Book review – ‘The Seeker and the Monk’ by Sophfronia Scott
Publisher: Broadleaf (Minneapolis) 2021
Sophfronia Scott explores her fascination with Thomas Merton – American monk, writer and thinker, who died in 1968.
When I started to read Sophfronia Scott’s recently published book ‘The Seeker and the Monk’ I was worried that the content was going to be too religious for me. Whilst I knew of Thomas Merton, I had no great desire to understand him further. Consequently, I was curious and slightly apprehensive as I saw the title of the opening chapter ‘This monk who follows me around’. However, as I started to read it became apparent to me that Sophfronia Scott’s writing and observations were both profound and thought provoking.
Scott is a wordsmith and a writer and like many writers she reads voraciously. Over the past decade she has read much of Thomas Merton’s output, including diaries and letters, which is very impressive because he wrote a huge amount of stuff. ‘The Seeker and the Monk’ is a series of imagined conversations or interactions between Scott and Merton on a whole range of contemporary subjects including faith, love, ambition, race and loyalty.
The style of the book is light and engaging. I found it easy to read. Scott quotes Merton struggling with his failure to be a ‘good enough monk’ and offers to be Lucy to his Charlie Brown (Peanuts) with Scott as Lucy offering medical advice to Merton for ‘5 cents please’. A genuine offer of help across the decades to a struggling man.
Like all well-crafted books it can be read in many different ways and at many different levels. For example, discussion of faith and pilgrimage can be considered in a purely religious way, in terms of belief, or it can be considered in a secular way, in terms of mindfulness and appreciation. When Scott visits Gethsemani, the abbey where Merton lived as a monk for many years she describes a walk in the countryside in a way that can be linked to prayer or pilgrimage but also to a heightened awareness and appreciation of our surroundings.
As I progressed through the chapters, I found myself thinking of the book as a handbook or even a guide book for the soul. A source of contemplative thinking that can be dipped into at will. It reminded me of the ‘vade mecum’ of the 17th century – a little handbook or guide kept constantly at one’s side to be consulted regularly.
Scott keeps the content of the book engaging with references to films, including Moonstruck with Nicholas Cage and Cher, where Cage, talking about love says, ‘Love doesn’t make things easy. It breaks our hearts; it’s messy. We’re here to love all the wrong people and die’. Scott also deals unflinchingly with the usual human preoccupations of life, love and death. There’s a wonderful passage in the book where Scott describes a visit to the private hermitage of Thomas Merton, built in the woods in a very secluded spot to give ‘Mr Important Monk’ complete privacy. After a reading of Merton’s writing Scott feels his presence in the room. This reminds me of the Latin American writers who interweave the living and the dead into their narratives, as a completely natural extension of our own mortal existence. This blurring of real and imagined, between the worldly and the celestial has always defined my understanding of spirituality.
Scott doesn’t shy away from unpleasant human behaviour either. She discusses and comments on ambition, jealousy, resentment and guilt relating to both Merton’s writing and her own personal experiences. I found this forthright approach to life’s journey and the bumps along the road as both meaningful and helpful.
‘The Seeker and the Monk’ is a physical and spiritual meandering through the corridors of our existence. Whilst the pretext for the book is further discussion of the words and thoughts of Thomas Merton, I found Sophfronia Scott’s own words and interpretations to be more interesting and more poignant than the excerpts from the great man himself.
Verdict – this book is well written and accessible. It is most definitely worth a read.
- Thomas Merton – was an American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion. Best known work: The Seven Storey Mountain (1948)
- When Janet met Sophfronia….. a brief history of a friendship and our creations together
- The Writer’s Retreat 2019 – ‘The Write of Your Life’ Sept, 2019