About two weeks after Pope John XXIII’s election to the papacy, Thomas Merton wrote to the pope to express his congratulations, share his reflections on the modern vocation of a monk, and to discuss his idea for a new apostolate that focused on dialogue and engagement with all types of people. There is much about this letter, originally written in French, that is striking, but as I read it recently in my research while working the latest book project I couldn’t help but think this particular section should be shared. Here Merton talks about how he sees his vocation as being a monk in the cloister, but not isolated within the cloister. He recognizes the value and importance of religious life for the broader world, especially in the modern age. Seven years before Gaudium et Spes is promulgated at the council called by this then-newly-elected pontiff, Merton outlines a real rich understanding of what it means to talk about the church in the world, if not “of” the world, exampled in his self-understanding of ministry from within the monastery.
As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, we would do well to recall both Merton’s insight and the mission of the Church expressed in the conciliar documents: the Church is “in” the world, not apart from it, not its enemy, not an institution of contradistinction. How desperately we need bishops, religious, diocesan priests, and others to exercise what Merton calls “an apostolate of friendship” with intellectuals — including non-believers, atheists, other religious practitioners, etc. — and all people.
November 10, 1958
My Dear Holy Father,
I want to tell Your Holiness, as simply as I can, what came to my mind while I saw saying Holy Mass yesterday. I hope that I can bring joy to the paternal heart of Your Holiness by sharing with you the aspirations of a contemplative monk who has always loved his vocation, especially the opportunity it offers for solitude and contemplation. Perhaps I have exaggerated this love in some of my books; but since my ordination nine years ago and through my experience as master of scholastics and then of novices, I have come to see more and more what abundant apostolic opportunities the contemplative life offers, without even going outside the monastic cloister.
It seems to me that, as a contemplative, I do not need to lock myself into solitude and lose all contact with the rest of the world; rather this poor world has a right to a place in my solitude. It is not enough for me to think of the apostolic value of prayer and penance; I also have to think in terms of a contemplative grasp of the political, intellectual, artistic and social movements in this world — by which I mean a sympathy for the honest aspirations of so many intellectuals everywhere in the world and the terrible problems they have to face. I have had the experience of seeing that this kind of understanding and friendly sympathy, on the part of a monk who really understands them, has produced striking effects among artists, writers, publishers, poets, etc., who have become my friends without my having to leave the cloister. I have even been in correspondence with the Russian writer who won the Nobel Prize in literature, Boris Pasternak. This was before the tragic change in his situation. We got to understand one another very well. In short, with the approval of my Superiors, I have exercised an apostolate — small and limited though it be — within a circle of intellectuals from other parts of the world; and it has been quite simply an apostolate of friendship.
M. Louis Merton