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Sensing water on the skin

02 August 2013

Esther de Waal listens to a conversation with Thomas Merton


A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton
Rowan Williams
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MOST readers of Thomas Merton return to him time and again, discovering something that is new, or that touches them afresh. This should hardly surprise us, since Merton remained a mystery to himself. There was, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams says at the start of this book, a chameleon-like dimension to his mind; but at least, as we encounter him in yet another suit of borrowed clothes, he acknowledges that this is what he is doing. So, not only is he always exploring his own self-identity: the quality of his mind is always being abraded and refined by his sharply self-critical honesty.

In his foreword, Williams emphasises how this is of central importance: he discovered ever more deeply the serious unseriousness of trying to be honest before God - the "unbearable lightness" of faith.

It is, therefore, almost inevitable that new books will be written about Merton, as authors approach him from a wide range of perspectives - some more superficial in their quest to find an uncultivated plot in this fertile ground. It is thus refreshing to be taken back to Merton in the company of someone who has had what he calls "an interrupted conversation" for more than 40 years. I was energised and encouraged after reading this book (an enlarged edition of one that appeared in the United States a couple of years ago).

Besides the five lectures reprinted here, it contains attractive photographs, and a poem that concludes with the powerful lines "Not to make sense, inside the keel of sweating ribs, not to make sense but room". Finally, there is an afterword by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, an essay on Merton's complex and paradoxical understanding of human personhood.

No matter that Williams and Merton never met: here we see all the best qualities of an ongoing friendship, which grows outwards to embrace many others. Williams looks at the key intellectual and spiritual relationships that emerge in Merton's writings as he explored the impact on him of thinkers as diverse as Barth, Arendt, Lossky, Pasternak, Evdokimov, and many more, living and dead.

All the time, Merton is refining his ear for self-serving nonsense, poisoned language. He asked what the believer was to do if there was to be a renewal of language, and if the believer was caught, as he saw it, between clichés and posturings. Perhaps, as Williams suggests, he never arrived at a solution; but all his writings, public and private, show us why he thought the question urgent.

It is this that is timely, and that commends the appearance of this book to a wide readership. When many people feel battered by ill-chosen language, and betrayed by tired and over-used words, we are given the happy conjunction of two people who take seriously their vocation to write and speak responsibly, recognising that words are agents of clarity and of action.

Williams shies away from describing Merton's voice as prophetic. Instead, he says that he spoke words of "uncomfortable truth to the systems of his day", while at the same time drawing back from binding himself to words and actions that threatened to become the breeding-ground for new clichés.

The dilemma, however, remains, equally true for the monk as for any Christian. Any Christian renewal of the space of public exchange demands a renewal of language. The chapter on "The Only Real City: Monasticism and the Social Vision" opens with this sentence: "Transformed language, language delivered from prison, necessarily means transformed relations."

For many readers, as poetry comes increasingly into the public domain, some of the most significant sections of this book will be those in which Williams considers Merton and poetry (and where we discern, of course, the poetic understanding that the two have in common). He chooses to address what he sees as four main enemies of poetry, helping us to put up warning signs - in particular, anything that can direct attention to the will and psyche of the artist constructing a self.

Instead, he points towards an attunement to the pure act of God as fundamental to the activity of poetic writing. He quotes the vivid image that Merton uses of "the sense of water on the skin", to describe this unique instant, the moment of contact with truth.

Esther de Waal is the author of Seeking Life (Canterbury Press, 2009) and other books.

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