Two Sides of the Same Coin

Echoing Silenceby Edited by Robert InchaustiNew Seeds. 224p $14 (paperback)
As the samplings in this anthology suggest, putting things down in words was as urgent for Thomas Merton as breathing. His youthful comment about Prousts attitude towards the past, for example, gives a clue to Merton himself: writing was the one present he could put up with.

Echoing Silence is culled from 28 of Mertons more than 60 published works, all of which seem to cry out: I write, therefore I am. But at the same time: I write, therefore God is. Compiled and edited by Robert Inchausti, a professor of English at California Polytechnic State University, the anthology also includes journal passages and excerpts from letters on the subject of writing, some to fans, others to authors like Czeslaw Milosz and Boris Pasternak, Henry Miller and Walker Percy.

Merton fully intended to abandon writing once he was accepted as a novice at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. But his abbot decided otherwise. Over six years he published several books of poetry. Perhaps I shall continue writing on my deathbed, he told his journal, and even take some asbestos paper with me in order to go on writing in purgatory. But neither Merton, nor his abbot nor his publisher was prepared for the success of The Seven Storey Mountain.

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He worked hard to reconcile fame and his spiritual life: Disconcerting and dis-edifying as it is, this seems to be my lot and my vocation. It is what God has given me in order that I might give it back to Him. But when the high price of celebrity began to dawn on him, with ramifications that would continue for the rest of his days, Merton wrote of asking the Holy Spirit for help, losing myself entirely by becoming public property just as Jesus is public property in the Mass.

As his writing skill grows, he despairs over the difficulties of writing honestly about the spiritual life: ...the language of Christianity has been so used and so misused that sometimes you distrust it: you do not know whether or not behind the word Cross there stands the experience of mercy and salvation, or only the threat of punishment.

Other spiritual writers present particular difficulties: ...it is depressing that those who serve God and love Him sometimes write so badly, when those who do not believe in Him take pains to write so well. He opens his heart to Milosz: The lamentable, pitiable emptiness of so much Catholic writing, including much of my own, is only too evident. By 1966 he complains that speaking of spiritual things is bringing on a sort of nausea. (He also confesses to Milosz that five years after a book has appeared I wish I had never been such a fool as to write it. But when I am writing it I think it is good. If we were not all fools, we would never accomplish anything at all.)

Three years after attaining worldwide renown, Merton is confiding to his journal that he no longer knows the central figure in The Seven Storey Mountain. And when the 1960s arrive, he is fretting about the way the people who know him from that book want him to continue to correspond with the identity they imagined for him on reading it. They demand that I remain forever the superficially pious, rather rigid, and somewhat narrow-minded young monk I was twenty years ago....

Happily, he was able to use his growing embarrassment over the pronouncements and pieties of his early works to deepen his later thinking. In a 1967 letter to a fellow monk, Merton writes, When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of answers. But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further into solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions.

He became particularly interested in the struggles of American blacks for civil rights. (Responding to James Baldwins sometimes bitter writings on Christianity at that time, Merton says, I think your view is fundamentally religious, genuinely religious, and therefore has to be against conventional religiosity.) He also plunged into the conflict over Vietnam, alienating many Catholics. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., called him the conscience of the peace movement.

At the same time, he was growing increasingly absorbed in Eastern thought, very much reflected in his superlative Contemplative Prayer, a reworking of an earlier book on the subject. In his fine recasting of The Way of Chuang Tzu, we get a hint of his conflicted feelings about his own literary efforts:

Achievement is the beginning of

failure.

Fame is the beginning of disgrace.

It was his interest in East-West dialogue that resulted in the journey to the Far East in 1968 that ended in his death, in Bangkok, by accidental electrocution. True to form, he faithfully recorded every facet of that trip (collected in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton).

Yet one curious truth that surfaces in Echoing Silences many observations on writing is that despite Mertons fixation on the art, he also managed to remain detached from it. Shortly before his death he noted, No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.

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