A 40 Year "Retrospective Journey"

“Be good, keep your feet dry,
your eyes open, your heart at peace
and your soul in the joy of Christ.”
Thomas Merton

November 21, 2008

A Life in Letters

November 21, 1968
Merton notes today that he he has written cards to Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, long time friend Sr. Therese Lentfoehr, Kentucky friends John and Rena Niles, and Tom Jerry Smith and letters to Richard Chi and Nyanaponika Thera.

A Life in Letters
I am absolutely astounded at the volume of letters that Thomas Merton wrote and received. I have a very small sample of these letters in "Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters", recently edited by William Shannon and Christine Bochen; "Cold War Letters", a collection of letters written in 1961 and 62; and various excerpts in other Merton books.

The collection of Merton's letters at the Thomas Merton Center includes over 10,000 letters! They reflect his thoughts on a wide range of interests including everything from peace, politics, and the environment to religious life and contemplation. They also reveal the incredible depth of trust and friendship which developed between Merton and many of his correspondents over the years.

William Shannon and Christine Bochen, in their introduction to "Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters" give an overview of the importance of letters in Merton's life. They write... "Merton's one and only way of reaching his friends was, normally through his writing... Although he chose a solitary life (and reveled in it), he loved people and craved human contact. His letters helped to fill that need and, in the process, created and extraordinary record of Merton's life and the development of his thought." TMLL p.viii

Of course it was a two-way street. Shannon and Bochen further note..."Without question Merton enjoyed receiving letters, as he admitted in one he wrote to Sister Therese Lentfoehr on September 25, 1956: "I do not hesitate to confess that letters from my friends have always and will always mean a great deal to me." TMLL p.viii

Merton himself, in his November 1958 letter to Pope John XXIII describes his letter writing as an "apostolate of friendship".

John Jacob Niles

John Niles, Jackie Roberts, Thomas Merton, Janelle Dishman
(click picture for Niles-Merton information)

One of Merton's Kentucky friends, to whom he writes on this day, is noted American folk music historian and balladeer John Jacob Niles. Niles has written music for a collection of Merton's poems which has come to be known as the "Niles-Merton Song Cycle". Merton made a couple of visits to the "Boot Hill Farm" of Niles in 1967 and 1968 to hear some of the songs but wasn't able to hear them all before he left for his Asian journey.

A Lost Art of Relationship
One cannot help but to note with sadness how much we have lost this wonderful art of relationship. The brevity and haste of the e-mail doesn't come close to establishing the depth of connection established in long term written correspondence. It is ironic that we live in a age with more ways of being connected, e-mail, cell phones, blackberries, etc, and yet are more isolated...

Yours very truly... Rob

"Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company." Lord Byron

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