Jessie Sandova, From the Monastery to the World: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Ernesto Cardenal (Counterpoint Press, 2017)
I had initial high hopes for reading the correspondence of Thomas Merton and Ernesto Cardenal. I started reading Merton in the early 80s and Cardenal in the late 2000s. Alas, unlike the blazing selected letters between Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who were friends and equals, this correspondence was one between an older, maturer spiritual master and his devoted, younger student. There is a fair amount of mundane exchange on writing, publishing, translating their works in both the USA and Latin America. (There was at one point a Merton Reading Club in Managua.)
Most of the passages I marked were from Merton’s letters to Cardenal, such as the following…
Merton as kvetcher: Gethsemani is terrible. Tremendous commerce—everybody is going mad with the cheese business. I want to leave very badly.… Do you know that some fanatical Catholics in Louisville have burned my books, declaring me an atheist because I am opposed to the Vietnam War? …This country is mad with hatred, frustration, stupidity, confusion. That there should be such ignorance and stupidity in a civilized land is just incomprehensible…. On the other hand, I would be ashamed to be in a Latin American country and to be known as a North American…. We simply cannot look to the established powers an structures at the moment for any kind of constructive and living activity. It is all dead ossified, corrupt, stinking, full of lies and hypocrisy, and even when a few people seriously mean well they are so deep in the corruption and inertia that are everywhere that they can accomplish nothing that does not stink of dishonesty and death. All of it is rooted in the cynical greed for power and money, which invades everything and corrupts everything.
Cardenal as liberal solicitor of charity (this antedates his “conversion” to Marxism in Cuba in 1970): The Alliance for Progress in Managua has also approved funds for a ferry for the peasants of Solentiname, which I requested. The amount they will give us is five thousand dollars.
Merton as encourager of Cardenal’s writing: “Your Psalms are terrific” “Your two articles were superb.”
Merton as monastic critic: We have the words, the slogans, the notions. We cultivate the pageantry of the monastic life. We go in for singing, ritual, and all the externals. And ceremonies are very useful in dazzling the new comer, and keeping him happy for awhile…. I am not convinced that big-institution monasticism such as we have here has a real future.
Merton as God-invoker: The thing is in the hands of God and we must let Him work it out as He pleases…. This is another evident sign of God’s love for you…. It is a culture of well-fed zombies. May God deliver us from the consequences of this….Certainly, too, if I am completely cured it will be another sign of God’s will…. We must seek peace in the underlying simplicity that is beyond conflict: and here we seek the naked presence of God in apparent nothingness. If only we find Him, the emptiness becomes perfectly full, and the contradictions vanish.
Cardenal in early Walt Whitman mode: I was hoping to publish the edition of my Salmos here in Colombia, but I have to pay for the edition and I did not have the money to do it.
Merton as harried global letter-writer: You can imagine I have been more and more swamped by correspondence and affairs, but that does not mean I have forgotten all the things I want to tell you …. This is really just a hurried note; but please pray for me during Pentecost week…. I want to reply [to your letter] as soon as I can so as not to let it go, because if I put it aside I may not get to it again for many weeks. I am having a hard time keeping up with letters—as you too probably are….But I guess we are all in the same boat with correspondence: it is simply impossible to keep up, and the business of long complicated letters gets to be more and more absurd.
Cardenal sees his future: Each day I become more interested in Indian-related things and am learning more from them. This, I believe, will also become like a kind of vocation for the rest of my life. 151
Merton worried about a police state even outside of Bardstown, Kentucky: If [Eugene McCarthy] is not elected I will find it difficult to return here. This will become a police state in all reality.
Merton as part of the liberal consensus: Kennedy was a good man and a competent president. He was not able to carry out his best ideas, but he still tried to move in the right direction, though sometimes he found himself going the wrong way perhaps.
Ernesto the omnivorous reader: I am collecting a lot of information about all the primitive religions of the world, and all the non-Christian peoples, and am reading everything I can find about this subject matter.
Merton as early fan of Portugal’s great poet: I think I told you I have read some [Fernando] Pessoa to Suzuki and he was delighted with it….Pessoa is a kind of anti-poet in his Zen-like immediacy.
Merton as prophet: I say the future belongs to South America: and I believe it. It will belong to North America too, but only on one condition: that the United States becomes able to learn from South and Latin America and listen to the voice that has so long been ignored (a voice which even ignores itself and which must awaken to its own significance), which is a voice of the Andes and of the Amazon (not the voice of the cities, which alone is heard, and is comparatively raucous and false). There is much to be done and much to pray for.
Many people have probably wondered: What if Merton hadn’t died by accident in Bangkok? The monk had been addressing Marxism in a talk just before he died. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been surprised that Ernesto would soon write the following in his book, In Cuba: “I knew this Revolution only superficially. Yet a great change had taken place in my life; it was the most important experience since my religious conversion. And it was like another conversion. I had discovered that now, and in Latin America, to practice religion was to make revolution. There can be no authentic Eucharist except in a classless society.… Also in Cuba, I had seen that socialism made it possible to live the Gospels in society. Earlier it had been possible only individually, or in the bosom of convents and monasteries. Fidel had reconciled us with communism.”