“A Prayer At The Heart Of The World’s Dark Night”

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 29 2012 @ 10:27am


A new book on Ghandi, Ghandi and the Unspeakable, further reveals the connections between the Indian leader and Thomas Merton. While Merton was working on his Raids on the Unspeakable, he also was editing a volume of Ghandi's writings — Merton's own explorations of contemplation, non-violence, and the struggle for justice drew him to Ghandi's thinking. It's one of the great unanswered questions in 20th century Catholicism: what would have happened if Merton's migration toward Eastern practices and Buddhism had not been interruoted by his untimely death?

But here you have it: the convergence between Christianity and Eastern wisdom, the mutually reinforcing words and deeds of Ghandi, Merton, Dr. King, the parallels between the anti-colonial, anti-war, and civil rights movements. For those who dismiss pacifism as a form of weakness and withdrawal, the example of these men surely shows the dynamism of creative suffering – the authentically Christian power of the powerless. From Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's review:

Merton wrote his Raids on the Unspeakable in the midst of the turmoil of the '60s. He was corresponding with friends around the world about the civil rights movement, the TMertonStudypeace movement, the threat of nuclear disaster. He'd become a spiritual counselor to activists (including Jim Douglass). And yet, at the same time, Merton's superiors forbade him to write on political issues. In a fascinating way, this forced him to explore the spiritual dynamics of activism.

So, the notion of the "Unspeakable" emerges as a way of naming what can't be spoken—those powers that lurk in the silence, defying description and so paralyzing us all the more. Raids on the Unspeakable reads like an apocalypse. It's a prose poem, really. Out of context, it almost seems crazy. But it is a prayer at the heart of the world's dark night. In the midst of it, Merton names a bedrock truth: "Christian hope begins where every other truth stands frozen stiff before the power of the Unspeakable."

What's fascinating, looking back, is that Merton's contemplative confrontation with the Unspeakable brought him to Gandhi as well. When he was working on Raids on the Unspeakable, he was also editing a collection of Gandhi's writings, poring over the extensive collections of a man who, like himself, wrote almost every day of his adult life. What Merton did in an anthology, Jim has done in a fascinating biography—to hold Gandhi's witness up as a mysterious icon of Christian hope vis à vis the Unspeakable.