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Robert EllsbergNovember 04, 2022
robert ellsberg on the right wearing a suit crouches next to sister wendy who is wearing her habitRobert Ellsberg with Sister Wendy. Photo provided by the author.

Like most people, I came to know Sister Wendy Becket through her popular television program, “Sister Wendy’s Odyssey,” which appeared on PBS in the 1990s. This was a temporary sideline from her actual life as a consecrated hermit, who lived on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England. At Orbis Books I came to publish several of her books.

Sister Wendy died on December 30, 2018. But in the last three years of her life we found ourselves engaged in an extraordinary exchange of almost daily emails, quite unlike anything either of us had experienced before. It was Sister Wendy who suggested that this exchange might be meant for a wider audience—quite a departure from her lifelong reticence about sharing anything concerning her personal story or interior life. The result is the book, Dearest Sister Wendy. . . A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship (Orbis Books). The selection below, from our conversations about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, is one of the fascinating threads in the book, which, like many other topics, turned out to be about more than it seemed.

Sister Wendy entertained complex and competing opinions about Merton. She was fascinated by him, constantly reading and rereading his writings and admiring his wisdom and brilliance. But always she detected something “obtuse” and “fragmented” in his relationship with God—or perhaps in his relationship with the monastic spirit. More than any other figure, his name would recur in our correspondence. I began to sense that in wrestling with Merton, Sister Wendy was struggling with something deeper.


May 28, 2016
Dearest Robert,

I must confess to you that I have never met a real contemplative who found Merton useful. That he should write about prayer and yet in his journals show such a fragmented and in fact obtuse relationship with God is a never-ending puzzle and the source of my interest in him. It sounds so patronizing to say that he meant very well and was never consciously dishonest or untruthful, and I feel shame at even writing these words.

May 31, 2016
Dear Sister Wendy,

It is interesting what you say about Merton—that you have never met a real contemplative who found him useful. But perhaps that is the thing: the vast numbers of people—not “real contemplatives,” you might say—for whom he opened the world of contemplation.

Sister Wendy: Knowing that Merton thinks he thinks this, but will soon be taking active steps to disprove it in practice, is disturbing, or maybe it just is in me.

August 9, 2016
Dearest Robert,

Merton: The last thing I would want is to in any way disturb your affection for this fascinating man. Just remember though, dearest Robert, that whenever you quote him somebody who knows his work will remember that in a page or two he will have gone back completely on what he says. Part of his essential makeup seems to be an inability to make a decision and stick to it. He is innocent in this. Knowing that Merton thinks he thinks this, but will soon be taking active steps to disprove it in practice, is disturbing, or maybe it just is in me. I don’t want to pursue this.

The subject of Thomas Merton was always a sore point for Sister Wendy. I was glad to hear her wonder whether in this case she had been too narrow in her judgments, though this precipitated the closest thing to an argument between us.

March 27, 2017
Dearest Robert,

I had a revelation yesterday about dear Merton. I was reading what he said on the 10th of December 1964. He was expressing his great happiness and he says something to the effect that he knows he is essentially called to the life of solitude. At the same time, he says, this is not in any conventional sense, “far from it,” but he says that to categorize is ludicrous. It struck me that that was my mistake. Somehow in God’s providence this very unusual man is both called to solitude and unable to live in solitude. He holds these two opposing tendencies innocently within himself. I was reminded of Dame Julian’s insight into “All shall be well.” She says that she knows the Church teaches about hell and she doesn’t deny it, and yet…and yet… “All manner of things shall be well.”

I’ve often been grieved that Merton never seems contrite about his extraordinary breaches of the rule and his very flexible interpretation of the vows. But I can see that he doesn’t understand that he actually has gone against God’s will. He feels himself different. It’s a strange interpretation of “love and do what you will.” But he so ardently wants to love that he can’t believe that he isn’t wholly free from the restraints that bind all the other monks. So I see that I am too narrow in categorizing him, and understanding this makes me feel very much less grieved, because he is a wonderful man and has influenced so many, as you say. Perhaps now in heaven he will enjoy the irony that all the romantic beauty that was so influential and still is, he ended up by completely disavowing. How wonderful God’s ways are.

Robert Ellsberg: At the same time, he was pointing toward a new model of contemplative life that was not nearly so fixated on an old style of ascetical holiness.

March 27, 2017
Dearest Sister Wendy,

It is interesting that Merton devoted so much attention to the question of the “true self,” and the need to escape the masks we present to ourselves and to the world. I think a certain amount of Merton’s bad-boy posturing had to do with the pressures of the image he had helped to create for himself—as the Monk, the Contemplative, who had left his ego behind to be silent with God. It was a clever move for his abbot to encourage him to write The Seven Storey Mountain. But it carried a price for Merton.

I think his relationship to his monastic vocation was very complex. He was a man with one foot in a style of monastic life that had been stable for centuries; but with the other foot he was exploring a new paradigm for religious life. There is no doubt that he struggled and strained against the constraints of a system he had voluntarily joined. But at the same time, he was pointing toward a new model of contemplative life that was not nearly so fixated on an old style of ascetical holiness—what he called a false sense of separation from the world. Because of him, he made it possible for other contemplatives to engage with the outside world in a way that didn’t involve so much doubleness and subterfuge.

I don’t know if you will agree with me about this. But I am glad if your reflection has made you more understanding or forgiving of poor Merton. (I cannot fail to think of him as my senior, although he was much younger than I am when he died.)

Merton’s love affair was obviously a great violation of his monastic vows. Probably many monastics have been so tempted, but they did not write it all down in their journals! (Others may be tempted to other kinds of violation.) His having done so, it is easy to see how deluded he could be—what ridiculous self-justifications he could devise. I think it is remarkable that he did not burn all his diaries, because on some level he wanted to be honest; he ultimately knew the difference between his true self and the mask. And so we can also see him working his way through this crisis, striving for honesty, faithfulness, resolution—on a higher level that I think represents his ongoing conversatio morum; not just a matter of self-repression and discipline, but of growth toward the deeper meaning of his vocation.

Forgive me if I am talking about things of which I have no understanding.

March 29, 2017
Dearest Robert,

I cannot agree with some of the things you said in your beautiful and spiritual letter. I have had them on my heart all night, wondering whether I should express my concerns or simply leave things as they are. Let me just take up two points where I think that factually you may not be completely secure. There are probably more than two: I felt quite distressed by parts of your letter because I couldn’t agree, but these are two that stick out in my consciousness at present.

The first is when you say that Merton was tempted sexually, but so are many other priests. The point is that not many Trappist priests would be because they are enclosed. Enclosure removes you from the fascinations of the world, but in return it protects you from many temptations. Members of an enclosed order shut themselves up sacrificially to be completely free for God, or as completely free as is possible. Because our dear Merton flouted the rules of enclosure and as a hermit had ample opportunity to have intercourse with the world without the monastery knowing it, he was exposed to temptation and I think it was inevitable that this lovable man who had so early lost his mother would sooner or later long for female affection. Incidentally I don’t think his affair was the worst of his un-monkish experiences. I think he was far more unfaithful with regard to obedience. But he certainly didn’t see it as unfaithfulness and he writes very fully and powerfully about all these (to me) spiritual tragedies without ever feeling the need to express sorrow.

Sister Wendy: There are many other ways of being a monk, but that doesn’t mean that monasticism, as it is, is a dead-end and a waste of time, as Merton was beginning to think.

The other thing, which is far more important, is what you say about his seeing the way to a new kind of monastic life. Robert, I think there will always be a need for the pure Benedictine/ Cistercian monastic severity—like the Carmelites here: These women so full of potential feel the true need to shut themselves up and deny much that would interest them for the sake of the deepest prayer that is open to those who love Him.

There are many other ways of being a monk, but that doesn’t mean that monasticism, as it is, is a dead-end and a waste of time, as Merton was beginning to think. His own lack of fulfillment made him read an emptiness into the lives of his brothers and, though there may well have been poor and crippled monks at Gethsemani, that was not because of the life but because of their unfitness for it. I think he has done great disservice to monasticism by his later writings, but fortunately no one takes nearly as much notice of them as they do of the wonderful romantic stuff that has drawn so many people into religious life.

March 29, 2017
Dearest Sister Wendy,

I don’t mind your friendly correction on matters about which I am so unqualified to speak. Forgive my presumption. I didn’t mean to suggest that other Trappist monks also strayed sexually, as Merton had the opportunity to do. But there are other ways of straying, surely—and of course it is the work of a religious superior to know when to pull on the rope. Merton’s nature caused him constantly to be straining against the rope, yet in the end I get the feeling that he realized that he needed the rope (even as he muttered and rebelled against it). My sense, in talking to monks at Gethsemani, is that Merton’s abbot realized he was in many ways a special case who needed a very special kind of handling, and that he was deft in knowing, for instance, that Merton’s monastic vocation really required that he be allowed to write. And I think the abbot dealt with Merton’s misuse of the privilege of his hermitage in a very compassionate and understanding way—helping Merton come to his own understanding that he couldn’t have it both ways.

Robert Ellsberg: I don’t think for a minute that Merton had come to think that the monastic life was obsolete, a dead-end, or waste of time! I think on the contrary he felt it was an essential, prophetic vocation.

I don’t think for a minute that Merton had come to think that the monastic life was obsolete, a dead-end, or waste of time! I think on the contrary he felt it was an essential, prophetic vocation. I think this point, dear Sister Wendy, is a matter not of opinion but of fact. I think he was among those who helped to vindicate the meaning and relevance of such a vocation in the modern world—even if, as I will grant you, he was an ambivalent representative of the vocation he championed.

I should know better than to bring up the subject of Merton with you, a neuralgic subject—but I was encouraged by what sounded like a fresh note of sympathy and appreciation for him! I won’t accuse you of trying to “undo my love” for him, but by the same token I don’t want to disturb your sleep with my naïve interpretations.

In time a surprising turning point arrived in Sister Wendy’s estimation of Thomas Merton!

October 19, 2017
Dearest Robert,

As I continue to reflect on Merton, I’m beginning to feel that my categories have been too limited, that Merton overflows all normal regulations and is a complete one-off. I still wish he could have toed the moral line more faithfully, even if it is only the morality of holiness as opposed to that of simple virtue. I’m not referring to his affair with “M,” which was a kind of breakdown I think, but his criticism of the abbot and other monks. A lot is made of that great mystical breakthrough at the corner of Walnut Street when he saw all humanity luminous with God and felt complete reverence for everybody. He may well have felt that for the world but he doesn’t treat or speak of his brothers with that loving reverence. I think these and other unloving attitudes are just the detritus, the sparks flying off from his great involvement in God and His world, and I think I have made far too much of them. All the same, he has so much to give and he, in fact, gives so much that one longs for him to give everything.

As she approached the end of her life, it seemed as if Sister Wendy was continuing to grow in self-knowledge, in solidarity with humanity, and trust in the mercy of God.

October 20, 2017
Dearest Sister Wendy,

I am very touched by your ongoing and ever-evolving relationship with Thomas Merton. Perhaps it is part of the monastic vocation to strive for simplicity—or perhaps purity of heart (“to will one thing”), and Merton was irreducibly complex. And yet it is hard to imagine another setting in which his particular gifts could have borne such great fruit. As a parish priest, a professor, an intellectual, a chaplain, a writer—as a husband? He struggled and chafed against the restrictions of his life, and yet this friction provided some of the energy that fueled his creative genius. Now, you could say, a monk has no business worrying about creative genius. Perhaps true enough—and so it is perhaps best, as you say, that he was a “one-off,”—he was Merton. He himself rebelled against being made into a poster boy for the monastic life or for any other ideal. He was Jonah—being carried to his destination by the providence of God, in a vehicle not entirely of his choosing. Anyway, it shows great humility on your part to suppose that “perhaps my categories have been too limited.”

Sister Wendy’s new assessment of Thomas Merton was no simple matter of changing her mind. It seemed to reflect a deeper re-evaluation of her own long-standing judgments and categories, an opening out of her own “narrow and selfish mind.” Was it possible that in her own way she was recapitulating Merton’s famous insight “at the corner of Fourth and Walnut” which he described as “waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious isolation and supposed holiness”? As she approached the end of her life, it seemed as if Sister Wendy was continuing to grow in self-knowledge, in solidarity with humanity, and trust in the mercy of God.

October 22, 2017
Dearest Robert,

It’s taken me a long time to understand that there is no solitary Christian. For many years I could only see Our Blessed Lord as my world and nobody else, not just the far-away nameless masses in China and South America, but even the people I knew and loved didn’t really matter all that much. I prayed for them in the abstract, as it were. But over the years Our Lord has taught me how united we all are in Him, that we praise in Him in Holy Communion and pray in Him always. So through His goodness He has opened out my narrow little selfish mind and made me aware of what He has always been conscious of, the solidarity of humanity.

Sister Wendy: I feel it is only common sense for me to admit what I should have seen long ago, that I am just too small and conventional a person to understand how the wrongness of much of his activity was a sort of off-flow from the rightness.

More and more I do see the paradox of Merton’s needing Gethsemani and the great wisdom of Abbot James’ treatment of him and the impossibility of his living the life of an ordinary Cistercian monk. I’m wary of what he says about not wanting fame or significance, because I think he did. He can take one’s breath away by his innocent assertions of his own extreme importance to monasticism, and, in fact, to ecumenism, let alone political wisdom in the States. But there is a sense in which what he says is right, and why should he not be conscious of this? Every now and again he feels that this is unseemly and makes swatting movements, but they never last. It is his general thrust, his search for God on multiple levels of personality and experience that make him so riveting to read.

I feel it is only common sense for me to admit what I should have seen long ago, that I am just too small and conventional a person to understand how the wrongness of much of his activity was a sort of off-flow from the rightness. Strangely, I think to some extent the abbot did recognize this. I don’t think he ever understood the extent to which Merton ignored his religious commitments, but there’s a great truth in what Merton says towards the end: that he doesn’t think the abbot minds what he does, as long as he stays in Gethsemani. I think it was meant as a disparaging remark but in actual fact it’s a wise one. I think the abbot had understood that Merton simply overflowed all categories, but that as long as he had a stable base, he could be stabilized.

October 22, 2017
Dearest Sister Wendy,

What you say about the Body of Christ, and feeling more connected to the rest of the world, is an idea that was very dear to Dorothy Day. And I think the progress you have made here has its own counterpart in Merton’s capacity to see that solitude ultimately led to compassionate engagement with the rest of humanity. Maybe that increase in a sense of solidarity is linked to your own increasing capacity for compassionate understanding of dear Merton!

October 30, 2017
Dearest Robert,

The more I have come to see through the inconsistencies that are so frequent, and realize that Merton is not inconsistent in wanting God, the less upset I have become by his failures. He seems to have an almost preternatural unawareness of himself and his motives—at least at the time. It is almost amusing to find how sometime after, he would diagnose with precision how wrong and foolish he had been.

July 30, 2018
Dearest Robert,

I feel about [Henri Nouwen] as I do about Thomas Merton. There is much self-deception and muddle in their lives; and yet there is an unwavering concentration on God. I think many people would find this very encouraging—that it’s the direction that matters, the desire, and not the spiritual achievements, as it were. One hears ideas of canonization of these two wafted round; and although I certainly don’t think they merit this on objective virtue, I do think there’s a point in their heroic fixation, despite their weakness, on the only thing that matters.

With love,

Sister Wendy

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