Unlike many of Merton's other books, The Sign of Jonas is easily understood and makes for good light reading. His journal covers his early monastic life from 1946 to 1952 and is an intimate look inside the cloister of Gethsemani. The life of a monk is not as idyllic or full of ritual as my preconception. There is quite a bit of manual work, particularly in the fields where even Merton's hands became calloused from digging ditches. The daily activities make for enjoyable reading.
Also revealing are Merton's laments about his assignment as a writer. He found writing to be an unpleasant task causing great dispeasure and dissatisfaction. Over time, after his ordination, writing provided the quiet and solitude he sought. But he was a harsh critic of his own books. This is what he wrote in his journal about Seeds of Contemplation:
"There is nothing to be proud of in this one, either. It is clever and difficult to follow, not so much because I am deep as because I don't know how to punctuate, and my line of thought is clumsy and tortuous. It lacks warmth and human affection."
Although there is some truth in his self-evaluation, it cannot be said about The Sign of Jonas that it lacks warmth and human affection. And his poetic style shows in several entries. The Sign of Jonas is certainly in the "top 10" of Merton's books and will be read again.
Merton's journals always interest me. It is wonderful to be inside the mind of such a noted contemplative and critic. Yet, at the same time I wonder at why I am reading this journal. I wonder if the impulse to read anothers supposedly intimate thoughts offers any insight into contemporary spirituality. Why do we feel the need to read this?
I am of the opinion that the Sign of Jonas is an invitation to journey with Merton. To expierence his own pilgrimage towards a vocation. In essence the Sign of Jonah is presenting each of us with Merton's interior sacred space. And we see that Space as something always in flux as Merton journey's closer to the heart of his vocation. Merton's journey is presented as never ending and therefore resistant to any type of consistent classification. That is precisely the appeal for us as Americans. The individuality of Merton's journey, coupled with the authority and respect that he commands, becomes an authenticating remark for our own journeys. In other words, we view Merton as an invitation to become unclassifiable spiritual wanderers.
To that I say, pack you bags, it is journey well worth beginning. It is also wise to reflect on the rule of St. Benedict (too which Merton was avowed), that while one is constantly undergoing the conversion of manners (the Spiritual journey) one must also remain committed to where one really dwells. We must after all remember that while Merton's heart and mind were lost in the folds of the Fathers robe, he was contained within the cloister of Our Lady at Gethsameni