cover image Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz

Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz

Thomas Merton. Farrar Straus Giroux, $21 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-374-27100-8

This is one of those books that touches your soul and stays with you. It records the exchanges of powerful, unadorned and often even mundane letters over a decade between two friends, Merton, a Trappist monk, and Milosz, the Polish poet and 1988 Nobel Prize winner. These letters create a somewhat fractured view of the turbulent political times in which these two extraordinary men lived. The letters contain almost offhand mentions of Nikita Khrushchev, Pope John XXIII, Bertrand Russell, Fidel Castro the Russian presence in Poland and Czechoslovakia and the Vietnam War protests, in which Merton was a well-known activist despite the disapproval of some of his superiors in the church. What comes across most in the letters, however, are the inner fragility and self-doubt each man exposes to the other, and the inner journey that each takes into the long dark night of the soul. The letters show each man reaching within himself to discover a more nuanced truth than those offered either by dialectical materialism (in his youth, Milosz was a Communist, before the Party accused him of writing bourgeois poetry) and some Catholic dogma. At one point, Merton writes: ""We have to get used to our moral isolation.... Bear your solitude."" This solitude, this isolation from man and God, is eased somewhat, though, by knowing that two such men have passed this way before. (Feb.)