On November 10, 1958, Thomas Merton wrote a letter to Pope John XXIII in which the famous American monk shared with the new pope some reflections about the world and Church. In one part, Merton describes how he has begun to understand that being a cloistered monk does not necessarily mean withdrawing from the world in an absolute sort of way.
Instead, he has discerned the Spirit calling him to another form of ministry from within the walls of the monastery by writing letters, connecting with women and men that he might never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.
It is not enough for me to think of the apostolic value of prayer and penance; I also have to think in terms of a contemplative grasp of the political, intellectual, artistic, and social movements of this world—by which I mean a sympathy for the honest aspirations of so many intellectuals everywhere in the world and the terrible problems they have to face. I have had the experience of seeing that this kind of understanding and friendly sympathy, on the part of a monk who really understands them, has produced striking effects among artists, writers, publishers, poets, etc., who have become my friends without my having to leave the cloister.… In short, with the approval of my superiors, I have exercised an apostolate—small and limited though it be—within a circle of intellectuals from other parts of the world; and it has been quite simply an apostolate of friendship (Thomas Merton, “Letter to Pope John XXIII” (November 10, 1958), in The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters, ed. William H. Shannon (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985), 482).
Merton came to realize that part of his religious vocation involved connecting with people of different backgrounds, experiences, and world views. He corresponded with the writers Boris Pasternak, Czesław Miłosz, Ernesto Cardenal, and Evelyn Waugh; with activists Joan Baez, Daniel and Philip Berrigan; with theologians Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, Abraham Heschel, and Rosemary Radford Reuther; with bishops, nuns, and religious leaders of other traditions, like Thich Nhat Hanh; and with so many others including ordinary, unknown people.
I thought of Merton and his “apostolate of friendship” a couple years ago while sitting at a pub one evening in England. I was in the company of a diverse collection of people: a middle-aged father from Ireland, an Episcopalian priest from Scotland, and a woman and man from England, both teachers. We were there enjoying some beer after a long but inspiring day of academic presentations and workshops on the life, thought, and legacy of this American monk. We were in Oakham in central Britain for the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland conference, an event held every other year. (On each alternating year, the International Thomas Merton Society holds a large conference somewhere in North America.) I was there to deliver a keynote address, but the conference draws a diverse group composed of top Merton scholars, those with a more casual interest in Merton, and all sorts of people in between.
The Seven Storey Mountain
Strangers before this evening, those with whom I found myself at the pub all began to exchange stories about how each came to discover the writings of Merton and what had led them to attend this three-day event. Most shared a version of the typical Merton story, which begins with reading The Seven Storey Mountain. However, the Irish man recalled a dramatic event that took place in a hospital room. Visiting his father, who was recovering from surgery, he was told that the man in the next bed was dying. The dying man happened to be reading a book, which led my new Irish friend to reflect: “If he’s dying and is reading, it must be an amazing book! I need to know what it is.”
The book was Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Decades later, this Irish man shared that Merton remained a major influence in his life ever since he read the book after that hospital encounter. Few writers and thinkers have such an ability to bring people together. Even fewer long after their death. In 1958, it was Merton who wrote to the pope, but in 2015 it was Pope Francis who would hold up Merton as an exemplar of Christian living during his historic address to the United States Congress.
In part, it was Merton’s reaching out to engage in friendship with so many people that led Pope Francis to the monk who had died nearly a half century earlier. Pope Francis told Congress and the world, “Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” Pope Francis also held Merton up as a model for his own ministry, stating, “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.”
Thomas Merton continues to exercise an “apostolate of friendship,” bringing people together across many divides. If you haven’t met Merton and his friends yet, I encourage you to do so.