The Long Encounter of Thomas Merton and His Abbot, James Fox
A fascinating account of Thomas Merton's conflicted relationship with his abbot, Dom James Fox—by an esteemed modern Merton scholar.
In the 1950s and '60s, Thomas Merton, a monk of the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky, published a string of books that are among the most influential spiritual books of the twentieth century--including the mega-best seller The Seven-Storey Mountain. He was something of a rock star for a cloistered monk, and from his monastic cell he enjoyed a wide and lively correspondence with people from the worlds of religion, literature, and politics. During that period he also explored and wrote extensively on Buddhism, Sufism, art, and social action. The man to whom he owed obedience in the cloistered life was a much more traditional Catholic, his abbot, Dom James Fox. To say that these two men had a conflicted relationship would be an understatement, but the tension their differences in orientation brought actually led to creative results on both sides and to a kind of hard-won respect and love. Roger Lipsey's portrait of this unusual relationship is compelling and moving; it shows Merton in the years his imagination was taking him far beyond the walls of the monastery, and eventually, literally to Asia.
“"A minor masterpiece of moral restraint and historical reconstruction, and by my lights, a moving portrait of Thomas Merton’s heroic, lifelong struggle with pettiness and bureaucratic restraint. Lipsey gives us a side of Merton seldom seen—Merton the employee and company man—and surprisingly this reveals aspects of the writer's character not visible from any other perspective. A milestone in Merton scholarship."—Robert Inchausti, editor of The Pocket Thomas Merton and author of Thomas Merton's American Prophecy “Roger Lipsey’s premise that Thomas Merton and Dom James Fox were each other’s unsolved koan is deftly illustrated in this, the most complete and illuminating study of Merton’s middle monastic years. His engaging writing combines (in the matter of Merton’s indult) the intrigue of a John le Carré novel with a poetic closing as beautiful as any requiescant in pace ever sung.”—Bonnie Thurston, Merton scholar and author of To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time “Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down is an enthralling book which I read straight through in two sittings. It describes in detail the dysfunctional relationship between Thomas Merton and Abbot James Fox over a period of some twenty years. Both men were powerful, each in his own way, competitive and deeply flawed. Though neither would admit it, they were probably too much alike to cohabit without friction. Because they were men publicly dedicated to a spiritual life much of the arm-wrestling was hidden under a façade of piety and politeness. Merton’s attitude is well known from his private journals; the position of Abbot Fox had to be sought in the archives and in the memories of those who knew both. Roger Lipsey’s narrative makes it possible for readers to arrive at a more nuanced perception of the tangled webs these two men wove around themselves and to interpret the relationship in a more balanced way. This study is essential reading for any future Merton biographer.”—Michael Casey, OCSO, author of Sacred Reading and Toward God”