One of Thomas Merton’s more popular short pieces is the “Letter on the Contemplative Life,” written in August 1967 as a contribution requested by Pope Paul VI to a message of contemplatives to be addressed to the first synod of bishops. The problem is that there is no apparent textual relationship between the letter and the address. Merton did make a substantial contribution to the latter document, but not through his initial letter. His journal entries make clear that two requests came from Rome, the second saying that Merton was expected to be the main author of the message—to which he responded with a longer, more systematically organized text. This completely different document, never published, became a source of the composite message sent to the synod. Merton subsequently revised this material under the title, “The Contemplative and the Atheist,” first appearing in Italian translation, subsequently published posthumously in English. The present article, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the synod, provides an overview clarifying the generally unrecognized relationship between these four texts, with particular attention to the contributions of Merton to the message sent to the synod, as well as to thematic and textual similarities and differences among the three pieces he himself composed.


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pp. 27-52
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