Rowan Williams. Thomas Merton. Two figures who I believe will require lasting theological interaction (though Rowan, of course, isn’t dead), and two figures often misunderstood by evangelicals in general and Christians more generally. This slim, readable volume comprises several lectures on Thomas Merton by Rowan Williams, and offer the reader a great introduction to the trappist monk, through the mind of the former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Williams writes in his foreword that he has been reading and engaging with Thomas Merton since he was a teenager. This long-term love and engagement comes out superbly throughout the book, as Williams demonstrates his deep and personal knowledge of Merton through the five lectures, which comprise the meat of this enjoyable little book. It represents, as Williams notes, ‘over nearly forty years‘ of engagement with Thomas Merton, and it is arguably a mark of both Williams as a reader and Merton as a writer that this book has the impact it does.
I am a recent and gradual fan of Rowan Williams. I’ve considered sympathetically a sermon that other evangelicals panned, and thoroughly enjoyed and favourably reviewed his recent book on Narnia. This book, “A Silent Action”, is in a similar vein, and like “The Lions World”, is an example of Rowan not being a dense impenetrable academic, but instead a whimsical and widely-read communicator of Christianity. This is what makes this book so enjoyable – Williams ranges relatively far and wide through Merton’s life and thought, and comes out with five key ideas and themes that he unpacks with startling clarity and depth of learning.
Of the Five chapters, and I will not go into all of them for reasons of space and spoilers, my favourite was probably “‘Not Being Serious’: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth“. This fifth and final chapter – apart from the afterword – is particularly interesting. I like Karl Barth. I don’t entirely agree with everything I’ve read of him, but he is a powerful and important thinker. Merton and Barth died in the same year, and Williams opens this chapter with a wonderful whimsical idea;
“I found myself speculating… about conversations that might be going on in some heavenly waiting room… the greatest Protestant thinker of the twentieth century, and one of the most widely-publicized and widely-read Catholic writers of the age. What would they have to say to each other?”
Williams reads Merton and Barth well, and this chapter is a fascinating discussion of what it might mean, echoing each other, to be entirely serious and not take each other too seriously. It is a profound and powerful reflection on the task and object of theology; knowing God. Williams closes, in a way that left me wanting more;
“Barth’s unseriousness, Merton’s unseriousness, and perhaps Mozart’s glorious unseriousness all converge here… what is to be taken seriously – and yet unbearably lightly – is only and eternally God”
My hope is that Williams’ new job at Cambridge will afford him time to write more and develop some of the themes in this book. One hopes that being freed from the shackles of the Canterbury hat will give him the chance to really be a creative theologian again. Whether or not you agree with him, reading Williams is always worthwhile. Others seem to think so – it is a mark of this man that the orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia offers the afterword here (focusing particularly on the 2nd chapter, engaging Merton and the Monastic ideal with Orthodox thinker Paul Evdokimov). I’d recommend this book for someone looking for an introduction to Thomas Merton, or something slim and readable by Rowan Williams, or who merely wants to explore the less-known spaces of theological thinking. The topics covered here are relevant and profound – my copy has many cornered pages for later usage/reflection – and Williams writes as a kindly tour guide.