The Common Good
March-April 1996

Corresponding with Crisis

by Jim Forest | March-April 1996

The letters of Thomas Merton.

Evelyn Waugh once suggested to Thomas Merton that, fine though he was as an author, his gift as a correspondent was so profound that he ought to give up every other form of writing in order to devote himself to letters. Merton's 50 publications demonstrate that Waugh's advice wasn't taken, but still Merton found time for a great many

letters and most have now been published, though it has taken nearly 10 years of editing work and five big volumes to do so.

Freedom to Witness is subtitled Letters in Time of Crisis. True, each era has felt for those then living to be a time of crisis, but rarely has crisis been more teeth-rattling than in the century that is about to end. Merton's life filled barely half of this blood-stained era. Born in France as World War I was getting under way, he died 54 years later at a conference center in Thailand, just one border removed from the Indochina War. His body was flown back home in a U.S. Air Force plane bringing back soldiers killed in Vietnam-just the right company for Merton.

Merton as monk had the right address not to notice that the world was in crisis. His thoughts on entering the Abbey of Gethsemani (just three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor) suggest he had no intention of keeping up with events beyond the monastic enclosure. No one ever walked out on the world with a louder slam of the door. Merton intended to leave his name at the monastery gate and all his literary ambitions with it.

The abbot, the son of a book-binder, turned out to be a book-loving man. In time he noticed Merton's gifts. As a matter of obedience, Merton was sent back to the typewriter.

One of the oldest letters in Freedom to Witness has to do with the most famous result of the abbot's decision. In a letter dated January 2, 1947, Merton writes his agent, Naomi Burton Stone, about his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. She had sent the manuscript to Robert Giroux at Harcourt Brace and the company had accepted it. No one imagined it at the time, but it was to become a runaway best seller. On one record day in the book's first few months, 10,000 copies were ordered. Nearly half a century has passed and The Seven Storey Mountain has never been out of print.

The Merton of 1947 would have been startled at the letters written by a later Merton that fill up most of this book. If The Seven Storey Mountain was chiefly a hymn of thanksgiving to the mercy of God and a celebration of the monastic life, Freedom to Witness has mainly to do with the religious meaning of headline events shaking the foundations of society: the civil rights movement, the militarization of political and economic structures, blockades and wars, the danger of nuclear holocaust, the need for protest and the deeper meaning and purpose of nonviolent action, and the struggle not to be swept away by radical movements.

I FIRST SAW some of the letters assembled here in a self-published collection that Merton produced for friends at the end of 1962. Called The Cold War Letters, it could not have been published at that time in any other way, as that spring Merton had been forbidden by his superiors to publish anything about war and peace. Like so many of his Russian literary counterparts of that era, Merton managed to do an end-run around his censors. With the approval of his abbot, he turned to the mimeograph machine. He even managed to keep writing for such publications as The Catholic Worker , using such pseudonyms as Benedict Monk and Marco J. Frisbee. Yes, in case you had any doubts, Thomas Merton had a wild sense of humor.

At long last The Cold War Letters can be read by anyone who so chooses, the only pity being most of the letters remain so timely. (Keep in mind that not all of The Cold War Letters are in this book; many are in the earlier anthology, also edited by Shannon, The Hidden Ground of Love. If you enjoy Merton's writings and have an interest in the radical social implications of Christianity, you will want to have them both.)

There is one more reason to welcome Freedom to Witness: the publication of Merton's correspondence with artist, printer, and typographer Victor Hammer. Here you find one of the most stunning letters Merton ever wrote, a meditation on "Hagia Sophia"-Holy Wisdom-written to explain why he had been so moved by a work of art Merton found in the Hammer house in Lexington during his first visit.

It was 1959, the year Merton's period of social engagement was getting under way. "Hagia Sophia," Merton explains, is the "feminine, dark, yielding, tender counterpart of the power, justice, creative dynamism of the Father." It is a revelation of God's mercy, humility, and hiddenness. With letters like this, the $25 price tag is a bargain.

There are two other recent books Merton readers will welcome. While Merton's letters to Rosemary Radford Ruether were published in The Hidden Ground of Love, now we get to read both sides of a vital, passionate exchange. From the summer of 1966 until early in 1968, they had a rip-roaring dialogue-arguing whether or not the monastic was authentically Christian and debating many other topics that remain of more than passing interest. It makes for very lively, mind-stretching reading. Good as Merton's letters are all by themselves, it takes two to correspond. One hopes in the coming years there will be more such collections that give us both voices-and how nice it would be if Mary Tardiff edited them, as her carefully researched footnotes are a great help.

Finally, Eberhard Arnold's essay, Why We Live in Community , has extra appeal because of the addition of the text of two talks on community by Merton. Their inclusion here is more than appropriate because both talks are in part a response to Arnold's essay. Anyone thinking about community will find this small book a helpful resource.

JIM FOREST, a Sojourners contributing editor, is the author of Living With Wisdom, a biography of Thomas Merton, and Love Is the Measure, a biography of Dorothy Day, both published by Orbis. Merton's letters to Forest were published in The Hidden Ground of Love (Harcourt Brace, 1993). He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and lives in Alkmaar, Holland.

  • Thomas Merton: Freedom to Witness: Letters in Time of Crisis. Selected and edited by William H. Shannon. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994.
  • At Home in the World: The Letters of Thomas Merton & Rosemary Radford Ruether. Edited by Mary Tardiff, O.P. Orbis, 1995.
  • Why We Live in Community. By Eberhard Arnold, with two talks by Thomas Merton. Plough Publishing House, 1995.

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