Elected Silence. By Thomas Merton. (Hollis and Carter. 15s.)
IN 1914 at the Anglican church
of St. Anne in Soho in the centre of modern London, where Dean Street joins Shaftesbury Avenue, an artist, Owen Merton from New Zealand, married a red-haired girl from New York. Their son Thomas was born in 1915 in France. St. Anne's is an old church; it was consecrated in 1685. In 1914 it must have seemed an auspicious place to the young couple whose child in the future would be a poet. Johnson, Wagner, Sheridan, Mozart, Kean and Dickens had walked past the green graves in its churchyard; Lamb saw the corpse of his friend Malin laid in its cool earth. Nearer Merton's time, from Edinburgh, a young engineer in a velvet jacket had come to its nearby cafes to buy cigars at two-a-penny and ape
Prince Florizel. It is a hallowed place for writers, and in 1914 it seemed as secure as the leatherbound volumes conceived under its trees and now serenely scattered through the libraries of the world.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A MODERN CONVERT
Today it is a ruin. In 1940 it was
destroyed by bombs. The stone fabric is a jagged shell overgrown with ivy, and the bell-tower is solitary beside the dusty graveyard where only Hazlitt's mound is tended. It is against the background of the times when such things happen that Thomas Merton's apologia must be considered; its immediate importance requires that we hearken to its writer as a contemporary voice. He is the first of his generation of Catholics to write a serious
book. His message is that of a teacher.
Two months ago Merton was ordained priest; he is now Father Louis of the Order of St. Bernard. His life-story opens with the following words:
Not many hundreds of miles from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in the rainy ditches among the dead horses and the ruined seventy-fives. in a forest of trees without brunches along the river Marne.
In the year that passed between the marriage of Owen Merton and the birth of his son the past had been severed from the future and the child was to be one of the first born citizens of the chaos men made of the twentieth century. He was, like each of his contemporaries, a native of the waste-land. They are I a generation unique in human history; knowing nothing but war isat rumours of war, their very instinct reaching out to the life the terms of their epoch denies, like Munchausen s horse they have no hind' quarters and they are impelled to move progressively forward into more hideous disorder. Thomas Merton's parents were good people, modest and honest. Owen, the father " painted like Cezanne and understood the Southern French landscape as Cezanne did. His vision of the world was sane." It was " full of balance, full ,of veneration for structures, for the relations of masses and for all the circumstances that impress an individual identity on each created thing. His vision was religious and clean, and therefore his paintings were without decoration or superfluous comment, since a religious man respects the power of God's creation to bear witness for itself."
It was probably the father's idea, we are told, that the child be baptised according to the doctrines of the Church of England. The mother emerges from the dim recess of childhood memories as a sad little figure. nervous and worried, perhaps a type of the wives of struggling artists. Father Louis writes:
" Churdhes and formal religion were things to which mother attached not much importance in the training of a modern child, and my guess is that she thought, if I were left to myself, I would grow up into a nice, quiet Deist of some sort, and never he perverted by superstition."
In 1918 his brother John Paul was born. In 1921 they discovered that " Mother had cancer of the stomach."
"It was not," her son observes, " until I became a Catholic, twenty years later, that it finally occurred to me to pray for my mother."
OF ITS GENERATION
They were years. of wandering in the social flux and spiritual desert that is the only and familiar environment, outside the Church, for his contemporaries. Through pages that echo with common aspirations, temptations, intellectual superstitions, political notions and common sad pleasures they may follow him. The way is familiar; one is inclined to demur from one point in Mr. Waugh's foreword, when he says that the book " remains essentially American." The dividing line between English-speaking Europeans and Americans of Father Louis' generation is frailer than the one that separates each from older generations of their fellow-countrymen; the American century opened with Henry Adams, not Roosevelt; Eliot was not that tiresome thins, a literary revolutionary, when the men who are now in their thirties came to his work. The authors Father Louis discovered as a youth were common currency in both countries; Lawrence, Huxley, Waugh, Hemingway, Joyce and the great, as yet unrealised influence as a Catholic among intellectuals, Hopkins were the literary figures whose impact was strongest on articulate youth in
both lands. And-the observation is not flippant-they had Hollywood in common and the jeel records and phonograph that Father Louis left almost at the monastery gate.
But most potent of all in binding them is the foreboding that the politicos and omniscient scientists may still qualify them and their world for the epitaph-They Did Not Know Whitt Hit Them-the common masses they shared during the war. and the realisation of common values that even politicians have not succeeded in destroying. Better to say that this hook, based on an acutely personal approach to the universal truth, is essentially of its generation. Even the loneliness of its author will strike a respondent note among the younger. With his mother's death the odyssey began on a journey in a river boat to a place where Owen could paint. Bermuda, England and France followed, with success for the father and a public school for the boy. Any chance of the lad taking to the vague and undefined Protestantism of his family must have been slain by the school chaplain at this establishment. whose " greatest sermon was on the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians-and a wonder
ful chapter indeed. However, it (the sermon) was typical of him and, in a way, of his whole Church. His interpretation of the word ' charity ' in this passage (and in the whole Bible) was that it simply stood for ' all that we mean when we call a chap a gentleman'."
Public school religion left him unimpressed but at this age he discovered the poets and the poet Blake and this influence had a spiritually veering effect on his, as yet unguided, mind. University life in England stirred a revulsion from the hedonism of his contemporaries that was to develop in later years.
FIRST CATHOLIC INFLUENCE The first personal Catholic influence that touched him came from the Privats, a peasant family in France:
" I think," he writes, " that they
were certainly saints. And they were saints in that most effective and telling way; sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner, sanctified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine, but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within, and from the habitual union of their souls with God in deep faith and charity." When Thomas was 15 Owen Merton died " slowly and painfully " of a disease that the doctors have since learned to cure. About a year later the boy found the city of Rome and its churches. He bought a Vulgate text and had an unusual spiritual experience, connected with his father. But not yet did his mind turn towards any definite decision on religions
It was after his return to America and study at Columbia University that the suasions came together and the Grace of God touching him, he became a Catholic. He had passed through the Communist phase; he was a well-known student journalist. intellectual and poet. Still he was restless. Then on an afternoon after he and some friends, other university colleagues, had sat until four o'clock in the morning " in Nick's on Sheridan Square ... at the curved bar while the room rocked with jazz," he said to Peggy, one of the girls at the Centre Theatre: " Peggy . . I am going to enter a monastery and become a priest."
And so the last part of what Mr. Waugh truly describes as a book that " should take its place among the classic records of spiritual experience" begins. Ft ends with an appointment, kept in the warm darkness of a night which had closed on a long journey, in a monastery called Gethsemane, in Kentucky.
The name, like everything recorded by this young priest, has profound significance for the men and women of this despairing day. Gethsemane was the place that presaged the Crucifixion of God and darkness over the earth: and then from all this came the Redemption. This young Catholic writer who is the first of his generation to break silence. writes from the heart of the silence where all men may hear God speak: there he has elected to watch with his Divine Mailer, and ours, for one lifetime. He is a poet who speaks with the older spirit anew and his book implies a paraphrased and truer salutation Redeemed reader. my brother . . . He is a priest who in word and deed preaches an old lesson, that within the monastery or beyond its walls there is still but one way and it is through Christ. And that these times too were redeemed on Calvary.