding to the divine?

Week 3

  1. There is a beautiful passage on page 60 that begins with, "I feel closest to the earth after the rain..." Once you've read it, it won't be hard to understand how the experience Sophfronia describes would be exhilarating, but what do you think it being devastating would look like?
  1. On page 66, in the chapter "When Faith Tires," Sophfronia describes Merton's 4th Street epiphany about the interconnectedness of humans. After this expansive revelation he later expressed disdain for going into the city. p.67. Sophfronia writes, "Part of me wants to say, 'What the heck, Thomas?' But I also understand." How do we anchor our epiphanies about life's beauties and grace within ourselves in a way that might endure and sustain us?
  1. In 2020 4th Street, the very area where Merton had his epiphany, was the location of an uprising of protests in response to the killing of Breonna Taylor. Merton was ahead of his time as a white man using his platform to draw attention to systemic racism. Post a few sentences you think he would say about Black Lives Matter.

Week 4

  1. On page 142 Sophfronia recounts Merton meeting with a black priest, August Thompson, who was berated by his bishop for speaking out against the oppression black parishioners regularly endured. Merton encouraged Father Thompson to take into account how the unjust actions were shaped by centuries of prejudice and injustice. After initially viewing Merton advice as condescending, Dr. Scott changed her position to seeing Merton's remedy as a way for Father Thompson to first take care of his heart. How do you view Merton's advice? What do you agree with? What would you challenge?
  1. Chapter 10 explores the topic of love. Beginning on page 161, Sophfronia writes, "Just as Merton often berated himself for his reckless behavior as a young man, for careless words or thoughts, and even for not being productive enough in his solitude, so many of us do the same." She encourages us to forgive ourselves, but looking at our flawed, imperfect human natures is messy work. How do you navigate the messy in order to forgive yourself?
  1. Remembering your death daily--memento mori--is an important practice in the monastic tradition. Sophfronia devotes chapter 11 to exploring this practice. On page 167 she writes about the "tangled paradox" she experiences around death. What comes up for you when you consider your mortality?