A Friendship With An Unpromising Start

“Intense, one-sided, humorless, propagandist, morally indignant” – not a promising description of someone you will later describe as a ‘firm friend’, yet these are the words written by the English Benedictine monk Dom Aelred Graham in Atlantic Monthly about Thomas Merton and his earliest religious writings, most notably his famous autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Graham found Merton to be narrow-minded and ascetical and his critique of such a notable religious figure caught the attention of Time magazine in 1953. The criticisms stung Merton, but if we fast-forward a decade, we find Merton writing in the warmest terms about Graham’s book, Zen Catholicism, in the journal America. What happened in between to change the atmosphere between the two monks?

Aelred Graham wrote a fascinating set of autobiographical reflections a couple of years after Merton’s death in 1968. In The End of Religion, he recalls that earlier spat with Merton and is regretful of the language he used in his critique, though not of his view of the sometimes harsh narrowness of the early Merton. He recalls how he invited himself to Merton’s abbey after the publication of his essay in order to engage face to face with the man he had so publicly criticised. He remembers long conversations and a gradual warming of their relationship into a friendship that would last until Merton’s death. As an example of how far they travelled, in his journal for March 10 1964,  Merton writes: “Good talks with Dom Aelred on Sunday. He is very open and sympathetic and one of the most pleasant, understanding people I have ever run into. A lot has gone under the bridge since the Atlantic article (which in any case was not so far wrong!). This is something to be grateful for and a real manifestation of the life of the Church in us.’

This friendship was to bear fruit in one most significant way. It was Graham who made the introductions and provided the contacts for Merton’s Asian journey in 1968. Graham was an early pioneer of Christian inter-faith exploration and had travelled in India and Thailand. He was able to supply Merton with a range of contacts who would introduce him to the living Buddhism he longed to encounter. In his Asian Journal, Merton also notes that he was, at that time, reading Graham’s new book, Conversations: Christian and Buddhist, a collection of transcripts of conversations Graham had had with Buddhists in Japan. This book is significant in the development of Merton’s awareness of Japanese Buddhism as it represented a widening of his sources which had, for a long time, been dominated by the rather partial views of D.T. Suzuki. It is a great pity that Merton never made it as far as Japan on his journey. His intended visit there would have brought him face to face with Japanese Zen practitioners in their own context as well as the three Jesuits of Sophia University – Dumoulin, Lassalle and Johnston – whose writings have done so much to further understanding between Christians and Zen Buddhists.

Aelred Graham’s own contribution, however, should not be forgotten. He was a true pioneer and a man of gentle yet probing spiritual insight. He may not have the lasting fame of his friend Thomas Merton, but I think he deserves a place in our growing appreciation of the spiritual revolution that took place in the Christian church in the second half of the 20th century, a revolution whose work is not yet complete and whose fruit continues to ripen.

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