From the Monastery to the World: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Ernesto Cardenal (translated and edited by Jessie Sandoval)

I bought this book by accident. A friend recommended Ernesto Cardenal’s From Nicaragua with Love (which is now on its way to me thanks to that friends and the awesome City Lights bookstore), and somehow, in searching for it, I turned it into letters and found this book instead. And I am glad I did.

Amidst all of the noise that surrounds us now, it was nice to read something so quiet and contemplative. It made me wonder about the future of collections of letters. Will we soon be seeing things like The Collected Emails of. . .?

Initially, I wished I knew more about Merton, Cardenal and even Nicaragua. I wished for footnotes. I knew enough about the time to recognize some of the concerns they were alluding to, and occasionally I’d stop to read one of the poems that one or other of them mentioned.

But this was still a compelling read even without much background knowledge (though now I am looking for some – if you have any biographies or histories to recommend). I just focused on the letters, the friendship between the two men and their humanity as they negotiated their religion, the world of publishing, and themselves. Of course, I’ve heard of church politics, but have never heard how much it could impact one individual.

I envy those who can take their faith so seriously, while retaining their skepticism. And to have what we might call a ‘thought partner’ for this kind of internal investigation seems wonderful indeed.

I don’t speak Spanish, so I can’t comment on Jessie Sandoval’s translation. In the end, I appreciated that she left the poet-priests to speak for themselves and was grateful for her introduction because it allowed me to some insights into why the project was so personal for her, and I was happy to find some Cardenal poetry and a Merton essay at the end.

This is an example of what I’ve decided to call a ‘gateway’ book in that it makes me want to learn more, not only history and biography, but also poetry, the last of which Sandoval reports, is very important to Nicaraguans. As with so many other things in this book, I had no idea.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake