A friend of mine has been reading The Intimate Merton, a condensation or summarization of his journals. She is finding, to her surprise, that Merton seems quite self-absorbed - but also recognizes that that is the nature of journals. Even so, she finds herself somewhat "turned off" by this quality.
I have two thoughts in response to this - first that although a journal tells the story of one person's life, as he or she chooses to share it, in greater or lesser detail, still, seeing the interior qualities of one life can illuminate all lives. How Merton understood himself, how he thought about and explored his own life - the processes he was open about, and the things he concealed even from himself - all of it in my view informs each reader about him- or her- self, as well as about Merton. And it is history - the inner story of a certain period in American spiritual development.
The second point is the important one: in both his public writings and in these journals, Merton is actually quite reticent about his innermost life. My own reaction to the later volumes of the journal was to wonder where all his youthful fervor had gone, and where his "spirituality" was. The thing is, he keeps that substantially to himself - even while appearing to speak of his deepest experiences and feelings. He was, after all, writing to be read by others, even though he speaks of wanting a place to write where he can say everything. There is only one place I know of where the screen falls for a moment - and it is not in his journals but in his correspondence.
Michael Mott in The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton quotes from a letter Merton wrote in 1966 to a Sufi mystic with whom he had corresponded for a number of years, and who had evidently asked what his daily life and meditation were like. It is worth quoting in full:
"I go to bed about 7:30 at night and rise about 2:30 in the morning. On rising I say part of the canonical office, consisting of the psalms, lessons, etc. Then I take an hour or an hour and a quarter for meditation. I follow this with Bible reading, and then make some tea or coffee…with perhaps a piece of fruit or some honey. With breakfast I begin reading and continue reading and studying until about sunrise. Now the sun rises very late, in summer it rises earlier, so this period of study varies but it is on the average about two hours.
"At sunrise I say another office of psalms, etc., then begin my manual work, which includes sweeping, cleaning, cutting wood, and other necessary jobs. This finishes about nine o'clock, at which time I say another office of psalms. If I have time I may write a few letters, usually short (today is Sunday and I have more time). After this I go down to the monastery to say Mass, as I am not yet permitted to offer Mass in the hermitage. Saying Mass requires an altar, an acolyte who serves the Mass, special vestments, candles, and so on. It is in a way better to have all this at the monastery. It would be hard to care for so many things and keep them clean at the hermitage. After Mass I take one cooked meal in the monastery. Then I return immediately to the hermitage, usually without seeing or speaking to anyone except the ones I happen to meet as I go from place to place (these I do not ordinarily speak to as we have a rule of strict silence.) (When I speak it is to the Abbot, whom I see once a week, or to someone in a position of authority, about necessary business.)
"On returning to the hermitage I do some light reading, and then say another office, about one o'clock. This is followed by another hour or more of meditation. On feast days I can take an hour and a half or two hours for this afternoon meditation. Then I work at my writing. Usually I do not have more than an hour and a half or two hours at most for this each day. Following that, it being now late afternoon (about four) I say another office of psalms, and prepare for myself a light supper. I keep down to a minimum of cooking, usually only tea or soup, and make a sandwich of some sort. Thus I have only a minimum of dishes to wash. After supper I have another hour or more of meditation, after which I go to bed."
This in itself is evidence of a deep interior life - but the next part makes it explicit.
Mott notes at this point that Merton "had always felt it was wrong to discuss his own religious practices in any detail … He had been reserved on this subject even in his private writing." However, in writing to this friend he made an exception. Merton went on:
"Now you ask about my method of meditation. Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say that it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God. One might say this gives my meditation the character described by the Prophet as 'being before God as if you saw Him.' Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind this would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring Him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all. My prayer tends very much to what you call fana. There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present 'myself' this I recognize as an obstacle. If He wills He can then make the Nothingness into a total clarity. If He does not will, then the Nothingness actually seems to itself be an object and remains an obstacle. Such is my ordinary way of prayer, or meditation. It is not 'thinking about' anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible. Which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible.
"I do not ordinarily write about such things and ask you therefore to be discreet about it. But I write this as a testimony of confidence and friendship." [Seven Mountains, pp. 432-433]