Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, is quite simply divine. It was pure joy to read and deeply enlightening.
Merton, as some of you may know, was a Trappist monk who lived his religious life at Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky. He was a prolific writer, but even more so when it came to letter writing. His correspondence included more than two thousand individuals and comprised over his life ( he died tragically in 1968) more than twelve thousand pieces.
This book, edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen, attempts to collect the best of those letters around common themes. They include his vocation as a monk, his life as writer, his contemplative experience, his views on culture, war, and the Church, and his deep commitment to finding unity with other faiths especially Asian systems.
In some sense, it is difficult to review such a work, since it is not really a “work” at all but, rather Merton’s responses to various letters written to him. In that respect, we might find ourselves in a bit of a fix similar to when we encounter St. Paul–we have only half of the story. Yet, it is not much of a fix at all, since the letters stand on their own, and usually are quite explanatory of the initiating material to which he is responding.
What strikes one most clearly in reading Merton’s thoughts is how very human he was. As the editors point out, he was complicated, in some ways two men. One was, as they put it, conservative, traditional, while he was also revolutionary, active, and pushing the envelope of his calling as a monk.
It seems best, in order to give you, the reader, a flavor of his thoughts and ideas, to give you some enticing tidbits of his thinking on various subjects:
Although Merton spent his entire monastic life at Gethsemani, he often thought about moving to other monastic houses, seemingly in the hopes of attaining a more perfect situation. He was always drawn to the more hermit existence, and in the end, at Gethsemani was allowed to live in a small cabin on the property where he spent most of his day and night, coming to the monastery only for a single meal and mass.
Of the solitary time he spent he says:
“I am never less alone than when I am alone. When people are around I find it a little difficult to find Jesus. As soon as I am away from others, Jesus is there and all is at peace.”
Yet, to be sure, Merton’s enormous correspondence and his writing in general, served to powerfully connect him to the world about him.
However, he was conflicted in some sense about writing:
“Writing is deep in my nature, and I cannot deceive myself that it will be very easy for me to do without it. At least I can get along without the public and without my reputation! Those are not essentially connected with the writing instinct.”
On revolution and nonviolence:
“I believe that those who have used violence have betrayed all true revolution, they have changed nothing, they have simply enforced with greater brutality the anti-spiritual and anti-human drives that are destructive of truth and love in man.”
Thomas Merton was much troubled by the superficiality of American life (he was born in France and became a citizen of the US as an adult). He, even the early 60’s, had a firm grasp on the consumerism that plagued the country. He was deeply concerned about the Cold War and “the Bomb” and was in the end ordered to stop his anti-war writing.
Lesser men or women might have become disillusioned, however Merton concluded:
“For one cannot truly believe in God if one does not believe in mankind as well; . . .”
Much of his writing about the Vietnam war and the stand-off between the US and the USSR is still timely today, the players have only changed.
He speaks truth about America in 1962, and indeed today:
“The illusion of America as the earthly paradise, in which everyone recovers original goodness: which becomes in fact a curious idea that prosperity itself justifies everything, is a sign of goodness, is a carte blanche to continue to be prosperous in any way feasible: and this leads to the horror that we now see: because we are prosperous, because we are successful, because we have all this amazing “know-how” . . .we are entitled to defend ourselves by any means whatever, without any limitation, and all the more so because what we are defending is our illusion of innocence. . .”
“. . .there is not one of us, individually, racially, socially, who is fully complete in the sense of having in himself all the excellence of humanity. . . .I am therefore not completely human until I have found myself in my African and Asian and Indonesian brother because he has the part of humanity which I lack.”
Much as he loved the Church, he was deeply supportive of the work of Vatican II. As we face in some sense a deconstruction of that work today, Merton’s words echo meaningfully:
“I personally think that we are paralyzed by institutionalism, formalism, rigidity, and regression. The real life of the Church is not in her hierarchy, it is dormant somewhere.”
In a letter to Zen Buddhist scholar, Daisetz T. Suzuki, he quotes Suzuki on God’s creative hand:
“God wanted to know Himself, hence the creation.”
Merton sees original sin as:
“Each one slaved in the service of his own idol–his consciously fabricated social self. . .This is Original Sin. . .But yet we are in paradise, and once we break free from the false image, we find ourselves what we are: and we are “in Christ.”
There are hundreds of other examples in the pages that comprise this wonderful book. His partners in letter writing are from the average person, to personages such as Pope John XXIII, Coretta S. King, Thich Nhat Hanh, Boris Pasternak, to various Latin American poets, to nuns, and bishops in the Church. His interests were broad, his knowledge deeper than most.
Truly, there is so much to be learned and pondered over. Do yourself a favor, and pick up this excellent source of Thomas Merton’s thoughts. You will, I suspect, then start collecting all his writings.