In the past I have read a good deal of Thomas Merton, but never really thought of him as a theologian. His life and voluminous writings—many autobiographical, not to mention the diaries, and compelling works, the later ones I seized upon as they came out in the 60s—trace an itinerary from a young convert to Catholicism, all too at home in the rather hot-house atmosphere of pre-Vatican II Catholicism (delighting in the gold edging and coloured ribbons of his new breviary), but quickly opening out: embracing the social concerns of the 60s, while remaining rooted in the contemplative prayer central to his life as a Trappist monk, and with serious ecumenical concerns, primarily with the contemplative traditions of the East—Buddhist, Taoist.
Throughout all his changes, he remained constantly popular (though also regarded by some with deep suspicion); it seemed that, right up to the moment of his death, he anticipated the changes—not too much, by just a little—Catholicism went through in the 50s and 60s. His death was sudden: electrocuted in a faulty shower in Bangkok on a trip to meet fellow contemplatives of the East, not least the Dalai Lama. His works, though mostly to be classified as ‘devotional’, were always intellectually serious and indeed challenging; they were marked by real learning, borne lightly.
Christopher Pramuk’s wonderful book, however, reveals Thomas Merton to be a real theologian. I suppose I should not be surprised: Evagrios’ much-quoted ‘A theologian is one who prays; one who prays will be a theologian’ should have led me to expect it. That saying, however, often suggests that theology should be radically reconsidered, in such a way that ‘professional’ theologians often are at a loss to make of what emerges, and sense a lack of rigour, a lack of intellectual seriousness.