It is a pity Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams never met. What a friendship it would have been. Their age difference was the obstacle — Rowan was only eighteen when Merton died. Yet there is another sense in which meetings occur and friendships spring to life despite the impossibility of correspondence or face-to-face encounter. Good writing always remains in the present tense; the attentive reader meets the author in the intimate space of the printed page. When that occurs, a relationship can take root that flourishes despite the problem of death.
One sees the reality of such a friendship in this slim volume that brings together Rowan’s explorations of Merton’s writings. Merton would have been delighted to have found himself so carefully and perceptively read. The correspondence between them would have made this a much larger book.
In fact Merton’s own life, especially once he had become a monk, was to a great extent one of dialogue with people who were either distant or dead (many saints and writers of past centuries).
Rowan looks closely at two such relationships in Merton’s life — first with the Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, and then with Karl Barth, the Reformed theologian who, by a surprising providence, died on the same day as Merton. Rowan also takes note of the impact on Merton’s thought of books by Hannah Arendt, Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lossky, Olivier Clément, Bonhoeffer, Boris Pasternak, and St. John of the Cross.
Not the least of the many meeting points for Merton and Rowan is their Orwell-like awareness of the abuse of language, so easily used for magical (that is to say, manipulative) ends. Thus war is described and justified in words that mask its actual purposes, dehumanize the adversary, and cloak its actual cost in human agony. The problem extends to religious words as well — ways of speaking about God that flatten rather than unveil. “Words of faith,” Rowan observes, “are too-well known to believers for their meaning to be knowable.” Indeed, “almost any words in the modern cultural setting will be worn and shabby or illusory and self-serving.” Rowan sees in Merton’s writings how, with ascetic effort, language can be restored to the transparent state of plain speech, a revealer of truth, a preserver of freedom, but this involves a day-by-day, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence struggle.
We see in these several essays that Rowan, no less than Merton, regards Christian life without a contemplative dimension as incomplete and also recognizes that the contemplative life is accessible not only to those living in monasteries but to anyone who seeks an “interiorized” monasticism, for “contemplative prayer is the vocation of every believer.” One of the major tasks of contemplative life is the ongoing search for the actual self, the unmasked self, a self that is not merely the stage clothes and scripted sentences that we assemble and dutifully exhibit each day in the attempt to appear to be someone, but the self that exists purely because it exists in God. Rowan notes how often Merton is drawn to a “delusory self image” but then quickly abandons each self-image as a ridiculous deception.
Merton’s pilgrimage, from his initial attraction to the Trappists until the day of his death, was to disappear — that is not to be the brand name “Thomas Merton” or a Thomas Merton who has become mainly the bearer of various labels: monk, writer, contemplative, mystic, etc. Twice in this book Rowan cites a passage from The Sign of Jonas that he first read when he was eighteen: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead. Father Louis — he’s half-dead too.” In fact, for all Merton’s grumbling about his famous adversary, Thomas Merton, he remained Thomas Merton, fully alive and always writing in a voice that was intensely and recognizably his own — but a Merton who was unwilling to make himself the prisoner of his readers’ expectations and illusions. (No doubt the struggle not to be defined purely by an ecclesiastical role is every bit as pressing to Rowan as it was to Merton.) “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows,” Rowan writes, “because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire and manifold qualities, seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent.”
Both Merton and Rowan are people who have drawn deeply from Eastern Christian sources, both ancient and modern. Rowan’s doctoral dissertation concentrated on the work of Vladimir Lossky, whose writings also had great impact on Merton. Lossky was one of the Paris-based Orthodox theologians who distinguished the “individual” from the “person,” the latter understood as the self existing in communion with others rather than attempting to live in a state of one-person apartheid. To the extent one is becoming a person, Rowan notes, the process of sanctity is underway, for one “cannot be simply an individual pursuing an impossible ideal of individual sanctification in a sort of spiritual solipsism; this is, rather, the condition characteristic of hell.”
For the Orthodox Christian, it is often noted, there are “at least” seven sacraments. On the long list that can be attached to the seven, surely one is the mystery of friendship: an enduring relationship held together not only by affinity, shared questions and common interests, but the awareness that each can help the other in a quest — a partnership in pilgrimage. As the bond between Rowan Williams and Thomas Merton bears witness, not all friendships depend on being of the same generation or even being simultaneously alive.
December 8, 2010
note: The water color of Canterbury Cathedral on the book’s cover is by Owen Merton. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton refers to his father painting in the Cathedral Close at Canterbury during his Easter vacation from Oakham in 1929.
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