At Home in the World: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Rosemary Radford Ruether
edited by by Mary Tardiff
(Orbis Books, 1995, 110 pages)
I’ve read a couple books recently by Rosemary Radford Ruether, both of which have been fascinating. However, this collection of correspondence between Ruether and the Catholic monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton was the most enjoyable yet. The exchange between the two started in the middle of 1966 and goes through the early part of 1968, shortly before Merton died. Their discussions center mainly on the nature of the monastic vocation. These letters show two writers who are deeply dissatisfied with the state of the Catholic Church and its various institutions. The revolutionary cultural changes of the 1960s provide the backdrop for their interactions on the role of the Church in broader culture, the Church’s responsibilities in promoting social justice, and the need for change and adaptation in churches and monastic communities to reflect these concerns.
These letters are engaging on a number of levels. They show Ruether, as a young academic, giving expression to some of the issues and concerns that would eventually develop into a distinctly feminist approach to theology. Her frustration with traditional approaches to historical and dogmatic theology are evident, though her alternative is only beginning to be formulated. Merton, on the other hand, is already an established celebrity of sorts, famous for his promotion of the contemplative life. However, Merton’s views also seem to be in flux as he questions the viability of continuing to live as a hermit while desiring to pursue activism and cultural engagement. The interaction between the two is pretty intense, and Ruether is extremely frank in her assessments of Merton’s situation. He is at times defensive, but he also clearly values and encourages her critiques. The exchange of perspectives between a young, brash, and progressive academic and a mature, thoughtful, and gracious monk is fascinating. I love the way that published correspondence can give a personal quality to a writer’s work, and this collection certainly does that for both Merton and Ruether.