WITNESS TO FREEDOM: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis by Thomas Merton

WITNESS TO FREEDOM: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Fifth, final, and least satisfying volume of Merton's prodigious correspondence (The Courage for Truth, 1993, etc.). Previous books in this series have presented Merton's letters on writing, spirituality, friendship, and love. This time the prime focus is war, a subject about which Merton, a cloistered Cistercian monk, has little original to say. Mostly composed in the years just before and after the Cuban missile crisis, and usually directed toward peace activists like James Forrest or Gordon Zahn, these letters offer predictable mutterings about the dangers of nuclear holocaust, tendentious attacks on American right-wingers, and cracker-barrel advice on the idiocy of fallout shelters (""Lots of shelters that have been built have caved in or filled with water, etc.""). Occasional forays into religious themes reveal him to be a poor prognosticator as well, as when he misreads Vatican II as a ""tightening of the screws."" More intriguing are letters concerning a meeting in 1956 between Merton and psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg, who, in the words of editor Shannon, labeled Merton ""neurotic in his need to get his own way and pathological in his demand for solitude."" This harsh evaluation, which Merton seems to accept (""Zilboorg has been terrific""), is bolstered by letters surrounding Merton's vocational crisis of 1959, in which he applies for permission to leave his monastery for a hermitage. When the request is denied by his superiors, Merton at first accepts the decision but soon begins to agitate; tensions run high until he is allowed to enter a hermitage in the 1960s. In this episode and others, Merton comes off as Peck's Bad Boy, endlessly provoking Vatican officials and siding with mischief-makers. Some compensation for all this ego-preening comes near the end, in correspondence with unidentified monks and nuns to whom Merton offers simple, solid spiritual advice (""be patient, pay attention to obedience and to grace, trust God...""). Merton as bore. Try The Seven Storey Mountain instead.

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 1994
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"