Merton to Barth: May Christ remain a child in you.

I was in my junior year at the University of Scranton and had taken advantage of a special student subscription to the New York Times. December 11, 1968, I was astounded as I noted on opposite sides at the bottom of the front page two obituary notices – Thomas Merton and Karl Barth; both had died the previous day.

I had read a lot of Merton and considered his work an inspiration for my life – not only on contemplation but also on facing the challenges of racism and war in the late 1960s.

I had heard of Karl Barth but not read his work. (I must confess that I still haven’t read more than a few pages.)

But I remembered that in the beginning of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton had written about Barth.

Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart.

Barth had always been piqued by the Catholicism of Mozart, and by Mozart’s rejection of Protestantism.…

Barth, in his dream, was appointed to examine Mozart in theology. He wanted to make the examination as favorable as possible, and in his questions he alluded pointedly to Mozart’s masses. But Mozart did not answer a word.

I was deeply moved by Barth’s account of this dream…. The dream concerns his salvation, and Barth perhaps is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology.

Each day, for years, Barth played Mozart every morning before going to work on his dogma: unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, yes, even by eros. While the other, theological self, seemingly more concerned with love, grasps at a more stern, more cerebral agape: a love that, after all, is not in our own heart but only in God and revealed only to our head.

Barth says, also significantly, that “it is a child, even a ‘divine’ child, who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.” …

Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will
be our salvation.

There is all too great a temptation among intellectuals (and I have to admit that many would so label me) to try to grasp at our faith in terms of ideas and propositions.  We want the right word, the right phrases, the right arguments.

But Merton reminds us that God is also revealed in our heart. As Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

How often are we people of faith tempted to reduce faith (and orthodoxy) to the right words. But “orthodoxy” might also be translated as “right glory/worship” and orthodoxy is related to “orthopraxis” – right practice. Wasn’t it James who said that “Faith without works is dead.”

But I fear that the divisions and the harsh words and accusations may continue in the Church I love and in the wider Christian community.

And so, in the midst of the struggles in the church, maybe what all sides should do is sit down and listen to some Mozart. I’d suggest Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Mozart’s Requiem.

And then let God awaken the child within us so that we may trust the mercy of God – and let ourselves rest in Christ’s lap.

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3 responses to “Merton to Barth: May Christ remain a child in you.

  1. Thank you!

  2. Liam, I did a little research but without real results. It appears that his father played the piano but that Karl Barth himself gave up trying.
    This is from a radio interview I ran across:
    “Did you yourself play any music?”
    Barth: “I tried, but it didn’t turn out so well. So I became a listener.
    My father was musical and played the piano well. As I recall — I
    mention it in my little book — it is impossible for me ever to
    forget — I was four or five at the time — how he played ‘I amino
    mine’ (‘Oh, happy fate!’) from The Magic Flute. This affected
    me — I can’t say how — and I remarked: He’s the one!”

  3. John, Thanks for writing this. It’s good to remind ourselves every once in a while that we’re about more than just what’s in the head.

    One of the phrases in the Merton quote provoked my curiosity. I don’t suppose you might know the answer to this but I’ll ask anyway. When he wrote, “Each day, for years, Barth played Mozart every morning before going to work on his dogma,” do you happen to know if it played it on a phonograph or on a piano or other instrument? Just curious.

    I went through a period when I sang a bunch of Requiems all within about 5 years with three different choruses in MA: Fauré, Verdi, Brahms and Mozart. Each one of them was unique in what it taught me. And I have given up trying to figure out which one I like the most. I certainly can see why Barth would be so fascinated by Mozart.

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