This Saturday, 31 January, is the centenary of Thomas Merton's birth in the small town of Prades in the Pyrenees-Orientales area of France, near the Spanish border. You could argue that there's nothing inherently worth noting about a centenary, but I'm not going to argue with any excuse to celebrate one of the 20th century's nost notable spiritual writers! If you want to celebrate this event with others and learn a bit more about Merton, do come along to a day event we're holding at St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, on 25 April this year. More details nearer the time.
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I'm writing a short article for a journal about the centenary and this has forced me to ask the question again of what it is that makes Merton worth remembering. As I've been researching other spiritual writers of that period for my doctorate, it strikes me how many have largely disappeared from view. Some deserve significant reappraisal and revisiting, others have simply done their job for their own times and can now rest from their labours. But Merton is different. He continues to stand out, to speak out, and to urge people of faith to live differently in response to their own context. Why?
I was trying to remember what it was that first drew me to Merton and I remembered that, although I have had a copy of New Seeds of Contemplation on my bookshelf for most of my adult life, it was the 1995 edition Monica Furlong's excellent biography (originally published in 1980) that rekindled and deepened my interest in him. It was the man as much as his writings that caught my imagination. And, if I remember correctly, it was the sense of how far he travelled in his life and the range of his engagements that struck me as uniquely important. To get a sense of both of these things, his seven volumes of journals and five volumes of collected letters (which comprise only about a fifth of his archived letters) provide an invaluable source. If you want something of an overview, the one volume selections of his journals in The Intimate Merton (edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo) and of his letters in Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters (edited by Bill Shannon and Christine Bochen) are both available in paperback. Any appraisal of his work and impact cannot ignore these sources.
In his journals, Merton expresses with candid honesty a restlessness and a journeying that, nonetheless, has deep continuities: his call to live a contemplative life, his vocation as a writer, his prophetic engagement with the world around him. But these continuities are buffeted and honed by quickly discarded projects, thwarted attempts to forge a particular path through the demands of a vowed life, the trials and delights of falling in love, and by constantly evolving religious insights, shaped by his conversations with other writers, friends, members of other faiths and, above all, his encounter with the Absolute in silence. 'To change is to grow. To be perfect is to have changed often' as Newman said.
In his letters, Merton shows one of the most unique aspects of his spiritual vision and labour - the exploration of truth and goodness in the midst of a changing world through conversation. The range of his correspondents is staggering: secular writers, peace activists, young people seeking wisdom, fellow religious, people of other faiths. From his journals, it is clear that he sometimes found this task burdensome, but he was deeply committed to sustaining these conversations in order to learn, grow, influence, rage, console and encourage. I struggle to think of another prominent Christian writer and thinker who has had such an active dialogue with so many people. Indeed, I struggle to think of any public thinker, religious or not, who has been so broad and inclusive in their approach to the big questions. Surely the only way for our society to mature and address its deepest problems is for there to be many, many more conversations between aritsts, scientists, activists, politicians, contemplatives, poets, humanists, prophets. We waste our energy on silly polemics and neglect the creative power of covnersation. If the only achievement of Thomas Merton had been to show us how such conversation is possible and essential, he would have done us all a very great service.