Merton, Barth, and Mozart

Thomas Merton and Karl Barth died on the same day, December 10, 1968. I remember picking up the New York Times on December 11 and seeing their photos and obituaries on opposite sides of the bottom of the first page.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author of The Seven Storey Mountain and many other books, advocate of peace and racial justice, has been an inspiration for me for decades. I know much less about Karl Barth, a Reformed Church pastor and theologian. But he was a member of the Confessing Church in Germany and one of those responsible for the Barmen Declaration that opposed the Reich Church that professed allegiance to the Nazis.

Many years before their deaths, Thomas Merton wrote about Barth and Mozart in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

Barth played Mozart each day before beginning to write. One night Barth had a dream in which he interrogates Mozart on his theology (which was very critical of Protestantism). Mozart said nothing in response.

Merton suggested that Barth listened to Mozart

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.”

Merton concludes his short meditation on Barth, commending Barth (and himself) to the mercy of God:

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.

I wonder what Merton and Barth are now discussing in heaven.

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