Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Milton and Merton

In 2008, two writers who have greatly influenced me and millions of other readers have significant anniversaries: John Milton was born 400 years ago, and Thomas Merton died 40 years ago.

I have spent much of my adult life thinking and writing about these two writers, Merton mainly in the past decade, Milton during my years as a university professor. There is no connection between them except their obvious concern with Christian theology. For me, each raises important questions about the ultimate issues of faith and about what G. M. Hopkins called the "incomprehensible certainty" of God.

No one who reads "Paradise Lost" or Milton's other major works comes away unimpressed. The sheer energy and determination of the man is as apparent as his often forbidding erudition. With each reading of his work, I come away disagreeing with, or disliking, much of it yet admiring the poet's ability to triumph over adversity despite great personal and political setbacks. I refer to his blindness, mainly, and the defeat of the Puritan Revolution, out of which came his greatest creation, the defiant Satan of his epic.

Milton was born in December, 1608; Thomas Merton died in December, 1968. The extensive writings of Merton, the Trappist monk, writer, peace activist and spiritual master, remain lively and relevant in our time, and I keep discovering new facets of his work. Like Milton, Merton is an optimist in spite of everything, and so is an inspiration to people like me.

Intellectual curiosity, emotional openness, and wide reading combine in Merton with a mystic's heart to produce great writing. He expresses himself in memorable prose (and poetry) about silence, solitude, and the inner life, making the ancient monastic tradition of contemplative prayer meaningful for readers today.