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Demanding an answer

13 February 2015

Esther de Waal on the question that Thomas Merton represented

Divine Discontent: The prophetic voice of Thomas Merton
John Moses
Bloomsbury £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT388 )

THE universality of Thomas Merton, a man for all seasons (Faith, 30 January), does much to explain his continuing appeal. Those of us who know Merton return time and time again to that elusive, many-layered, complex, and contradictory figure. "As well try to bottle fog," as his fellow-monastic Matthew Kelty said so memorably at the time of his death.

But this year of his centenary may also bring newcomers to encounter him for the first time. It is a cause of rejoicing that here we have a book that will appeal widely, not least to a younger generation who are asking difficult questions about today's world.

This book gives us a full and clear account. It is beautifully presented: the text includes fine, full-page portraits, and (something that I found very useful) the breaking up of each chapter with sub-headings.

Why should this man continue to be so compelling to such vast numbers of people? Many of us have returned to him at different junctures in our lives, but he also seems to hold a particular relevance at certain times. In a world full of inescapable questions, conflict, hatred, race, social injustice, inequality, environmental disaster, John Moses, a former Dean of St Paul's, shows us the Merton who never evaded the tough issues. This, of course, can come only out of the totality of the whole person. So we are also shown Merton the writer, the solitary, the contemplative, the poet, the wounded and flawed man, and, above all, the monk.

After chapters on his early life and his Trappist vocation comes a chapter on his writing. It was an addiction that played an essential part in his kaleidoscopic life: he wrote journals, letters, articles, novels, poetry, translations, and, not least, a steady stream of books. I found the section on poetry especially attractive. In a letter of 1967, he reflected that it was the poets in particular who had the prophetic task, because "they have the keys of the subconscious and of the great secrets of real life."

Moses comments: "Merton came to see that true art - like contemplation - is inseparable from life, and that the poet, like the mystic, requires a prophetic intuition." This is the theme of the book: a man pursuing a searching and passionate engagement with the world with a relentless energy. He had no time for passivity or indifference.

That voice comes ringing out, telling us what we know but can too easily neglect. We need to listen to him as he speaks of the need to confirm the truth in other religions, "the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists etc. This does not mean syncretism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot affirm and accept but first one must say 'yes': where one really can."

We need to listen to Merton the social critic, who reminds us that "the Christian cannot be fully what he is meant to be in the modern world if he is not in some way interested in building a better society free of war, of racial and social injustice, of poverty and of discrimination."

It is easy to quote with delight his lyrical writings about the joyousness of the natural world, but we should balance that by heeding his warning that we will "deal death all around us simply by the way we live. . . perhaps the most crucial aspect of Christian obedience to God today concerns the responsibility of the Christian in technological society towards God's creation."

In a climate of terrifying extremism and polarisation, we should try to hold on to his wider frame of reference: "The more I am able to affirm others, to say Yes to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am."

He saw a Church that had lost its bearings, and he foresaw a crisis in monasticism, but he believed that in a post-Christian world the Church's prophetic vocation was to be a "stumbling block to the world, a sign of contradiction".

He remained, as Kelty said, "a question demanding an answer. . . He was unsettling, disturbing. . . He had vision, and a sort of prophetic fire, the fire Christ came to cast on the earth."

For Christ lay at the centre of everything, and this demands a "continuous dynamic of inner renewal". His insistence that Christianity was, first and foremost, a way of life rather than a system of thought carries prophetic implications.

I have two small criticisms to do with the otherwise excellent presentation. An index of subject-matter would allow the readers access to a particular topic, such as Buddhism, or the environment. Also, the references are not always easy to follow, or precise enough. It is, therefore, difficult to follow up some telling quotation (and the book is scattered with them) and put it into context.

Might there have been room for an appendix with just one or two pages giving some of his more powerful outpourings, and making possibly unfamiliar passages available for use - for example, the prayer that he wrote to be read in Congress on Ash Wednesday 1962, with its succession of resounding words?

There is also the absence of any reference to his skill as a photographer, the way in which he used the camera as an instrument for contemplation; for in this, too, he was prophetic. His concern was not with the perfect sunset or the perfect rose: he filmed the world around him, flawed and distorted, finding beauty in whatever came to hand - a broken fence, collapsing windowsills, harsh roots. Nothing is idealist or romanticised: he saw things with eyes washed clear by contemplation, and that was realistic love.

Esther de Waal is the author of A Retreat with Thomas Merton (Canterbury Press, 2011).

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