Thomas Merton in the Book Vault

[Merton] was under orders to keep writing. The abbot had given him the key to the book vault, a chamber full of rare books and manuscripts, to use as a workspace. He wore the giant key on a cord around his waist, a token of his secret life.

—Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage

I’m really taken with this image of the writer imprisoned by his talent, even though he himself holds the key. Merton’s was a voluntary imprisonment, as he voluntarily entered the monastery and pledged his obedience to the Abbot who was now forcing him to write, but it was not as wonderful as it looks on the surface. Fame and overwork were detrimental to Merton’s contemplative life, which was what he entered the monastery for, so his was not a situation to be envied. Nevertheless I find the idea having exclusive access to a writing room filled with old books quite appealing in itself.

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