Review: Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton & Catherine de Hueck Doherty (Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2009) ed. Robert Wild.
Father Louis, in some strange mysterious way I never quite understood, was in part my spiritual son.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was one of the most significant writers on the contemplative life in the 20th century, and his life and writings continue to have a meaningful impact on the lives of many. Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985) was almost twenty years Merton’s senior, but when they met at Friendship House in Harlem (NY) in 1941, a friendship was birthed that lasted until Merton’s untimely death in 1968. Robert Wild edited two books on Catherine de Hueck Doherty in 2009: Comrades Stumbling Along: The Friendship of Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Dorothy Day as Revealed through Their Letters and Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton & Catherine de Hueck Doherty.
Compassionate Fire is divided into six sections: 1) ‘Introduction’ to the life of Merton and Doherty, 2) Letters: 1941-1949, 3) Letters: 1950-1959, 4) Letters: 1960-1968, 5) Catherine’s Talk on the Occasion of Merton’s Death and, 6) Afterward. The ‘Introduction’ is just that: a general overview in a few pages for those needing a primer on the life of Merton and Doherty. The gem of the missive, though, is the letters that passed between Doherty and Merton from 1941-1968. A few letters have gone astray, but Wild seems to have found and organized most of the correspondence.
There is a discernable shift in the literary interaction between Doherty and Merton from the earliest letters to the final few years. Merton was a young man seeking a meaningful vocation when he met Doherty in 1941, and Doherty was an older and more sure footed woman at the time; Merton was 26, Doherty was 45. Doherty was the reigning Amma at Friendship House in Harlem, and Merton was teaching at St. Bonaventure. Merton knew his vocation was not to teach at St. Bonaventure, but he was not sure what his vocation was meant to be. Doherty drew him to the activist life in the inner city of Harlem, but Merton was not sure this was his vocation. The intense and long letters that passed between Doherty and Merton in the autumn of 1941 are most telling and worth many a read.
‘Letters: 1941-1949’ mostly focus on the initial burst of friendship. Merton decided to join the Cistercians in December 1941, and after his decision, there was no correspondence between Doherty and himself until 1949. The publishing success of Seven Story Mountain in 1948 catapulted Merton to fame, and Doherty sent a letter to Merton in 1949 after eight years of silence between them. Needless to say, much had occurred in the lives of both in the troubled decade of the 1940s.
‘Letters: 1950-1959’ walk the interested reader into the growing maturity that existed between Doherty and Merton. Both are, increasingly so, becoming leaders in the merging of contemplation, renewal of the church and public activism in the USA and beyond. There is a sense in which Merton, in some ways, is becoming Doherty’s spiritual confessor. She opens her heart and mind, again and again, to Merton in an honest and vulnerable manner. There is a bond between them that has become tighter and closer over the years of struggle and tensions in their different communities. The crown jewel in this second phase of the correspondence is the letters between 1956-1958. Merton had left Doherty his Cuban Journal when he joined the Cistercians in 1941, and he told her she could publish it and receive the royalties. Doherty was convinced she could and would use the money to serve and assist many of the poorest of the poor from the published manuscript—her dreams were big about the possibilities of how Merton’s published manuscript could facilitate the work of the growing Friendship Houses in the USA and other parts of the world. The head of the Cistercian order made it clear that he did not want Merton’s pre-monastic journal published (Merton’s first serious experience of censorship). This not only irritated Merton but dashed many a hope and dream of Doherty. The way Doherty and Merton handle the disappointment is quite touching and tender and speaks much about their depth and understanding of how to handle the crushing of significant expectations. The letters between 1956-1958 have much to commend them, and Doherty and Merton embody a discerning wisdom in their correspondence that has a seering honesty and delicate touch to it.
‘Letters: 1960-1968’ bring the correspondence to a close. Doherty has entered a painful period in her life even though Madonna House in Combermere (Ontario-Canada) had become a sacred site for many. There is depth and there is insight, there is much pain revealed but there is much love, there is sadness but there is openness to transformation, there are hints of hope but poverty. There is much heaviness in the letters Doherty sent to Merton in the 1960s. Doherty’s letters tend to be longer and Merton’s shorter. The roles have been reversed. Merton had become the spiritual Abba to Doherty in the 1960s. Many of the larger issues are discussed in these letters, but both Doherty and Merton are definitely in search of greater silence and solitude to centre them in the midst of the political turmoil and spiritual searching of those that came to see them with such ambiguous and conflicted motivations.
Merton’s death in 1968 came as a tragic shock to Doherty and ‘Catherine’s Talk on the Occasion of Merton’s Death’ has some rare and amusing anecdotes in it about Merton and Lax when they were involved with Friendship House in the early 1940s. The lightness of ‘Catherine’s Talk’ makes for a fit conclusion to a correspondence that has, in many points, much incisive and yet demanding interaction.
It is difficult not to break into a wide and amused smile when Doherty recounts the early antics of the untried and coltish Thomas Merton and Robert Lax.
The ‘Afterword’ sums up nicely why Doherty should be canonized and the intricate friendship that brought and bonded together Doherty and Merton. There is no doubt Wild is on a mission, and his task and goal is to get Doherty canonized. Doherty’s friendship with Merton and Day seems to be a means Wild is using to argue his case.
There are a few fleeting thoughts that will not quit as I reflect on my reads of Compassionate Fire.
First, there is, as mentioned above, a heaviness at times in Doherty that can almost be oppressive. The negative seems to outweigh the positive, the darkness seems to crowd out the light. Merton has a lightness and nimble ness of step in the correspondence lacking in Doherty. Both were interpreting the times, but Merton has a finer feel for the light coming through the cracks. It is significant that Merton was also corresponding with Robert Lax in the 1960s, and both men had a contemplative depth like Doherty, but in A Catch of Anti-Letters between Merton and Lax from 1962-1967, there is a playfulness and irreverent puckishness that could only emerge from those who do not take their ego with too much seriousness. The henny penny attitude (the sky is falling in) of Doherty can, at times, miss much that is also of the light. Second, there is tendency by Wild to idealize, romanticize and slip into a type of Doherty hagiography in the ` Introduction` and `Àfterword`: such an approach does not facilitate the more subtle way of how saints are made and forged on the anvil of time. Third, Doherty was at Madonna House in Canada in the 1960s, but there is little mention of some of the larger issues that were occurring in Canada and between Canada and the USA at the time. There is a tendency in Doherty to miss the very things that were being positively struggled through in Canada at a larger political level in the 1960s in her correspondence with Merton. All of the talk of desert and poustinya did never truly translate into engaging the larger political and public events in Canada: this does need to be noted. Often, sadly so, the events in the USA crowd out what is happening in Canada, and Doherty tends to participate in this typical colonial problem.
Compassionate Fire is a fine primer and evocative insiders look into the souls of Doherty and Merton as they met and matured on their pilgrimage through time. This is a missive not to miss, and much can be learned about Merton, Doherty, Lax and many others in this well told tale of saints in the refining fire of transformation.