Beyond the Cloister

'A Silent Action'

Engagements with Thomas Merton
Rowan Williams
Fons Vitae, $19.95, 96 pp.

Like most of us, Rowan Williams, retired archbishop of Canterbury, came to know Thomas Merton through his writings—through books, poems, reviews, and essays composed during his lifetime, and after his death principally through collections of his journals and letters. The story of Merton’s monastic career has been told often and well: how in entering the cloister in 1942 he thought he had left his old life behind to become a new man; and how he did become a new man, but not quite in the way anticipated. Two books of poems were published in 1944 and 1946, Thirty Poems and A Man in the Divided Sea. His first published prose, in 1948, The Seven Storey Mountain, was a runaway bestseller. Soon afterward came Seeds of Contemplation, The Tears of the Blind Lions, The Waters of Siloe, Elected Silence, and a British edition of The Seven Storey Mountain (edited by Evelyn Waugh).

For Williams, the most striking aspect of Merton’s work was the way his profound attention to humans as social beings, and the activism that followed from that attention, coexisted with his ongoing commitment to contemplative life and prayer. These two seemingly contradictory activities form the substance...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Harold Isbell has been an academic, a banker, and a translator. He lives in San Francisco.