Cover image for Survival or prophecy? : the letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq ; edited by Patrick Hart ; foreword by Rembert G. Weakland.
Survival or prophecy? : the letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq ; edited by Patrick Hart ; foreword by Rembert G. Weakland.
Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Physical Description:
xxvi, 196 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
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BX4705.M542 A4 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Introduction by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland. Two monks in conversation about the meaning of life and the nature of solitude. Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk who wrote The Seven Storey Mountain, spent his entire literary career (1948- 68) in a cloistered monastery in Kentucky. His great counterpart, the French Benedictine monk Jean Leclercq, spent those years traveling relentlessly to and from monasteries worldwide, trying to bring about a long-needed reform and renewal of Catholic religious life. Their correspondence over twenty years is a fascinating record of the common yearnings of two ambitious, holy men. "What is a monk?" is the question at the center of their correspondence, and in these 120 letters they answer it with great aplomb, touching on the role of ancient texts and modern conveniences; the advantages of hermit life and community life; the fierce Catholicism of the monastic past and the new openness to the approaches of other traditions; the monastery's impulse toward survival and the monk's calling to prophecy. Full of learning, human insight, and self-deprecating wit, these letters capture the excitement of the Catholic Church during the run-up to the Second Vatican Council, full of wisdom, full of promise.

Author Notes

Born in France, Thomas Merton was the son of an American artist and poet and her New Zealander husband, a painter. Merton lost both parents before he had finished high school, and his younger brother was killed in World War II. Something of the ephemeral character of human endeavor marked all his works, deepening the pathos of his writings and drawing him close to Eastern, especially Buddhist, forms of monasticism.

After an initial education in the United States, France, and England, he completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. His parents, nominally friends, had given him little religious guidance, and in 1938, he converted to Roman Catholicism. The following year he received an M.A. from Columbia University and in 1941, he entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where he remained until a short time before his death.

His working life was spent as a Trappist monk. At Gethsemani, he wrote his famous autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain" (1948); there he labored and prayed through the days and years of a constant regimen that began with daily prayer at 2:00 a.m. As his contemplative life developed, he still maintained contact with the outside world, his many books and articles increasing steadily as the years went by. Reading them, it is hard to think of him as only a "guilty bystander," to use the title of one of his many collections of essays. He was vehement in his opposition to the Vietnam War, to the nuclear arms race, to racial oppression.

Having received permission to leave his monastery, he went on a journey to confer with mystics of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. He was accidentally electrocuted in a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



JEAN LECLERCQ TO THOMAS MERTON This first extant letter from Dom Jean Leclercq to Father Louis (Thomas Merton) opens with a reference to a letter from Merton dated January 15, 1950. Apparently, the lost letter to Leclercq from Merton was in regard to what current research was being done on the Cistercian Fathers. Dom Leclercq was interested in the Gethsemani manuscripts that were kept in a vault until they were transferred to the Institute of Cistercian Studies Library at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo a decade later. Munich January 28, 1950 I am happy that you are doing a study on a collection of texts by St. Bernard. Never enough can be done to make him known, and it answers a real need of our contemporaries: a Swiss editor has also just asked me for a collection in German. I am also in contact with the Reverend Bruno Scott James. I will be happy to look over your Collectanea [Cisterciensia] articles when I get a copy of the issue. I think that the only important book about St. Bernard these last years was the one by [William] Watkins, St. Bernard of Clairvaux , which I mention in the bibliographical note in S. Bernard mystique . There is also a fine chapter in Aufgang des Abendlandes by Heer, ed. Europa, Wien [Vienna] and Zurich. I studied Baldwin of Ford some time ago, especially his doctrine on the Eucharist, for a collection which did not appear, but I do not think that anyone has done any work on Baldwin since then. So there is still a great deal to do, and I think that the Lord is expecting a great deal from a true monastic life in our own days and that the world stands in need of it. So you have a beautiful mission. I would be happy to receive your books; I have heard them spoken about. If I can help you in anything, I am at your service, and I ask you to believe, my Reverend Father, in my devoted respect in Our Lord. JEAN LECLERCQ TO THOMAS MERTON Lisbon [Undated-before Easter, 1950] I did receive the films of your manuscripts of St. Bernard, and I thank you. The film of the Sermones in Cantica [Sermons on the Song of Songs] will be used very soon. Unfortunately, the film of the Sermones is unreadable; the photo is blurred. I have not yet returned to Clervaux, where your books are waiting for me. I know that they arrived there, but I have not yet had a chance to read them. I have only seen your articles in Collectanea Cisterciensia on the mystical doctrine of St. Bernard. I will read them when I can do so. I am sure, according to what I have heard, that you have gone much deeper than I have into the mystical life and doctrine of St. Bernard. This I have done only very superficially. But perhaps later on, when I have finished the edition, I will be able to do something more mature, after having spent a long time with the texts. For the moment I am leading a life completely contrary to my vocation and to my ideal, and the cause of it is St. Bernard. I am traveling all over Europe looking for manuscripts. They are everywhere. But this documentation has to be assembled once for all, and it can be hoped that St. Bernard will come out of it better known. It is an extremely difficult job. It is a major scientific responsibility, especially at certain times. For example, soon I am going to have to decide which manuscripts are to be retained to establish the text of the Sermones in Cantica : all the work that follows will depend on this decision. Please pray that this work be done well and that it be worthy of St. Bernard. THOMAS MERTON TO JEAN LECLERCQ A decade before Vatican II, Thomas Merton was already returning to the sources of monasticism with his conferences on Benedict, Cassian, Pachomius, Evagrius, and other writers of the earliest tradition. He was also moving into the twelfth-century Cistercian "evangelists": Bernard of Clairvaux, William of Saint-Thierry, Guerric of Igny, and Aelred of Rievaulx. April 22, 1950 Another film of the St. Bernard Sermons is now on the way to you. This time I looked it over to see if it was all right and it was legible on our machine. I am sorry the first attempt was not too good: you must forgive our young students who are just trying their hand at this kind of work for the first time. Pray that they may learn, because in the future many demands will be made on their talents-if any. I might wish that your travels would bring you to this side of the Atlantic and that we might have the pleasure of receiving you at Gethsemani. We have just remodeled the vault where our rare books are kept and have extended its capacities to include a good little library on Scripture and the Fathers and the Liturgy-or at least the nucleus of one. Here I hope to form a group of competent students not merely of history or of the texts but rather-in line with the tradition which you so admirably represent-men competent in all-round spiritual theology, as well as scholarship, using their time and talents to develop the seed of the Word of God in their souls, not to choke it under an overgrowth of useless research as is the tradition in the universities of this country at the moment. I fervently hope that somehow we shall see in America men who are able to produce something like Dieu Vivant [a French journal]. Cistercians will never be able to do quite that, I suppose, but we can at least give a good example along those lines. Our studies and writing should by their very nature contribute to our contemplation, at least remotely, and contemplation in turn should be able to find expression in channels laid open for it and deepened by familiarity with the Fathers of the Church. This is an age that calls for St. Augustines and Leos, Gregorys and Cyrils! That is why I feel that your works are so tremendously helpful, dear Father. Your St. Bernard mystique is altogether admirable because, while being simple and fluent, it communicates to the reader a real appreciation of St. Bernard's spirituality. You are wrong to consider your treatment of St. Bernard superficial. It is indeed addressed to the general reader, but for all that it is profound and all-embracing and far more valuable than the rather technical study which I undertook for Collectanea [Cisterciensia] and which, as you will see on reading it, was beyond my capacities as a theologian. The earlier sections especially, in my study, contain many glaring and silly errors-or at least things are often very badly expressed there. If I write a book on the saint I shall try to redeem myself, without entering into the technical discussions that occupy M. Gilson in his rather brilliant study. But there again, a book of your type is far more helpful. Be sure that we are praying for the work you now have in hand, which is so important and which implies such a great responsibility for you. I had heard that you were helping to prepare for the press Dom Wilmart's edition of Ailred's De institutione inclusarum [Institution for recluses] but perhaps you have put this on the shelf for the time being. Are the Cistercians of the Common Observance editing the works of Ailred? Where are they doing so and when is the work expected to be finished? By the way, about the spelling of Ailred: the most prominent English scholars seem to be spelling him as I have just done, with an "i." I wish there could be some unity on this point. My work on him is in abeyance at the moment, but when I get on with it I suppose I had better go on using this spelling. What do you think about that? Rest assured, dear Father, that I am praying for you and that our students are doing the same. Please pray for us too. I have too much activity on my shoulders, teaching and writing. JEAN LECLERCQ TO THOMAS MERTON Both Leclercq and Merton stressed the essential contemplative nature of monasticism and were interested in getting back to the original charism of the founders of monasticism, which made the contemplative life the monastic ideal. The Cistercian tradition, beginning with the foundation of Cîteaux in 1098, had its roots in previous Benedictine reforms, such as those of St. Benedict of Aniane, and actually could be traced back to the earlier tradition with Athanasius, Cassian, and Pachomius. Clervaux May 5, 1950 I was just going to write to you when I received, yesterday, your last letter. Thank you for the new film, which has already arrived. Thank you also for your prayers and encouragement. I know that some scholars and professors criticize my books because they are too "human," not sufficiently, not purely "scientific," objective: but I do not care about having a good reputation as a scholar among scholars, although I could also do pure scholarly work, and I sometimes do, just to show that I know what it is. But I also know that many monks, and they are the more monastic monks, in several Orders-Camaldolese, Cistercians, Trappists, Benedictines of the strictest observances-find my books nourishing, and find in them an answer to their own aspirations. I thank God for that. My only merit-if any-is to accept not to be a pure scholar; otherwise I never invent ideas: I just bring to light ideas and experiences which are to be found in old monastic books that nobody, even in monasteries, ever reads today. Since you seem to want me to do so, I am sending you today some offprints, just about "monastica." As you will see, I always say and write the same thing, because only one is necessary, and it is the only thing you would find in old monastic texts ... I think you have an important job to do at Gethsemani, first for America, and then for the whole Cistercian Order: to come back to the Cistercian idea. But there are two difficulties. The first is to keep the just measure in work, either manual or intellectual. Both forms of work, especially the second, entail a danger of activism (mental activism): that is a personal question which each monk has to solve for himself if he wants to work and stay a monk; some are unable to do both and have to choose to remain monks. The second difficulty is more of the historical order, if we want to study the Cistercian tradition. I am alluding to the illusion of believing that the Cistercian tradition began with Cîteaux. I am becoming more and more convinced that the Cistercian tradition cannot be understood without its roots in pre-existing and contemporary Benedictine-and generally monastic-tradition. That is why in my studies I never separate the different forms and expressions of the unique monastic thought and experience. For instance, if one begins to study the Mariology of the Cistercian school without taking into consideration previous and contemporary monastic thought at the same time about the Virgin, then one tends to think that the Cistercians were at the origin of all true and fervent Mariology. Yet if one recalls what St. Anselm and the monks of the Anglo-Norman eleventh century wrote, then possibly one might come to the conclusion that in this field Cistercians, far from making progress, may even have retrograded (I think, for example, of the Conception of Our Lady). The only way to avoid such pitfalls is to be quite free from any order-emphasis, any "order-politics," and to search solely for the truth in the life of the Church of God. Since you ask me what I think about your books, then I tell you, even though I am no special authority on the matter. I suppose that the condition of our relations resides in perfect sincerity and loyalty. I arrived back at Clervaux a few days ago, and have just had time to read the Prologue and the first two chapters of The Waters of Siloe . I shall read the rest and then tell you my impressions. So far, I must say that I thoroughly enjoy your pages: both what you say and the way you say it. I think that one immediately feels that you "believe" in the contemplative life, and this faith of yours is more forceful for convincing your readers than would be the most scientific treatment of the subject. In my opinion, you point out the very essence of monastic life when you say that it is a contemplative life. The Benedictine tradition is certainly a contemplative tradition: the doctrine of Benedictine medieval writers (and almost always up to our own days-the twentieth century is an exception, alas!) is a doctrine of contemplation and contemplative life. But we must confess that Benedictine history is not entirely-and in certain periods not at all-contemplative. Nevertheless, even when Benedictines were busy about many things, they never made this business circa plurima [about many things] an ideal, and they never spoke about it; their doctrine was always that of the unum necessarium [the one thing necessary]. I think you are quite right when you say that we fall short of this ideal for want of simplicity. There have always been-and there still are today-attempts to get back to this simplicity. And one such attempt has always been writing. But the danger is always there, and even today Cistercians do not always succeed in avoiding it. For instance, from the Cistercian-and even simple monastic-point of view, Orval (the new Orval) has been and remains a scandal. It is a sin against simplicity: first because it is luxurious, and then because, on pretext of observing the Statutes forbidding gold and certain other materials, they have used precious and exotic materials which give the same impression as would gold, without being gold, and so on. And the festival held in honor of the consecration of Orval was also scandalous and has been felt as such even by Cistercians and Trappists. In the same way, the noise and publicity made over Gethsemani on the occasion of its centenary, and the write-up in magazines that had, in the same issue, pictures of pin-up girls, were also scandalous and have been felt as such (but perhaps that was in keeping with the "American style"). You see, dear Reverend Father, that I do not spare you. But it is in order to show how great is the temptation. I find your pages about Rome perfectly sincere and just. I am glad that you were allowed to write so freely. Others, I know, have not had that same liberty, nor do they even now. But I hope that the love of truth will make people surrender all "order-orthodoxy" and "order-politics." I know the Procurator General of the S.O.C. [Sacred Order of Cistercians, or Cistercians of the Common Observance], Abbot [Matthaeus] Quatember, very well. Continue... Excerpted from SURVIVAL OR PROPHECY? by Copyright © 2002 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Archbishop Rembert G. WeaklandBrother Patrick Hart
Forewordp. ix
Introductionp. xix
Editor's Notep. xxv
Lettersp. 3
Chronology: Jean Leclercqp. 179
Chronology: Thomas Mertonp. 183
Indexp. 189