A brief comment on Seraphim Rose’s “Letter to Thomas Merton”

I’ve just re-read Fr Seraphm Rose’s “Letter to Thomas Merton,” written in 1962 but apparently never actually sent to Merton. Sometime after Rose’s death in 1982, the text was discovered and published as a booklet and eventually posted to the web where it remains available:


Rose’s letter is regarded by some as a strong patristic response to Merton’s alleged “aberrations”, notably his writings on such controversial topics as war and peace.

What strikes me most in rereading Rose’s letter is that it is, by the later standards of his writing, an immature work. Much of it is written in a sarcastic tone, with many words set in quotations marks where there is no need for them. More important, Rose seems to have read very little of Merton’s writing and misunderstood a good deal of what he had read.

Rose’s letter was written in the same year as his reception into the Orthodox Church, when Rose was new to Orthodoxy and in the thick of convert zeal. It may be that Rose came to regard his letter as flawed and intemperate and abandoned it.

It’s a pity, however, that Rose never made contact with Merton. He would have found that in fact they shared much common ground. Merton too was a student of the Church Fathers. Merton also had an aversion to utopian ideologies no less intense than Rose nor was Merton any more optimistic about the future than Rose. Rose would have helped Merton clarify what he meant by such phrases as “total peace” — for Merton nothing less than living the evangelical life.

For Rose, a dialog with Merton, a fellow monk living on the edge of a diseased society, might have led to a greater appreciation of the place of public witness and even protest on issues such as nuclear war. In 1962, many Americans, including Catholic and Orthodox Christians, favored a unilateral nuclear attack on Russia. We now know such an attack had the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Many millions of people would have died. As a popular slogan in those days put it, “The only good red is a dead red.” Monks, Merton believed, should see the moral issues of the world around them with heightened clarity. He felt it essential to raise a voice of opposition. In fact his writing on this topic had a significant impact. According to the pope’s secretary, John XXIII’s remarkable encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth) was in part influenced by Merton’s writings on peace. The fact that there was no nuclear war in the 1960s can partly be credited to the lonely prophetic voice of Merton — and still more to John XXIII.

Readers of these comments might find of interest a lecture I gave several years ago on this aspect of Merton’s life:


Jim Forest

16 July 2014

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