Thursday, July 13, 2006

Thomas Merton on Chesterton

Thomas Merton wrote a verse about cheese (despite Chesterton's comment about the silence of poets on the subject of cheese).

He also wrote about Chesterton – but in a way Chestertonians might not like.

In a January 2, 1959, diary entry, he compares Chesterton with Swiss theologian, Msgr. Romano Guardini:

A very fine interview with Guardini was read in the refectory – a wonderful relief from the complacent windiness of Chesterton (St. Thomas Aquinas).

Ouch.

Guardini spoke of power poisoning man today. We have such fabulous techniques that their greatness have outstripped our ability to manage them. This is the great problem. “Difference between Guardini and Chesterton – Guardini sees an enormous, tragic crisis and offers no solution. Chesterton evokes problems that stand to become, for him, a matter of words. And he always has a glib solution. With Chesterton everything is “of course” “ quite obviously etc. etc. And everything turns out to be “just plain common sense after all.” And people have the stomach to listen and to like it! How can we be so mad? Of course, Chesterton is badly dated: his voice comes out of the fog between the last two wars. But to think there are still people – Catholics – who can talk like that and imagine they know the answers.

Yikes!

Of course, I disagree. I like Merton – I have even more of his books than I do of Chesterton – but I think he is unfair to Chesterton.

That view is echoed in Michael Higgens in his Heretic Blood: The Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton.

Higgens speculates that Merton had fallen for the caricature of Chesterton that had been created by GKC's fans (and, to be honest, by Chesterton himself). What Merton was troubled by in 1959 was more the kind of "complacency represented by Chesterton and his kind." Chesterton had become for Merton a symbol of the old Catholicism.

Remember, this is while the winds of change were whirling just before Vatican II.

I wonder if Merton's view would have softened had he not died in 1968 at age 51. Would he have been more open to recognizing what Chesterton was about in the wake of Vatican II?

Chesterton certainly has come back into vogue, and in the cyclical way of the world, his words are relevant in a way that perhaps Merton could not appreciate in 1959 before Vatican II.

10 comments:

Kyro said...

Eric wrote a fairly critical article about Thomas Merton a while back. I think Merton does characterize some of the issues in religious life that exploded after Vatican II. In some of his earlier writings, Merton was orthodox, and he does show a depth of knowledge in the writings of the spiritual masters.
However, as time went on with Merton, certain issues came to the surface and Merton let himself get carried off by the winds of his time. Somebody should google and post Eric's article, I remember him making some very strong points and bringing up some facts I was unaware of.

Lee Strong said...

Was the article published here, or elsewhere? I'd be curious to see what he has to say.

Although I've always liked Merton, I thought at times he strayed too far afield.

Anonymous said...

Although I've always liked Merton, I thought at times he strayed too far afield.

Merton showed us that when a Trappist monk strays too far afield he gets zapped.

(okay, bad joke)

Nick Milne said...

I think the article in question can be found here, though I don't know if it's the one you were talking about.

Anonymous said...

"Merton showed us that when a Trappist monk strays too far afield he gets zapped. (okay, bad joke)"


But, shockingly, it was true.

;)

Dad29 said...

Merton was also a friend of Rembert Weakland, OSB.

Birds/Feathers..?

Candlestring said...

I must confess to never having read Merton, but I was just starting in on Flannery O'Connor The Complete Stories and the introduction of the book says Merton was a fan of hers. Hmmm. Anyone know if O'Connor liked Chesterton?

Nick Milne said...

I'm not sure if she liked Chesterton or not, though it's quite likely she did. All I can say is that you have made a good choice in authoresses, and that a bewildering and thrilling world awaits you.

Eric said...

That is the only article I wrote about Merton.

With respect to Chesterton, there's only one reference to him in her 600-page collection of letters (The Habit of Being), which indicates she wasn't a huge fan. The reference is a familiar one, though (referring to "Chesterton," not "G.K. Chesterton").

Christopher said...

If I may be permitted to contribute two blog-posts on behalf of Thomas Merton:

Towards a Critical Appreciation of Thomas Merton Against the Grain Jan. 2, 2005.

Thomas Merton Revisited January 9, 2005.

Both on the topic of Thomas Merton and questions of orthodoxy.