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Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  589 ratings  ·  50 reviews
In this series of notes, opinions, experiences, and reflections, Thomas Merton examines some of the most urgent questions of our age. With his characteristic forcefulness and candor, he brings the reader face-to-face with such provocative and controversial issues as the “death of God,” politics, modern life and values, and racial strife–issues that are as relevant today as ...more
Paperback, 377 pages
Published 2014 by Image (first published 1966)
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Jan 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: theology, devotional
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is a dated but profound view of the 1960s from a contemplative monk. Certainly, Thomas Merton was one of the most famous of monastic writers during my lifetime and this book was both disturbing and encouraging as it resonated with some of my memories as a young boy. Merton takes on jingoism, materialism, and religiosity in powerful and effective ways. He even touches base with some of the great hurts in many people’s lives that are tied to religion. Yet, since t ...more
♥ Ibrahim ♥
Aug 26, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: spirituality
Just as the title says, the book is a bunch of "conjectures" by a brilliant mind who is a master of his field, which is theological "conjecturing". It does have some good nuggets and some things in it I could easily do without. Not too bad, not so good. A work of conjecturing!
Mar 09, 2011 added it
Trying to read this but might not make it. Merton's an insider talking to his particular issue/vocabulary/concern-defining group and I'm not sure I'm curious enough to keep peering through the murky windows as an outsider. Guess I'm more interested in the idea of him than in all his writings writings writings (of which there are quite a lot!) Really like the title tho - it's what drew me in.

I've decided to buy my own copy of this book, which has many wonderful gems tucked into the matrix of his
Aug 14, 2007 rated it it was ok
Although Merton prefaces the book by saying that this book is a random assortment of his journal entries and should be read as such, I was not expecting it to lack as much cohesion as it did. Many of his books seem to have this format, which I've grown accustomed to, but I just could not reconcile it as much in this. This made it hard to enjoy, and while there certainly are wonderful Merton nuggets in this work, it falls short because there also seems to be "filler"(for lack of a better word) wh ...more
Jan 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I won this book from GoodReads.
This book is a collection of short stories, reflections on life, essays, and quotes. It reads like a reference book, and it even has an index.
I read this book realizing that I wasn't grasping every concept, but I do have enough intelligence to know that this collection from a Trappist Monk is a work of wonder, with a keen incite of the world around him. The troubles that he wrote about are from the sixties, and are the same or similar troubles we face today.
Do y
Steven Tryon
Apr 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful collection of thoughts and essays and cogent rambling gleaned by Merton from his journals. Fascinating and thought-provoking reading.
I was born in 1950; I grew up in the 1960s, the years Merton writes about. It could have been been written last week.
Highly recommended.
I read this book with my friend Jamie and I absolutely loved it! I loved our discussions! There is so much in this book to ponder and discuss-- so many topics to think about. I don't think I can adequately review such a volume properly.
Jan 30, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
Though not a Catholic, I've always retained an interest in the Mass. Usually at least once a year, on no particular Sunday, I'll go to a Roman Catholic service. More generally, I enjoy the exercise of exploring different faith perspectives. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, by the late writer and monk Thomas Merton, has been a worthwhile opportunity to do that.

Merton's book, a collection of notes, reflections, and arguments, charts a thoughtful course through the early 60s. From his cloistered
Nicholas Whyte
Oct 21, 2007 rated it liked it

I have long had a vague interest in Thomas Merton, who became a Trappist monk after a dissolute youth (part of which was spent studying at my own later stamping ground, Clare College, Cambridge), and so was looking forward to reading this collection of his writings from the early 1960s - not least because I have been uncomfortably aware that I have enjoyed reading atheist tracts (Lucretius, Russell) more than Christian apologetics in the last few years.
Brian Tucker
Apr 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I ...more
Sep 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is a collection of Merton's more public journal entries from the early 60s. Some of them are dated and wordy, but there is always the next page and mostly the entries reveal wonderful insights for the time and for today. I picked it up to reread it thinking about it historically - for an insight into the events of the sixties, civil rights, the Cold War, religious thought of the time. And Merton provides that, but his thought requires more than just historical engagement, it really is exist ...more
Craig Bergland
May 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: christianity
I have seen reviews of this book that say it is dated. The sad truth is that it really isn't. While we still aren't fighting in Vietnam, we haven't learned it's lessons and so Merton's Vietnam comments can equally be applied to our wars in the Middle East today. We still have not resolved civil rights in America, and though we aren't on the brink of a hot war with the Soviet Union today, there are hundreds of nuclear weapons unaccounted for which makes that issue timely as well. This book stands ...more
Jan 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
The themes are varied - but most of the entries (probably taken from his journals)are efforts of Thomas Merton to explore the relation of faith and the world. He treats (and, at times, struggles with) war, racism, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Catholic Church. Some passages are gems. Though it covers the late fifties and early sixties it is generally not dated. Some of his remarks would be good sources of reflections for those struggling within the Catholic Church, but he will probably not make any ...more
Jean Kelly
Jan 09, 2012 rated it liked it
I found parts of this book entralling. It changed my mind about what monks are all about. He clearly saw himself as very much a part of this world and wrote of the troubles of the world with, I think, the hopes of bringing his faith into action. I did find though that I only absorbs a small percentage of his message because he quotes many authors unknown to me and leaves foreign phrases untranslated. His descriptions of the nature around him are really beautiful.
Jul 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
Merton was such a surprising monk -- cranky, earthy, impatient, but funny too, with a sharp and warm sense of humor. Even a monastery was too crowded and busy for him. The personality makes the metaphysical stuff easier to swallow, and now (hooray!) his meditations on a pointless war with no end in sight are once again timely.
Andrew David
May 10, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Andrew by: Erin Thatcher
In this book, Merton writes random bits of wisdom and then loosely connects those bits, mixed in with slightly more tactile observations, and then because he is so brilliant, we are expected to be so in awe that we don't mind that the book is nothing more than a journal. Nope. Not gonna work for this reader.
Gerri Bauer
Feb 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Everyone should read this book
Oct 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I love the way Thomas Merton conceptualizes the world. I love the way he writes. I love the way he loves God
Wayne Pounds
The best part of the book for me was the opening pages on Karl Barth's dream of Mozart.

Karl Barth had a dream. In it he has been asked to examine Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on his beliefs.
Barth had been waiting a long time to do just this, in fact, ever since he had read that Mozart once said "Protestantism is all in the head" and, again, "A Protestant will never be able to understand the meaning of' Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi' (Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world)."

For y
Apr 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book. I had already read some Merton before, generally liked it, but was surprised by this collection of journal entries just how fresh Merton still reads over fifty years later. These journal entries, written in the early and mid-60s, provide a glimpse into what Merton was thinking about in that pivotal half decade. The result is cogent social commentary, mixed in with profound spiritual reflection. I'm not sure which interested me more.

Merton's social commentary continue
R. Allain
Nov 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Perhaps everyone, in her or his heart of hearts, has imagined intimately tracing - from the inside, as it were - the intellectual wanderings of a brilliant, well-regarded thinker and writer. And if the author demonstrates fluency in an enormous range of topics, from JFK to race relations to the works of obscure theologians, one can guess the reader is in for an intriguing, albeit sometimes curious, ride. Yet amidst all of Merton's erudition, supple intellect and Renaissance-like breadth, perhaps ...more
Dana Kraft
May 15, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: faith, nonfiction
I thought I could read anything from Merton but I guess not. I couldn’t finish this. Not that there aren’t some interesting and thought-provoking passages in the part that I read, they were just surrounded by too much other random stuff.

I have really liked how Merton (in other books) encourages the reader to find the path that works for him or her, not just follow someone else’s path. In reading this series of conjectures, I felt myself doing the opposite - wondering “what would a Thomas Merton
Jan 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
For better or worse, I'm a sucker for a book of trenchant maxims. I see essay collections coming out all the time these days, and I love em, but I wonder sometimes if it lures me away from art where there's no quick and easy lesson to be had.
On the plus side, I get to tuck away a little extra wisdom, and there was plenty of wisdom to be had here, along with commentary on an eclectic selection of writers, from Jung to St. Irenaeus (haven't got a clue who that is, but I liked what he had to say!)
John Warner
Nov 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fragments from his journal which show an interesting take on contemporary events to his writing. I heard loud and strong the "music behind the words" so the events he responds to are universalised and I felt I knew how he might respond to current events. It will function in two ways in my collection as a book to re read and a "toilet book" - a book to take to the toilet as the short extracts are very suitable for being on the toilet.
Daniel Parker
Phenomenal book. Written around 1960, the thoughts and assessments during that time still carry a relevancy for today. I wrote down many comments from this book for how deep and on target they were in both the spiritual journey and the American journey.
May 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What's not to love about Thomas Merton and his writing? An excellent book, though it takes time to read it slowly and digest it well.
Barb Cherem
Oct 04, 2018 rated it liked it
Was glad to read something later than Seven Storey Mountain, and something edited, but the snippets just didn't speak to me. I'll try another more narrative, but later ('60s) book!
Nathaniel Glazer
Dec 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Really good book by the great Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. Some great insights into the spiritual, political, and cultural problems of his day. Should be read by anyone interested in 20th century mysticism.
Jan 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Current again in 2019! I read this book for the first time 25 years ago, and I could see then that much of Merton's insight was still applicable to us today. But now, in the era of Trumpism, with white supremacy rising as an "acceptable attitude" in certain circles, Merton's observations about the sickness at the heart of Western society are current and compelling all over again.

Perhaps I am inclined to too much time in contemplation, and Merton's observations and conjectures take me further do
Frank Hoppe
Jan 03, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: spiritual
Not sure I'll make it to the end of this. So far, his insights haven't aged well over the years since this was written.

Update: I made it through the first 100 pages, but I'm done. For a "liberal," he comes off as very constipated. Since I'm not a fan of organized religion, most of his concerns were not my concerns. My nightstand is creaking with books awaiting my attention that seem more worthwhile to me. As a matter of fact, the rest of my house is filled with such books.
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Thomas Merton was one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in the American state of Kentucky, Merton was an acclaimed Catholic spiritual writer, poet, author and social activist. Merton wrote over 60 books, scores of essays and reviews, and is the ongoing subject of many biographies. Merton was also a proponent of int ...more

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45 likes · 10 comments
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” 118 likes
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
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