- The Correspondence of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw MiloszMonasticism and Society in Dialogue
For more than fifty years Thomas Merton has been one of the most popular monastic authors read by nonmonastic audiences, not only in the United States, where he first wrote and published, but also in large parts of the rest of the world. However he may be evaluated within monastic circles, his popularity certainly indicates something about the interface of monastery and society. Hundreds of thousands of readers from society have been fascinated by this monk. Why?
Czeslaw Milosz is considered one of the greatest, one of the deepest poets of the twentieth century. Poets register the anguish and hopes of their times, and they do this well when they themselves live this anguish and these hopes as their own. Milosz’s life and writings constitute a profound expression, rooted in the history of the century, of what society has suffered and hoped for. He is the quintessential poet and so may be considered a quintessential representative of his age.
The published correspondence of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz is an intriguing record of monasticism and society in dialogue. 1 From the side of Milosz we see a twentieth-century seeker, [End Page 17] a Catholic like Merton, looking to a monk for guidance, who at the same time does not hesitate to criticize the monk. From the side of Merton we see a monk intensely caught up in literary and other movements of his time, showing himself sometimes a valuable contributor and at other times somewhat confused in his identity as a monk. This article examines the range of questions about monastery and society in dialogue that this correspondence contains.
It should be noted at the outset that I am using both Merton and Milosz here in an emblematic way. The one is a “type,” as it were, of the monk; the other a “type” of the poet. As such, I am not so much writing directly about either author seeking to understand him in himself qua author. For after all, these are letters and not finished literary products offered by Merton and Milosz to their reading publics. I use these letters to watch the monk in his relationship to society and to watch society in relationship to the monk.
Merton Initiates Contact
Merton initiated the correspondence with Milosz in 1959 after reading Milosz’s The Captive Mind, a book that studies the social psychology of Communism. Merton was in general a sharp and thoughtful reader who read voraciously on any number of themes. That he had been among the first to read Milosz in English and recognize his importance is typical of Merton. Here we see the monk as not merely retired from society to think peaceful, divine thoughts in his silent cloister. Rather, here is an American monk trying to get to a deeper level of what was being considered in so shallow a way by so much of American culture in the 1950s, namely, the real nature of communism. It was not enough to consider Communists as evil and dangerous, to prepare atom bombs to blow them up. Milosz had helped Merton to try to understand “the lure of Marxism in the wake of the erosion of the religious imagination.”2
If it is typical that the monk Merton found his way to an author like Milosz, it is even more typical that he should write him and [End Page 18] seek to establish a correspondence with him. He writes to Milosz saying, “Having read your remarkable book ‘The Captive Mind’ I find it necessary to write to you, as without your help I am unable to pursue certain lines of thought which this book suggests” (STB, 3; December 6, 1958).3 Slightly later he adds, “I find it [the book] especially important for myself in my position as a monk, a priest and a writer. . . . Your book has come to me, then, as something I can call frankly ‘spiritual,’ that is to say as the inspiration of much thought, meditation and prayer about my own obligations to the rest of the human race, and about the predicament...