Divine Discontent: The prophetic voice of Thomas
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
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
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
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
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).