Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was one of the most influential spiritual writers of modern times. A Trappist monk, peace and civil rights activist, and widely-praised literary figure, Merton was renowned for his pioneering work in contemplative spirituality, his quest to understand Eastern thought and integrate it with Western spirituality, and his firm belief in Christian activism. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, is the defining spiritual memoir of its time, selling over one million copies and translating into over fifteen languages. Merton was also one of the most prolific and provocative letter writers of the twentieth century. His letters (those written both by him and to him), archived at the Thomas Merton Studies Center in Kentucky, number more than ten thousand. For Merton, letters were not just a vehicle for exchanging information, but his primary means for initiating, maintaining, and deepening relationships. Letter-writing was a personal act of self-revelation and communication. His letters offer a unique lens through which we relive the spiritual and social upheavals of the twentieth century, while offering wisdom that is still relevant for our world today.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, writer and activist for peace and civil rights. Merton’s works have had a profound impact on contemporary religious and philosophical thought.
It must be thirty years since I first read Thomas Mertons Elected Silence which, under the title The Seven Storey Mountain, had enjoyed enormous success in the USA. I well remember the huge impression it made on me and how I admired Mertons spirituality and erudition.
When the book (which had been carefully edited for readers on this side of the Atlantic by Evelyn Waugh) was published over here, Graham Greene wrote: It is a rare pleasure to read an autobiography with a pattern and meaning valid for all of us. It is a book one reads with a pencil so as to make it ones own.
Merton was not alone one of the great spiritual guides and mentors of the twentieth century but he was also a truly amazing letter writer, a true art form in itself.
Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters features some of the best letters selected from five volumes originally published between 1985 and 1994. His letters (those written both by him and to him), archived at the Thomas Merton Studies Centre in Kentucky, number more than ten thousand.
In this extraordinary collection there are letters written to Pope John XXIII, Coretta Scott King (after the murder of her husband) to James Baldwin, Boris Pasternak, Jacqueline Kennedy (after President Kennedys assassination), poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, and Daniel Berrigan to name just a few.
There are also letters written to friends and replies to people, whom he didnt know, who wrote to him. The depth and breadth of the correspondence are simply incredible; Merton had a particular respect and fondness for Boris Pasternak who had been expelled from the Soviet Writers Union because of the publication outside Russia of Dr Zhivago.
He wrote to him: My dear Pasternak, it is a joy to write to you and to thank you for your fine poetry and your great prose. A voice like yours is of great importance for all mankind - in our day - so too is a voice like that of Shostakovich. The Russian leaders do not perhaps realise to the full how important and how great you are for Russia and for the world. Whatever may lie ahead for the world, I believe that men like yourself, and I hope myself also, may have the chance to enter upon a dialogue that will really lead to peace and to a fruitful age for man and the world. Such peace and fruitfulness are spiritual realities to which you already have access, though others do not. In the presence of these deeper things, and in witness of them, I clasp your hand in deep friendship and admiration. You are in my prayers and I beg God to bless you.
Needless to say, many of the letters express his deep antipathy to war and violence; and he writes with passion and heartfelt conviction. He also writes about Eastern mysticism, about Chinese Taoism, Hinduism, Islam and, above all, Christianity. There is something truly modern and contemporary about Merton and he comes across in these letters as very human and with his finger on the pulse of life.
Without a doubt, it is a truly marvellous collection of letters from one of the most influential spiritual writers of modern times.
- Anthony Redmond, The Irish Catholic, August 2009