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The Courage for Truth: The Letters of Thomas Merton, to Writers (Harvest Book) Paperback – 1 Aug 1994
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Those who have read Merton's seven volume journal will not be surprised that these letters reveal to some degree Merton's double life: the loyal churchman who observes monastic rubrics to the letter while questioning the very credibility of visible church structure and its coziness with American pragmatism. There is a surprisingly lively exchange between Merton and the poet Clayton Eshleman, the one correspondent in this volume who seems to have put the monk on the defensive about his inner contradictions.
The majority of the letters are addressed to South American poets, particularly Ernesto Cardenal, who had been a novice under Merton at Gethsemanae. Merton, who experienced a religious conversion of sorts in Cuba before entering the Trappists, enjoyed a romantic ideal of life south of the United States, and his interest in Hispanic poetry and authors strikes the reader as part escapist and part anti-capitalist. One cannot help but smile at his frequently professed desire to join Cardenal's experimental island community, Our Lady of Solentiname, when in his journal he expresses near horror at the prospect of living in the jungle of South Carolina [Mepkin Abbey] where he would die among snakes and alligators.
Generally speaking, Merton's letters here serve three purposes. First, they allowed him to vent feelings and frustrations that the writer believed would be misunderstood or outright harmful if expressed in the context of his monastery. Or put another way, his literary correspondences proved to him that he was not swallowed whole by the monastic mystique. Second, Merton's correspondences to writers-many agnostic or of undefined religious persuasion-met his need to believe that his monastic secluded existence served some sort of spiritual and secular reform mission. As much as he denied it, Merton did indeed question the relevance of a purely solitary contemplative life in a powerful country, and he desperately needed to establish solidarity with those behind the Iron Curtain and under repressive political regimes. I believe Merton to be sincere in this regard, though on paper the sentiment appears fawning at times and he sounds like the classic Cadillac liberal.
And finally, Merton wrote letters to other writers because "Amazon.com" had not yet been invented. From his mountain hideaway Merton conducted a book and poetry exchange operation that actually provokes outright laughter. Consider that his mail was censored and sometimes withheld without his knowledge by superiors, that he wrote to countries with irregular postal service, that he did have access to several publishing houses, that some of his correspondents were as unfocused as he was, and that Xerox machines were not yet in general use. It is quite possible there are monks in heaven who can honestly claim that their life's work consisted of sealing envelopes and mimeographing for Father Louis. That one of Merton's monastery responsibilities included reforesting is truly a sign of God's sense of humor.