Elizabeth Adams's Reviews > The Sign of Jonas

The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton
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it was amazing

This is probably the third or even fourth time I've read this book, my favorite of the many works by Thomas Merton. I began re-reading it after attending a silent Lenten retreat, and have continued through Holy Week and the Easter season. "The Sign of Jonas" is one of only a handful of books I've read and re-read over the last few decades; the reason is that for some reason I feel he's speaking directly to me in this painfully honest description of the monastic years leading up to his ordination to the priesthood.

"The Sign of Jonas" does more than take up where "The Seven Storey Mountain" left off, although during it we see the first copy of the latter book put into Merton's hands by his Abbot, and we witness his struggle with the irony of becoming a famous author while living as a cloistered monk who has taken a vow of silence. He also struggles with his facility at language and self-expression, his hunger for intellectual and scholarly work, his pride and desire for attention and literary recognition vs. his desire for humility, silence, and losing himself in "nothingness."

An free-thinking, exuberant intellectual who might well have become an English or philosophy professor at Columbia, where he studied, Merton also took a vow of obedience that became a lifelong challenge. Furthermore, as the world outside the monastery was changed by World War II, nuclear weapons, and the Cold War, he became more and more divided between the worlds of "action" and "contemplation," between lives of political engagement and of prayer for the world -- he chafed at the lack of Church and monastic radicalism, and, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, found silence and non-engagement an increasingly difficult path.

Merton experiences both joy and despair because of his constant self-examination, heightened by the fact that he is also writing down what he observes, what he feels, what he's reading, what happens in his days. As a longtime journal-keeper and blogger, I identify with this. But it's more than just the fact that he's keeping track and looking deep, he's also on a spiritual quest that, of necessity, involves going deeper and deeper into solitude even as he is surrounded by a community of monks and, in an exception to the usual four-letters-per-year limit for Cistercian monks, receiving piles of mail every single day from readers anxious to tell him how much his words mean to them.

While I will never be a hermit or a monk, this path of consciously making friends with solitude -- with one's aloneness even when married and involved with family and friends -- in order to know oneself and, perhaps, find greater union with the divine, is my path too. No one I have read speaks about this with greater directness than Merton. He can be maddening, but so can we all, and in the book we are witness to a slow process of change and transformation that I have found moving, hopeful, and often familiar.

There are passages of personal prayer and ecstatic praise with which I don't connect at all, but some of the best writing in the book isn't overtly spiritual at all, such as Merton's descriptions of the natural world around the Gethsemanii monastery: weather, animals, flora and fauna, the local people he sees from afar, never speaking to them but observing and understanding a great deal. At his best he is a tremendously gifted and lyrical writer of English prose, as well as a man of great depth willing to expose his deepest fears and hopes, his failures and weaknesses along with his exuberance and joy, as he grapples with one of life's most challenging vocations.

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Reading Progress

May 10, 2011 – Started Reading
May 10, 2011 – Shelved
June 15, 2011 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Jungsook (last edited Oct 29, 2016 02:08AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jungsook Chung To me whose native language is not English, Thomas Merton is a very difficult writer and yet he is one of my most favorite spiritual book writers along with C.S. Lewis and Henry Nouwen.

Your review of 'The Sign of Jonas' is amazingly clear and precise to me, which helps me understand better what is written in the book.

Merton's 'The Sign of Jonas' made me burst into laughters several times because of his daring frankness or sense of humor. I wonder if you remember he imagined when 'The Seven Storey Mountain' would be filmed, the role of himself will be casted with Gary Cooper.

Since you said, 'in order to know oneself and, perhaps, find greater union with the divine, is my path too,' I would like to read your books sometime.


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