An Unexpected Merton

It comes as a surprise to discover that in the Orthodox Church only three saints are called theologians: St. John the Theologian, author of the fourth gospel; St. Gregory Nazianzus the Theologian, and St. Simeon the New Theologian. While this does not mean there are no other theologians in the calendar of saints—in fact there are many—the sparing use of the term reminds us that a theologian is far more than a scholar. A theologian is someone able to express in words the actual knowledge and experience of God. A theologian is not merely an expert but a disciple.

It is in the non-scholastic sense of the word that Lawrence Cunningham recognizes Thomas Merton as a theologian—not "a professional thinker in the service of ideas and not a person of systematic theological reflection, but someone who knows how to speak about God authentically."

Cunningham, professor of theology at Notre Dame and author of Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision, finds that what has drawn so many to Merton's books is that Merton "wrote everything out of a deeply centered life of faith expressed in prayer," writing not with an "idea" of God but an experience of God that "shines through his writing." His books are not simply about God but bear witness to God.

One might add that there is something of the same quality in Cunningham's book. Of the many people who have written studies of Merton, few have understood Merton so well or been better able to describe his work with such economy and insight. For those who have begun reading Merton and who know the outlines of his life story, Monastic Vision takes the reader to a deeper level of understanding and appreciation. I found it hard to put down.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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