cover image SURVIVAL OR PROPHECY? The Letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq

SURVIVAL OR PROPHECY? The Letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq

Thomas Merton, . . Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-374-27206-7

This exchange of letters between Merton, the well-known American Trappist, and Leclercq, a French Benedictine, offers an intriguing glimpse into the minds of the two monks and their efforts to nudge monastic life toward reform in the 1950s and '60s. Although the missives, written over a period of 18 years, are peppered with such mundane details as requests for copies of articles and books, they shed light in particular on Merton's struggle to find solitude and a hermit's life within the confines of his Kentucky monastery. Forty years after the convening of the Second Vatican Council, which revolutionized many Catholic religious communities, Merton's simple request to live as a hermit seems reasonable and in fact appropriate given the history of monasticism. But his letters make clear that his desires were viewed then as radical and even dangerous. Leclercq emerges in the correspondence as a reassuring advocate who fully understands the tensions of the monastic vocation and urges Merton to follow what he believes to be God's will. "Let us all hope we can manage to be at the same time obedient and free," he writes in one letter to his American counterpart. This short collection may be too esoteric for general readers, but Merton buffs will welcome it as another window into the life of the man whose popularity endures more than 30 years after his untimely death in 1968. (Aug.)