Leadership and subversion: Merton and his Abbot

Make Peace Before the Sun Goes down: The Long Encounter of Thomas Merton and His Abbot, James Fox

Roger Lipsey

Shambhala, 2015

“To say that I am a child of God is to say, before anything else, that I grow. That I begin. A ch9781611802252ild who does not grow becomes a monster. The idea ‘Child of God’ is, therefore, one of living growth, becoming, possibility, risk, and joy in the negotiation of risk. In this God is pleased: that His child grows in wisdom and grace.”

I spoke in a recent talk about the importance of the gift of tears. Perhaps I appreciate this gift in prayer because I am not easily given to this in daily life. Nonetheless, I wept at this extraordinary book.

It is a book that will only truly make sense to those who are already devotees of Thomas Merton, who know his journals and his books, who already know that his shadow side, his bete noir, was his abbot, James Fox; that Fox is the villain of the story.

This is an extraordinary book because I can’t think of any other book which details so faithfully and meticulously the relationship between a religious superior and a member of her or his community. It is an extraordinary book because it captures the turn, the moment of transition in a community leaving behind the old world and entering the new world of the post-Vatican 2 church. It is an extraordinary book because it deals with an extraordinary man.

For so many of us, Merton is a pioneer and an exemplar of the person we would like to be. Full, richly, intensely alive. Abbot James describes him as ‘electric’. It is no surprise that he was a difficult member of a religious community.

It would be easy to caricature the relationship between Merton and his abbot; the old and the new; the charismatic and the institutional leader; the open-minded and the closed mind. But Lipsey never falls into that trap. It is ‘contradiction’ that epitomises his approach to these two complex characters; they are signs of contradiction to each other. James even ending his life living in the hermit state that he denied to Merton for so long. Merton dying tragically too soon and James living into his nineties.

This book is tear-provoking because it highlights problems faced by us all. The problem of living in an institution. For those of us who are religious, this problem is especially acute. The church which is summoned by the spirit is ruled by law. That which should flow freely is constrained. But it is also a book that draws attention to the difficulties of institutional leadership, magnified when that leadership is in a community committed by vow for life. It highlights the compromise that is part of all leadership and the burden of guilt at the damage done to individuals by institutions.

Lipsey brilliantly captures the journey of Merton’s life, as it is entwined with Abbot James’s. The journey from pious religious to world influencing author. The journey towards human maturity. This is not the book that sets the story straight; that absolves James from guilt. That would be too easy and too crass. James himself as far as it is possible to see, never sought such self-justification. Rather it reveals the complications and contradictions. Would it have been better if Merton had been allowed to travel more? Earlier? It hardly seems possible that he could have written more. Who knows? It is what it is.

There is deep cruelty in some of the material presented from Abbot James’s pen. ‘Spiritual abuse’ would certainly seem to capture some of his words and actions. But he also showed great kindness and gentleness. In the end, there is a sort of reconciliation. Lipsey writes well, he is a presence in the book, often writing in the first person, often asking rhetorical questions. These don’t irritate, somehow the book is about the messiness of life and its contradictions, that needs a very human voice, a very human engagement.

If you are a Merton reader, read this book. If you are new to Merton read his journals first.

Merton is so much the writer that it would be crass to finish with anything other than his words; so two quotes from his journals included in the book:

“Actually one decides one’s life by responding to a word that is not well defined, easily explicable, safely accounted for. One decides to love in the face of an unaccountable void, and from the void comes an unaccountable truth. By this truth, one’s existence is sustained in peace – until the truth is too firmly grasped and too clearly accounted for. Then one is relying on words – i.e. on his own understanding and his own ingenuity in interpreting existence and its “signs”. Then one is lost – has to be found once again in the patient Void.”


“Suddenly there is a point where religion becomes laughable. Then you decide you are nonetheless religious.”





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