A quick word of thanks for your wonderfully generous and stirring review. I’m specifically glad that you flagged up the ecumenical character of the book as it emerged. Thanks so much.
Archbishop of Canterbury
Review of R. Williams' A Silent Action - by Ron Dart
There are books that thread together, in explicit and implicit ways, a variety of themes and ecumenical connections. There are missives that are compact in their words said and thoughts articulated that need to be read not for information but wisdom and insight. There are contemplatives, intellectuals and theologians that both challenge a dated and waning way of knowing and being and point the way to paths with forgotten yet evocative clearings-----A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton is a book of such calibre and note.
I was introduced to Thomas Merton in the 1970s and read most of his writings then. I attended Regent College on the West Coast of Canada from 1979-1981 and when there wrote more than fifteen papers on Merton’s life and writings. I have been on the national executive of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada (TMSC) for almost ten years. So, I have some interest and commitment to Merton’s significant role in the renewal of contemplative theology, an ecumenical ecclesiology and a prophetic public witness via prose and poetry.
Thomas Merton was a seeker who knew in the marrow of his bones that an inner silence and stillness was a categorical imperative to seeing aright and living with integrity. Thomas Merton uncovered old pathways that many had forgotten and Rowan Williams has, in many ways, followed such trails that Merton cleared for those who longed to see what Merton had pointed to. Williams has, in short, engaged and conversed, internalized and dialogued with Merton in a way few have.
A Silent Action is, in fact, just that----a listening from a quiet place and an approach to acting on the stage of life from such a sacred centre. There are six essays in this missive (some longer than others), but each essay hears Merton from a different place, thereby assisting the reader in a fuller understanding of Merton, Williams and many of the most pressing issues that beset us these days. The six essays: 1) Foreward, 2) ‘A person that nobody knows’: A Paradoxical Tribute to Thomas Merton, 3) ‘Bread in the Wilderness’: The Monastic Ideal in Thomas Merton and Paul Evdokimov, 4) ‘New Words for God’: Contemplation and Religious Writing, 5) ‘The Only Real City’: Monasticism and the Social Vision and 6) ‘Not Being Serious: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth. There is fine poem, also, by Merton, ‘Summer 1966’. The full length poem that Williams uses in A Silent Action is a delicate bringing together of Merton’s confessional approach to poetry, his bounty of images, his hints of anti-poetry and many inner-external tensions and themes that lived within and expressed themselves in Merton’s complex life and prolific writings. The Illustrations make for a fine and fit way to illuminate the text. Each Illustration is aptly chosen and visually speaks much about Merton’s varied journey and his many dot connecting directions.
I mentioned above that a good book works at different levels, and A Silent Action does this. There is, at one level, Williams multilayered and historic interest that ‘as a teenager, wrestling with The Sign of Jonas more than once’ initiated his interest to Merton to his final essay in the book that deals with Merton and Barth (eventually published in 2009 but given as a lecture in 2008 to commemorate 40 years since Merton’s death in 1968). In short, Williams in A Silent Action has definitely pondered and reflected on the writings and life of Merton for many a decade, hence the insights in the book are a bounty worthy many a read. There is, at an implicit and equally important level, Merton’s interest in Orthodoxy---Williams, like Merton, has this same inclination. So, it significant that Jim Forest (a friend of Merton when alive, Orthodox and founder of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship) wrote the informed ‘Preface’ to A Silent Action and Metropolitian Kallistos Ware of Diokleia wrote the ‘Afterword’. Those that are deeply grounded in the best has been thought, said and done in the Roman Catholic (Thomas Merton), Anglican (Rowan Williams) and Orthodox (Jim Forest & Kallistos Ware) traditions share an irenical and conciliar commitment to the noblest aspects of the Christian Tradition. There are those in each of these traditions that are wary of Merton, but this is not the case with Williams, Forest and Ware.
It is unusual gift to read mature and thoughtful thinkers on contemplation, the church and politics---there is so much silliness, reactionary tendencies and folly in our midst these days. Merton, like Williams, leads us well to the upper ridges and classical summits of the Christian Tradition. Sadly so, a great deal of Christianity these days scarcely leaves narrow lowlands where the sights seen are minimal and limited. We desperately need those that have trekked to the Alpine and higher and bid us come see what can yet been seen from such spacious peaks. Williams, like Merton, is such a trustworthy guide.
A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton is a fine primer on Merton that brings together some of the best and noblest insights from the motherlode of the Christian Tradition. The task for the enquiring read is to engage Merton, Williams, Forest and Ware with the same surgical sensitivity that Williams has applied in his engagement with Merton.