Review: “Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters”

merton life in letters coverPatrick O’Connell over at The Merton Seasonal asked me to review Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters for the Spring 2009 magazine.

It was a great chance to exchange emails with two of the great Merton scholars and editors of Merton’s letters Bill Shannon and Christine Bochen. I was particularly interested in looking at the “American-ness” of Merton’s correspondence. Aside from the theological or spiritual content, I wondered how Merton’s letters fit in the genre of American literature.

Below is an excerpt from my review:

While it is necessary to place the letters in this collection in the context of Merton’s own life and in the context of Merton’s overall legacy, it is also important to examine Merton’s letter-writing art in the context of 20th-century American literature.

Literary sociologists David Barton and Nigel Hall argue in Letter Writing as a Social Practice that letter writing is a genre unto itself and deserves to be studied as enthusiastically as poetry or the novel. Additionally, they posit that “many contemporary genres have their origins in letters” (Barton and Hall, 4). The new research into letter writing raises several questions regarding Thomas Merton, who was, as Shannon and Bochen put it, “one of the most prolific and provocative letter writers of the twentieth century” (vii).

How will Merton be critiqued as a letter-writer per se? William Shannon said in the same personal e-mail that “Merton was an amazingly good letter-writer.” How will critics analyze Merton’s letter-writing genius as compared to his innovation and skill as a poet or his daring analysis as an essayist? British novelist, satirist, and literary critic Evelyn Waugh, who prepared the manuscript of Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain for a British audience, so much admired Merton’s skill that he advised Merton to “put books aside and write serious letters and to make an art of it” (ix). Of course, Merton didn’t set book-writing aside, but he did continue over his life to perfect his letter-writing craft.

More importantly, are Merton’s letters derivative of his political essays, theological and monastic treatises, autobiographical writings, poetry, and intellectual critiques or, as Barton and Hall prompt, do all these genres have their genesis in Merton’s letters instead? Often the personal correspondence of a well-known personality are collected and published in order to provide enthusiasts with an “inside look” at the “personal” life that would otherwise be hidden. The publication of personal letters can have a tinge of voyeurism. I would argue that it is in Merton’s letters that we find the foundations of his published works. The letters show him testing ideas, crafting opinions, grounding his analysis, playing with images and phrasing, sorting and sifting the essential components of his life story. From this perspective, Merton’s letters (and journals) are the seedbed for his completed works in other genres, rather than the frosting on his “real” work.

Equally important in recognizing Merton’s brilliance in the genre of letter-writing is understanding the “American-ness” of Merton’s correspondence project. Elizabeth Hewitt, author of Correspondence and American Literature, 1770-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), points out that in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that the marvel of American political ideology was the seeming ability to strike a balance between individual liberty and a celebration of democratic principles (4). “Letters emphasize the singularity of a particular letter-writer,” writes Hewitt, “even as they strive to position the recipient in an idealized relationship with the writer. They emphasize solidarity and individualism at once,” and thus reconcile a balance of power that is fundamentally American.”

Read the whole essay: Thank You For Your LetterREVIEWFINAL

Remembering Cardinal Bernardin

Twelve years ago today, the Catholic Church lost one of her great and humble leaders, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Bernardin grew up in the South. Born in South Carolina, he served for many years in Atlanta until he was asked to lead the U.S. Catholic bishops as their General Secretary. He held that position in the critical and turbulent years between 1968-1972, when Catholicism world-wide was trying to get it’s footing in the Post-Vatican II era.

Bernardin captured the vision of the second Vatican council: Carry forward tradition, not traditionalism; cling to the faithful first, and the dogma of faith second. He was a rigorous intellectual and philosopher, but, above all else, he was a pastor.

Cardinal Bernardin is probably best remembered for introducing the concept of “the seamless garment of life.” In his 1983 speech at Fordham University, Bernardin put forth an inquiry to the audience: How can Catholics address the need for a consistent ethic of life and probe the problems within the church and the wider society for developing such and ethic? He made this address in the context of the bishops’ letter on war and peace issues (The Challenge of Peace), which had been recently released. He said:

Right to life and quality of life complement each other in domestic social policy. They are also complementary in foreign policy. The Challenge of Peace joined the question of how we prevent nuclear war to the question of how we build peace in an interdependent world. Today those who are admirably concerned with reversing the nuclear arms race must also be those who stand for a positive U.S. policy of building the peace. It is this linkage which has led the U.S. bishops not only to oppose the drive of the nuclear arms race, but to stand against the dynamic of a Central American policy which relies predominantly on the threat and the use of force, which is increasingly distancing itself from a concern for human rights in El Salvador and which fails to grasp the opportunity of a diplomatic solution to the Central American conflict.

The relationship of the spectrum of life issues is far more intricate than I can even sketch here. I have made the case in the broad strokes of a lecturer; the detailed balancing, distinguishing and connecting of different aspects of a consistent ethic of life is precisely what this address calls the university community to investigate. Even as I leave this challenge before you, let me add to it some reflections on the task of communicating a consistent ethic of life in a pluralistic society.

I encourage you to read Cardinal Bernardin’s full address, especially in these days when the current cohort of American Catholic bishops seems to have lost sight of the “seamless garment” and of the delicacy of pluralism..

Biden: First Catholic Vice President

Another historic “first” that hasn’t been too highlighted in the news is that Obama’s victory brings with it Joe Biden as the first Catholic vice president of the United States. Biden is a good representative of most American Catholics. He loves his church. He respects its traditions. He listens carefully to its teachings and to the bishops who are its shepherds. He tries his best to live out his faith in the midst of the world. He forms his own conscience. He tries to act with mercy. He also demands that bishops provide real pastoral answers to contemporary issues, not simply archaic legalism. Sometimes this puts him into creative dissent with some aspects of the Catholic hierarchy.

Oh well. That’s like most of us. We say our prayers and get up the next morning and try to follow Jesus.

I pray that there will be an American bishop who is strong enough and secure enough to engage Joe Biden in an authentic, intellectual, compassionate, public dialogue on the role of the church and the state, the way scripture shapes and guides our values, the centrality of respect for human life and dignity, the role of forgiveness in public life, the way churches and governments can participate in God’s loving vision for the world beyond denominations, creeds, or nationalism. But this needs to be a bishop who respects Biden and his role, not one who is trying to punish him, humiliate him, or use him as a foil for what’s wrong with “liberalism.”.