Edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen, $27.95, hardcover 402, Harper One.
This collection of letters, covering many of Thomas Merton's interests, demonstrate the depth and breadth of his vocation. A Cistercian monk who lived at Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky, Merton (1915-1968) wrote poetry, theology, an autobiography, and on the contemplative life. This included books on Eastern religions.
The writings found in A Life in Letters witness the unitary, simple roots to Merton's vocation and thinking. Everything he reflected on came from his deep Catholic piety. He knew every corner of the Church's teaching and spirituality even though – or perhaps because – he was a convert.
Thankfully, the editors have left out much of the writing Merton did regarding his agonizing over whether to become a Carthusian or stay a Cistercian and try a hermit's life. The letters we read here tend to avoid some of the self-absorption into which Merton fell from time to time.
While Merton was famously well-versed in ascetic theology, and had become an expert on Western mysticism, through these letters we can see just how grounded he was. He refers to the everyday events around the monastery more than he does to the abstract, precise theology of the masters of Western Christian spirituality.
In fact, Merton spent a lot of time in his correspondence discussing politics, contemporary pop culture, war, and the economy. He deeply disliked the economic and political direction his country was taking, and articulated this from a Catholic viewpoint: “Technology now has reasons entirely its own which do not necessarily take into account the needs of man.”
Like many Catholic writers, including JRR Tolkien, Merton had a fondness for the pre-industrial landscape and the human culture that inhabited it. This drove him to call the economic model of his country diabolical:
“[B]ehind the cloak of specious myths about technology and progress, there seems to be at work a vast uncontrolled power which is leading man where he does not want to go in spite of himself.” Merton pointed to the evil “powers and principalities” about which St. Paul wrote.
War, Catholic spirituality and mysticism, the economy, politics, poetry: Merton somehow tied them all together, showing that modern living is largely incompatible with traditional spirituality. He called for an art of living more than for anything else.
He sometimes took the Church and his order to task because of its own love for power. The Church, being more concerned at times with power than with saving souls, in some ways seemed to parallel the secular world for Merton. In his letters he fearlessly made explicit connections: “The greatest danger is identification of the Church with a prosperous and established economic and cultural system, as if Christ and the world had finally settled down to be friends.”
His frustration over the excessively institutional nature of Catholicism led to fruitful ideas, many of which were in tune with the Vatican II era, of which he was a close part spiritually and theologically.
Yet despite this criticism of the Church, we must be careful not to fall into the mistaken belief that Merton was a sort of hyper-liberal. He simply wasn't ever what many liberal Catholics and Protestants have made him out to be. While he was set-against the war in Vietnam and the nuclear build-up, and supported Martin Luther King Jr., he did so from a very traditional theological basis. While he pushed for social and economic change, as well as for certain reforms in the Church itself so as to give greater place to spirit over institution, he remained solidly orthodox. In fact, he consisently rejected Christian theologies that no longer respected orthodoxy and tradition:
“[M]y coming into the Church was marked by a pretty strong and dazzled belief in the Christ of the Nicene Creed. One reason for this was a strong reaction against the fogginess and subjectivity and messed-upness of the ideas about Christ ... in various kinds of Protestantism. I was tired of a Christ who had evaporated.”
Merton didn't use this orthodoxy to try to cement people into certain roles or institutions. He believed in people and their spirit. This tied together many of his different interests, since it led to a precise, articulate anthropology, one in keeping with the theologians who influenced Vatican II's embrace of personalism and the human individual:
“Christianity is fundamentally humanistic in the sense that its chief task is to enable man to achieve his destiny, to find himself, to be himself: to be the person he is made to become. Man is supposed to be God's helper in the work of creating himself.”
These words reflect the kind of freedom that Merton – echoing the Catholic Church and, later, John Paul II – espoused. This freedom is a freedom for rather than a freedom from; it is a freedom of the spirit that does not lead to sexual confusion and gross materialism. It is a freedom that balances the individual and society; contemplation and action; freedom and duty; spirit and community. If this seems like an enormous task, it wasn't for Merton, since he believed in simple living and humility, in living in harmony with fellow humans and with the environment, something reflected in A Life in Letters.