The National Catholic Review

Survival or Prophecy? is the right book for Merton devotees seeking greater insight into Merton’s thoughts about monastic renewal. In his letters to his friend Jean LeClercq, Merton candidly bares his own soul revealing frustration with his monastic situation at Gethsemani and a yearning to live as a hermit—even if it means leaving Gethsemani and the Cistercians. On April 27, 1955, he wrote this to LeClercq:

Our Regular Visitation was finished just a few days ago, during which the Visiting Abbot concentrated his attention on what he called “a hermit mentality” in the monastery. He strongly disapproved of it...we have reached a point at which I think that I cannot, or even should, remain at Gethsemani, or in the Cistercian Order. There is truly no place for me here, and altogether I am very glad that the Regular Visitation has swept away the little ineffectual compromises which my Father Abbot had thought up in order to “arrange matters.”

Merton and LeClercq in their many publications became primary catalysts after World War II for a monastic renewal based on the practices of the early church fathers, especially St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a renewal putting contemplation—not asceticism—at the heart of monastic life and validating the hermit-option for those qualified. Hart’s introduction states simply, “The correspondence between Dom Jean LeClercq and Father Thomas Merton is a microcosmic history of the monastic renewal in the mid-twentieth century.”

Beginning in 1950 and ending in 1968, the letters cover most of Merton’s monastic career. Thomas Merton (b. 1915) entered the Trappist (Cistercian) Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941 and very soon began writing on monastic renewal. In 1968, after delivering an address at an East-West conference on monastic renewal in Bangkok—a conference to which he had been invited by LeClercq—he was accidently electrocuted. Jean LeClercq (b. 1911) entered the Benedictine monastery of Clervaux, France, in 1928 and began writing and speaking worldwide on Benedictine and Cistercian history and life; he died in 1993.

Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s fellow Trappist, friend and personal secretary at Gethsemani, as well as literary executor after his death, is the most authoritative commentator on Merton’s life and writings. He is the editor and compiler of many original Merton texts as well as himself author of numerous publications about Merton. Hart lets the texts speak for themselves without commenting on the significance of individual letters. He introduces each simply by name, date and occasionally the place where the letter was written. “Jean LeClercq to Thomas Merton, Clervaux, July 13, 1954.” Occasionally he inserts a brief introduction to the letter or a footnote explaining the text.

Hart does, however, provide some background aids for the reader. The foreword by Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., introduces the historical context and main themes influencing the post-World War II monastic renewal. Weakland, then abbott-primate of the Benedictine Order (he later became archbishop of Milwaukee), was in direct contact with the people and movements affecting the renewal; he was also present at the 1968 Bangkok meeting. Hart himself in the introduction gives brief biographical sketches of Merton and LeClercq, and the book’s appendix provides a chronology of both authors, focusing primarily on the dates of their publications.

Readers who enjoyed the previously published five-volume set of Merton letters will also enjoy this volume. I noted that most, though not all, of Merton’s letters to LeClercq were published in Hart’s volume of this set, The School of Charity: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction—selected and edited by Brother Patrick Hart (1990). But Survival or Prophecy? is more engaging reading, since it includes the personal situation as well as the ongoing continuity of their dialogue—often giving LeClercq’s more temperate response to Merton’s simplistic critiques of his abbot and order. In a letter from December 1960, Merton brings LeClercq up to date on the resolution of his often expressed concern about remaining at Gethsemani and in the Cistercians:

My personal problems seem to be working themselves out in a way. A very fine little hermitage has been built in a nice site; it is for the purpose of dialogue and conversations with Protestant ministers and professors, but it also serves for solitude and I have at least a limited permission to use it part-time. This is to a great extent a hopeful solution and I find that if I can have at least some real solitude and silence it makes a tremendous difference. It can at least help to stave off the kind of crisis that arose in 1959 when I felt it was necessary to change my situation and go elsewhere. As long as this solution exists, this can be avoided.

The title Survival or Prophecy?, taken from Merton’s Bangkok address, is somewhat misleading. I was disappointed that nowhere did the letters explicitly comment on the prophetic role of the monk in modern society. But the book is worth reading for the insights into the complexities of 20th-century monastic renewal, as well as for its insights into the personalities of Merton and LeClercq.

 

Richard J. Hauser, S.J., of Creighton University, Omaha, Neb., is director of graduate programs in theology and spirituality as well as the rector of the Jesuit community at the university.