A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas
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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
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
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
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
Esther de Waal is the author of Seeking Life
(Canterbury Press, 2009) and other books.