If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians…. We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.
Thomas Merton -- Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
The centre of Thomas Merton Studies in Canada, since the historic 1978 ‘The Thomas Merton Symposium’ in Vancouver, British Columbia, has been on the West Coast. The Thomas Merton Reading Room is at Vancouver School of Theology (where the symposium was held), and most on the national executive of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada (TMSC) live on the West Coast of Canada. There is, therefore, a thriving interest in Merton on the West Coast of Canada.
There have also emerged in the last decade from the West Coast two challenging books from the probing mind of Hans Boersma from Regent College: Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (2009) and the more popular Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (2011). These two books have brought into sharp focus the essential role the 19th-20 century New Theologians of the Roman Catholic church played in calling the church back to her grounding, rooting and ancient sources of renewal. The Roman Catholic tradition had become stalled and frozen, in many ways, in the Tridentine paradigm and confessional commitment, between the 16th century and Vatican II. There was a narrowing between Trent and Vatican II within the much fuller and deeper Roman Catholic way. The earlier 16th century humanists such as John Colet, Thomas More, Erasmus and Juan Vives, for example, had a broader understanding of their faith than Tridentine Catholicism. Erasmus was even put on the Index at Trent and remained there until Vatican II.
The turn to the Great Tradition in the mid-20th century was initiated by Henri de Lubac in 1940 with the commitment to ‘Christian Sources’, and Jean Danielou walked step for step with de Lubac in such an unearthing project. There was a sense that much was missing in the motherlode of the faith journey, and the digging by de Lubac, Danielou and many others was part of the movement within the Roman Catholic tradition to the ancient Patristic sources of wisdom, insight and contemplative theology.Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Theology of Henri de Lubac (1976) tells the tale well. It is significant to note that within the moderate reformed and evangelical ethos there has been a turn to the Patristic sources also. Thomas Oden was front and centre in this movement in the early 1990s, and the publications of Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission (1995) and Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue (1997) have been part of this unfolding process. The leadership role of D. H. Williams in the formation of ‘Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future’ has, significantly, done much to further the turn of Evangelicals to the Christian Sources that the Orthodox are so committed to and to which De Lubac, Danielou, von Balthasar and other members of the New Theologians saw as the way forward: an ancient future faith. The publication of Boersma’s two books must be seen as set within this context. There has been a significant turn, therefore, by many in the 20th century to the Great Tradition as a way forward and beyond the limitations of protestant and liberal modernity and the further fragmentation of postmodernity.
It would be impossible, of course, to ignore such Anglican worthies as C.S. Lewis, A.M. Allchin, Andrew Louth and Rowan Williams in this cultural turn to the Great Tradition. Lewis was at the forefront of seeing the implications of the passing of the ‘discarded image’ that once shaped Western Civilization. Allchin, Louth and Williams carried the torch of the Christian Sources in the 1970s-1980s with the publication of Allchin’s The Silent Rebellion (1958), The World is a Wedding: Explorations in Christian Spirituality (1978), The Dynamic of Tradition (1981), Williams’ The Wound of Knowledge (1979) and Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (1981). I was much shaped and influenced by Allchin, Louth and Williams’ insights on Patristic contemplative theology in the late 1970s-early 1980s. I did two MA degrees in the area of Patristic Studies between 1979-1983 (the former at Regent College in Vancouver/BC on ‘The Spirituality of John Cassian’, the latter at University of British Columbia in Vancouver/BC on ‘Origin and Anthony: Patristic Theology and Spirituality’). I was reading a great deal of Merton in the 1970s (and his turn to the wisdom of the Desert, Patristic thought and Orthodoxy). It is significant to note that Allchin had a high regard for Merton and Williams has written a great deal about Merton. There are, in short, for those who see the connections many dots to connect between the New Theologians of the Roman Catholic tradition, the turn to the Great Tradition by Evangelicals and the High Church Anglican commitment to the ancient sources. It is significant that Merton has not yet found his way into the Evangelical ressourcement movement or the Nouvelle Theologie clan, but the leaders of the Anglican turn to Tradition have embraced Merton.
The hope of this paper is that Merton will come to be seen as a fellow traveller within both the evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians who have and are turning to the Great Tradition that T.S. Eliot dissected so well in ‘Tradition’ in After Strange Gods, J. Pelikan probed in The Vindication of Tradition and Congar clarified in Tradition and Traditions and The Meaning of Tradition.
The New Theologians such as Mohler, Blondel, Marechal, Rousselot, De Lubac, Bouillard, Balthasar, Chenu, Danielou, Charlier and Conger, in many ways, attempted to call the Roman Catholics back to a more contemplative theology that was more creedal and grounded in mystery than the more rationalist and confessional Tridentine agenda. The plough to soil New Theologians broke the hard ground of modernity and tossed seeds of an older way into the life of the church. Nature and Supernature need not be held at such a distance, a more spiritual and mystical exegesis was applied to the interpretation of the Bible, the Fathers of the Church (East and West) were held high as guides and sages of faith, tradition was seen in an organic and unfolding way, a more unified and communal ecclesiology was retrieved, engaging leading protestant theologians in an irenical manner was welcomed and notions such as ad fontes and ressourcement were leading terms that spoke much for those committed to the ancient sources. The compact agenda of the New Theologians was summed up in their threefold manifesto of sorts:
1) a return to classical (patristic-mediaeval) sources
2) a renewed interpretation of St. Thomas
3) a dialogue with the major movements and thinkers of the twentieth century, with particular attention to problems associated with the Enlightenment, modernity, liberalism.
The Roman Catholic tradition tended to move in three different directions after Vatican II: reaffirm Trent, be open to the modern mood and ethos, or raise probing questions about both Trent and Modernity from a Classical and more Ancient sources. The New Theologians were very much committed to the old ways and the relevance of such markings and paths for clearings in the soul, church and society. Both Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology and Heavenly Participation walk the extra mile to highlight the significant role the New Theologians played in the ongoing reformation of the Roman Catholic Church before, leading up to Vatican II and their ongoing relevance, but Thomas Merton is ignored by Hans Boersma in these fine books.
Needless to say, the theologians mentioned above were European and many of them Jesuits or Dominicans. It was this turn to the ‘Great Tradition’ that distinguished the New Theologians (who were only new in that they challenged the dominance of scholastic Thomism). There is no doubt that the New Theologians did a more dynamic read of Aquinas and their mystical and sacramental theology left much room for mystery rather than a theology more prone to rational certainty and confessional exactness.
There has not yet been an essay done on Thomas Merton and the New Theologians, and this short paper will touch on the many affinities Merton had both in explicit communication and main theological themes with the New Theologians.
Thomas Merton and Ressourcement
Thomas Merton became a Roman Catholic in 1938, and joined the austere Trappists in 1941. The Trappists were Cistercians of a rigorous bent with a definite leaning towards Medieval culture and ascetic theology. The Cistercians, in origin, were reformist Benedictines, and after the earnest but flagging efforts of Robert, Alberic and Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clarvauix picked up the faltering torch and turned vision into white heat reality. M. Raymond tells the earlier tale in The Saga of Citeaux: First Epoch: Three Religious Rebels: Forefathers of the Trappists (1944). Raymond was a Cistercian monk of Gethsemani as was Merton, and The Saga of Citeaux was published a few years after Merton joined the monastery. Bernard, in many ways, was the theological and organizational genius of the 1st generation Cistercians, and Bernard was at the forefront of calling the Roman Catholic Church back to her Biblical-Patristic origins of contemplative theology. Bernard was, in short, doing ad fontes and ressourcement digging in the 12th century.
Thomas Merton turned to the Cistercians for the simple reason that he thought he saw in them a contemplative theology and practice that reflected the simplicity and insights of both the early Cistercians and the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The fact that Merton had obvious literary gifts meant that he was soon asked to write about the Cisterican order, monastic life and the contemplative way.
Most of the books and booklets that Merton published in the 1940s-1950s reflected his turn to the ‘Great Tradition’ of contemplative theology, classical exegesis, and, practically speaking a liturgical and communal life style. What is Contemplation? (1948), Seeds of Contemplation (1949), The Ascent to Truth (1951), Bread in the Wilderness (1953), The Last of the Fathers: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Encyclical Letter (1953), The Living Bread (1956), Praying the Psalms (1956), Thoughts in Solitude (1958), What Ought I to Do? Sayings of the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century (1959) and The Wisdom of the Desert (1960) are just a few of the books that emerged from Merton’s prolific and creative mind in the 1940s-1950s. Each of these published books dealt, in one way or another, with a turn to an older, deeper and more contemplative way of doing theology and mystical exegesis.
The recently edited publications by Patrick O’Connell of Thomas Merton: Cassian and the Fathers (2005), Thomas Merton: Pre-Benedictine Monasticism (2006) and Thomas Merton: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism (2008) make it abundantly clear how wide and deep Merton had read in the Patristic tradition, and how he used all he absorbed and internalized as Master of Scholastics and Novices at the monastery. Merton was very much on the forefront, as a monk, with Jean LeClercq, in mining the motherlode of the ancient ways and sources. Survival or Prophecy: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Jean LeClercq (2002) tell this tale in exquisite and poignant detail. There can be no doubt that Thomas Merton, as a monk and creative interpreter of the Great Tradition, was on the same page as most of the more academic theologians and scholars that formed the Nouvelle Theologie movement. The main difference between Merton and the ad fontes theologians of the ressourcement movement was that Merton, as a monk and spiritual director, had to both interpret the Great Tradition (sifting wheat from chaff in it) and apply it to the vocation of educating, shaping and forming lives in the wisdom tradition of the contemplative and monastic way.
Thomas Merton has been interpreted in many different ways, and the Merton of the 1960s is often seen as the mature and more attractive Merton. The Merton of the 1940s-1950s, from such a perspective, is viewed as more conservative, less on the avant garde cutting edge of theology, politics and interfaith dialogue. There are problems with this developmental way of reading Merton. Merton was a radical conservative which means he was committed to conserving the essence (esse) of the Great Tradition but quite willing to let go of that which was of secondary or tertiary value (adiaphora). This means that he remained committed to the essence of the ancient way (which makes him a radical conservative), but he weighed, in his judicious way, the gold from dross within such a way. Merton was no traditionalist that pitted past against present, the classical path against the modern. It was in this subtle process of evaluation that Merton has much affinity with the Nouvelle Theologie movement also.
Merton and Von Balthasar
Merton was alert to the fact that change was afoot in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s, and the fact that he was seen as a writer on the forefront of contemplative theology in the 1940s-1950s meant that he corresponded with many within the church who were keen to hear his insights on reform. I have listed a few letters below that reflect Merton’s engagement with the New Theologians and others. I have, also, when the letters were too long, done brief reviews of the main points in the letters.
Letter to Father Mark Weidner: April 15 1959
‘Here are authors I recommend in a general way: Guardini always fine. Bouyer, Danielou, De Lubac (some books), Josef Pieper (Thomist), Von Balthasar (controversial but generally very good).’
Letter to Father Chrysogonus Waddell: November 26 1963
‘Of course I agree that as a theologian Chenu does not come up to Von Balthasar, but I like him above all as a historian of theology’.
Letter to Father Hans Urs von Balthasar: July 3 1964
Father von Balthasar’s writings were read a great deal at the monastery, and a close monastic reformer friend of Merton’s, Dom Jean Leclercq, had spent time with von Balthasar in Basel and Merton’s ‘name was mentioned in the conversation’. The fact that von Balthasar had done serious work on Origen meant a great deal to Merton, and Origen’s poetic and contemplative approach to theology drew von Balthasar and Merton together. Merton was also engaged at the time in the reading and translating of Latin American poets---he mentions them to von Balthasar. Merton then mentions that ‘I am very fond of your neighbor Karl Barth and have written on his book on Anselm (which is wonderful I think)’. Merton asked von Balthasar if he had done any writings on ‘Oriental religion?’ Merton was convinced that the Zen Buddhist scholar, D.T. Suzuki, with whom he had met and exchanged letters, had ‘a natural grasp of the Patristic approach to Paradise and the Fall which is most remarkable, He understands it much better than many technical theologians and indeed many monks’. There is a definite affinity between Merton and von Balthasar.
Letter to Father Hans Urs von Balthasar: August 7 1964
This is a rather long letter in which Merton is responding to a letter from Balthasar. Merton was drawn to Balthasar’s ‘theology of ‘Kabod’ and thanks Balthasar for his willingness to translate some of Merton’s poems into German. Merton goes on to say ‘I am very much in agreement with you on the importance of poetry as being, ever so often, the locus of Theophany’. Merton then informs Balthasar of the importance of many Latin American poets. Merton brings to an end the letter with these words. ‘I failed to mention to you that the book of yours which says the most to me has always been the one on St. Maximus’.
Letter to Father Hans Urs von Balthasar: September 27 1964
Von Balthasar had sent Merton a package of his books, and Merton replied in these words. ‘I am most grateful , as this is exactly what I have been looking for, a truly contemplative theology, for which we have been starved for so many centuries (though of course there have been little intervals of refreshment and light with people like Scheeben).’ Merton then mentions how in Buddhism there exists a form of wisdom (transformative sapientia) that is often sorely lacking in much ‘scientific theology and Scripture study’. Merton turns to Origen again. ‘And how right you are about Origen and how well you use his inexhaustible mine of riches. I am most grateful’. Merton had published in 1962 a small booklet, Clement of Alexandria: Selections from The Protreptikos, so he knew the Alexandrian tradition well. The final paragraph in the letter is worth quoting in full. ‘Recently I have made the discovery of St. Ephrem, who is magnificent. I hope soon that he will be all accessible to those of us who do not know Syriac , etc. The documents of Celtic monasticism have absorbed me too, as I have been preparing a course on this for the novices. It has become a real avocation for me. I can think of nowhere in the West where monastic culture was so drenched in brilliant color and form, with such dazzled love of God’s beauty’.
There is no doubt in such a letter that Merton is fully immersed in the depth and breadth of the Great Tradition.
Letter to Father Columba Halsey: October 29 1964
‘On monastic theology: Dom Leclercq mentioned lately that he thought Von Balthasar was the one who came closest to a monastic theology in our day. I very much agree. I am reading Von Balthasar’s new book, Word and Revelation, which is excellent’.
Letter to Father Hans Urs von Balthasar: July 17 1965
Merton thanks Von Balthasar for the bibliography he sent to Merton and a couple of books. Merton sent Von Balthasar his poem on Origen. Merton was concerned with some of the positions on militarism being taken at Vatican II, so he ended the letter by saying, ‘Finally, I send you some notes I hope to publish on Schema 13. There is reason to fear that the American bishops , or some of them, are trying to slip some approval of nuclear weapons into the Schema. Do you know anything about this?’ This letter brings together, in a dialogical fashion, Merton’s interest in poetry, theology and politics. Von Balthasar could not miss the connection and integration.
Letter to Father Hans Urs von Balthasar: September 12 1966
There is much packed in this final letter by Merton to Balthasar. ‘I am hoping that your book on Barth will be translated here. As for me, I have just published an article on St. Anselm where I speak much of Barth. It seems to me that, of all those who have been discussing Anselm these past years, Barth and the Orthodox P. Evdokimov have appreciated him the best’. Merton then thanked Von Balthasar for his willingness to write an introduction to a collection of Merton’s poems. The letter is brought to a close with some illuminations comments. ‘Yes, I feel it is very important for us other monks to show gratitude towards a theologian such as you, who are, after all, more contemplative and more monastic. These are the beacons that are the most helpful to us, and not arguments or novelties. As monks, we ought to live with eyes open to the deifying light’. Merton’s interest in Buddhism concludes the letter. ‘I am sending you in a separate envelope a small article on present day Buddhism. I have met a Vietnamese Buddhist monk (Thich Nhat Hanh) whom I love very much. To me he is a true brother’.
Letter to Dom Jean Leclercq: November 18 1966
Merton expresses his gratitude to Leclercq for his support and affirmation in a context in which many are turning on Merton. He then writes, ‘I am also very grateful to P. Von Balthasar for his generous introduction , or rather postface, to the little selection of my poems. The selection was good, the translations seem to me to be very well done, and I am happy with the whole book. With you and him behind me I can feel a little more confidence—not that I have yet made myself notable for a lack of it. Perhaps I have always had too much’.
Letter to Father G.: January 7 1967
Father G. had decided to do his doctoral dissertation on Merton, and he wrote Merton asking for biographical information. ‘’Some useful remarks on your subject have been made by Don James Leclercq, O.S.B., in his book, Chances de la Spiritualite Occidentale, pp.28-31. Also by P. Hans Urs von Balthasar in his postface to his German edition of some selected poems of mine. The book is called Grazias Haus and was published by Joannes Verlag, Einsiedeln, Switzerland last year’.
Letter to Father Matthew Fox: January 23 1967
The controversial American Dominican theologian, Matthew Fox, had not yet emerged on the intellectual scene in 1967. He was young and very much feeling his way. Merton was a distinguished contemplative theologian and had written much on the church and politics by 1967. Fox wrote Merton, inquiring about places to study. Merton offered many leads to Fox, and Fox has suggested that it was Merton’s pointers that made it possible for him to study with another well respected New Theologian, Marie-Dominique Chenu. Obviously Fox went in directions that Chenu and Merton would have questioned, but the connections are valuable to know. Merton mentioned in the letter. ‘I am glad you are going to work on spiritual theology. The prejudice in some Catholic quarters against mysticism is a bit strange, when outside the Church there is such an intense and ill regulated hunger for and curiosity about experience…..I do think we are lying down on the job when we leave others to investigate mysticism while we concentrate on more practical things. What people want of us, after all, is the way to God’.
The letters that Merton wrote either to Von Balthasar, about him or other New Theologians does make the case that Merton was, in an explicit way, part of the turn to the ad fontes path in the 1950s-1960s.
Let us now ponder Merton’s interaction with Jean Danielou, student of Henri de Lubac (who founded the ‘Christian Sources’ publications).
Merton and Danielou
Merton had joined the Cistercian monastery at Gethsemani in 1941 in the belief that the contemplative vision was embodied there. The fact that the austere setting, Spartan existence and few monks at the time embodied such an ascetic way appealed to Merton. The order and discipline was very much a corrective to his rather wayward and ill ordered early years. It did not take long, though, for Merton’s popularity to spread. The publication and immense popularity of The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) ushered Merton onto frontstage. Gethsemani became a spiritual mecca for many. The monastery became, by the 1960s, a lighthouse that drew the spiritually hungry. ‘With 150 monks, Our Lady of Gethsemani was the largest monastery of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance in the world. It had prospered , and it had led others in monastic renewal at a time when there questions of survival in many monasteries of the Order. There was much for Father Louis (Merton) to be proud of, yet it was not the Gethsemani he had come to in 1941’ (Mott: 434.) Merton had joined the monastery in 1941 in a conscious quest for silence and solitude and a more contemplative vocation, but the sheer demands and busyness of the growing community meant that Merton was living a life that was, increasingly so, the opposite of the contemplative way. This created immense tensions in Merton’s life, and at various times in the 1950s, he cast his longing eyes about for more contemplative orders. The ongoing tensions between Merton and the monastery meant that Merton was eager, quite often, to find monasteries and hermitages that were firmly committed to the contemplative vocation in a world that was moving ever faster and faster.
It was these sorts of tensions and contemplative questions that brought Merton into close contact with Father Jean Danielou in the late 1950s. Danielou understood Merton’s plight, and Merton was convinced he had a listening ear in Danielou. The question for Danielou, though, was this: could the deeper transformation and deification of Merton best occur in a hermitage in Mexico or Nicaragua, or, as much as Gethsemani was a hairshirt for Merton, was it where he was meant to be both for himself, the monastery and world? There were moments in which Merton thought that Danielou was on the same pages with him, and other moments when he thought Danielou did not really understand Merton’s deeper plight. Merton often felt like a prisoner in a cell at Gethsemani, and he was not always convinced that such a cell was to be his site for deification.
‘In mid-July 1961, when Father Danielou visited Gethsemani, Merton showed the man he considered his spiritual director three poems: Hagia Sophia, “Elegy for Hemingway”, and “the Auschwitz poem”….Father Danielou liked the poem for Hemingway and Hagia Sophia, not the poem on Auschwitz’. (Mott: 364). Merton recorded in the Restricted Journals (1956-1968) a variety of his responses and reactions to Danielou. There is an obvious sense, though, that in the Danielou-Merton relationship the spiritual director-directee relationship of the Patristic tradition is being played out on a modern stage. Danielou was ten years older than Merton, much respected as a Patristic scholar and academic, but, deeper than both, a spiritual Abba to the younger Merton.
Merton tended to venture into territory that Danielou was more hesitant to go. Merton was committed to exploring the relationship between the Great Tradition and the world in which he lived. Hagia Sophia and “Elegy for Hemingway” were rather safe for the type of intellectual that stood above the fray, but “the Auschwitz” was not so comfortable. The Auschwitz poem or “Chant to Be Used in Procession Around a Site with Furnaces” probes the way the herd or collective man does what is expected of him, not daring to ask questions of power or implications of political decisions made. Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ had spoken deep to Merton. Merton made the connection between what went on in Germany in the 1940s and what was unfolding in the USA in the early 1960s. There were parallels to draw, and Merton made them. Danielou was not so sure of the connections. Both Danielou and Merton were committed to the Great Tradition and the ad fontes way, but Merton was also eager to understand what the Fathers and Mothers of the past, at an economic, social, political and military level, might speak to the present. Danielou was not as committed as Merton was to such a shuttling back and forth between past and present.
‘Danielou encouraged him (Merton) in his Oriental studies, saying true balance and optimism could be found in detachment’ (Mott: 364). Merton might offer a Sic et Non to such advice. The balance of attachment-detachment to inner desires (and the false-true self ‘agon’), issues and activism are a tight rope to walk and Merton walked the tightrope in a precarious way, a way in which Danielou did not.
Conclusion: Merton and Nouvelle Theologie
There has been a decided turn by many significant theologians in the Roman Catholic and Evangelical traditions to the Ancient Sources in the last century. Hans Boersma, who teaches at Regent College (with a pronounced reformed and evangelical leaning and ethos), has done more than yeoman’s duty in bringing together the reformed and evangelical clan to ponder how and why the New Theologians of the Roman Church in the 19th and 20th centuries turned to the ancient sources for wisdom and insight. Boersma’s plough to soil books, Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology (2009) and Heavenly Participation (2011) have made it abundantly clear that those from the reformed-evangelical clan can learn much by bending their ears to the New Theologians of the Roman Catholic church----both groups are on a conscious search for something deeper, something older, something wiser and more contemplative---modernity and postmodernity will not do. The fact that Merton was ignored by Boersma in his two books does need to be corrected. This essay has made it clear that Merton had both obvious affinities with the agenda of the New Theologians, and he was in explicit and personal contact with Von Balthasar and Danielou. Merton was also aware of most of the work of the other theologians within the movement that has come to be called the New Theologians. The fact that Boersma has highlighted, from a reformed-evangelical seminary, the seminal role that Roman Catholic theologians can play in deepening and reforming yet further the reformed and evangelical must be noted. The fact that Merton was missed in this bringing together of some of the finer theological insights of the Roman Catholic tradition does need to be corrected.
The West Coast in Canada has been at the centre of Merton Studies since 1978. The last few years from Regent College on the West Coast of Canada Hans Boersma has walked the extra mile to clarify and point the way to how Roman Catholics and Reformed-Evangelical Protestants can find a place of true unity by turning to the depth and breadth of the Great Tradition in the Patristic era. The task, now, is to further understand and clarify how and why Thomas Merton belongs to the Nouvelle Theologie and Ressourcement movement that has turned to the Great Tradition as a means of renewing and reforming the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.