Thomas Merton’s life, especially once he had become a monk, was to a great extent one of dialogue with people who were either distant or dead (many saints and writers of past centuries). Rowan Williams looks closely at two such relationships in Merton’s life—first with the Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, and then with Karl Barth, the Reformed theologian who, by a surprising providence, died on the same day as Merton. Rowan also takes note of the impact on Merton’s thought of books by Hannah Arendt, Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lossky, Olivier Clément, Bonhoeffer, Boris Pasternak, and St. John of the Cross.
Not the least of the many meeting points for Merton and Rowan is their Orwell-like awareness of the abuse of language, so easily used for magical (that is to say, manipulative) ends. Thus war is described and justified in words that mask its actual purposes, de- humanize the adversary, and cloak its actual cost in human agony. The problem extends to religious words as well—ways of speaking about God that flatten rather than unveil.
We also see in these several essays that Rowan, no less than Merton, regards Christian life without a contemplative dimension as incomplete and also recognizes that the contemplative life is accessible not only to those living in monasteries but to anyone who seeks an ‘interiorized’ monasticism, for ‘contemplative prayer is the vocation of every believer.’
For the Orthodox Christian, it is often noted, there are ‘at least’ seven sacraments. On the long list that can be attached to the seven, surely one is the mystery of friendship: an enduring relationship held together not only by affinity, shared questions and common interests, but the awareness that each can help the other in a quest- a partnership in pilgrimage. As the bond between Rowan Williams and Thomas Merton bears witness, not all friendships depend on being of the same generation or even being simultaneously alive.
Silent Action – Additional Reviews
‘A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton’
Book review |- Written by Patrick Hart | Special to The Courier-Journal
In the latter part of March 1998, I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by then-Bishop Rowan Williams of Monmouth, Wales, sponsored by the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland at Merton’s prep school of Oakham, which attracted participants from around the world. After his excellent presentation in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, I congratulated him. What I recall of our conversation was his insistence on the enormous influence of William Blake on the early Merton. Along with Hopkins, Newman and Blake, Merton was steeped in the Russian Orthodox theologians who had migrated to Paris.
Following a brief Author’s Foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury in which he acknowledges his indebtedness to Merton over the years from the time of “Elected Silence” (the British edition of Merton’s autobiography heavily edited by Evelyn Waugh), to “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” “studying for my doctorate with Merton’s friend, A.M. Allchin, proved a doorway into still more of his mind and spirit. A few years later The Asian Journal gave me my first sense that inter-religious dialogue could be (and had to be) a matter of spiritual encounter, and still more doors opened.
Rowan Williams arranged these “engagements” into five chapters, beginning with a paradoxical tribute to Thomas Merton in “a person that nobody knows.” He concludes this short chapter with words of wisdom: “The great Christian is the man or woman who can make me more interested in God than in him or her. A paradoxical tribute, but the highest that can be paid.”
The second chapter, “Bread in the Wilderness,” concerns the monastic ideal in Thomas Merton and Paul Evdokimov, which first appeared in Theology and Prayer, essays in monastic themes presented at the Oxford Cistercian Conference in 1973, edited by A.M. Allchin.
“New Words for God,” the third chapter, deals with contemplation and religious writing and is based on Williams’ talk at Oakham in 1998. It was published in “Thomas Merton: Poet, Monk, Prophet,” edited by Paul Pearson, director of the Merton Center at Bellarmine University for Three Parks Press.
The fourth chapter, titled “The Only Real City: Monasticism and the Social Vision,” was delivered as an address at the Thomas Merton Conference held at Bose in northern Italy in 2004. It later appeared in the Merton Journal, published by the Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
“Not Being Serious: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth” was originally given as a lecture on Dec. 10, 2008, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Merton’s and Barth’s deaths, which reminds us that they died on this day and shared an obituary in the New York Times.
With an insightful Preface by Orthodox writer Jim Forest and an Afterword by Metropolitan Bishop Kallistus Ware, this ecumenical gem is assured a wide and appreciative readership.
Patrick Hart, O.C.S.O, a monk of Gethsemani, is currently general editor of a new series of books on Monastic Wisdom, a Cistercian Publications Imprint from Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn. He was the last secretary to Thomas Merton, the monk, author and mystic.