'The Spirit of the Future Society' - Dean Carol Becker Lectures on Ernesto Cardenal and Thomas Merton: Poets, Priests, and Revolutionaries.

Emily Johnson
November 22, 2022

Dean Carol Becker gave The Dean’s Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons last month, to a live audience at Vagelos College, and an online audience of hundreds. 


Dean Carol Becker stands at a podium with an image of a priest projected behind her

Her subjects were the priests, poets, and activists Ernesto Cardenal and Thomas Merton, iconoclastic figures whose decades-long friendship has fascinated Becker endlessly. The two men led lives of many apparent contradictions; they broke rules and defied categories. Over the course of an hour, Becker brought them to life.

Each year, The Dean’s Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities is delivered to enrich scholarly exchange between the health sciences faculty and the humanities at Columbia. Throughout her lecture on October 27, 2022, in telling the intertwined stories of Merton and Cardenal, Becker embodied the very idea of cross-disciplinary fluidity, the breaking down of compartments of knowledge in order to harness the power of seemingly contradictory ideas.

Cardenal and Merton were both Catholic priests who led lives of intense contemplation, but also of revolution, activism, and art. They were accomplished writers, Cardenal as one of Latin America’s preeminent poets, and Merton as the author of over 70 books of prose. Both were deeply political; Cardenal was a Marxist, and a revolutionary in Nicaragua, eventually denouncing his own party for their authoritarian activity, and Merton was a pacifist and anti-Vietnam War advocate.

“I knew Cardenal personally,” Becker said, “and had studied his work. I also knew the writings of Thomas Merton. But I was unaware of their lifelong friendship and correspondence until I visited the Rare Books and Manuscripts 2015 exhibition at Columbia’s Butler Library, Season of Celebration: Thomas Merton at 100.” Becker there discovered the connection between the two men, who exchanged 92 letters over the course of their friendship.

As poets, monks, mystics, artists, and activists, Cardenal's and Merton's “ lives and work embodied their deepest values, and allowed for their need for silence and contemplation, while turning their creative efforts out towards transforming society, in order to satisfy a shared love for the world.”


Dean Carol Becker stands at a podium with an image of book covers projected behind her

Becker’s admiration for her subjects was evident. Her telling of their lives was versatile and intuitive, and filled with many evocative details.

Cardenal and Merton met in 1957 at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, home of a monastic order most commonly known as Trappists. Merton was an internationally renowned writer, having published his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain in 1947. Born in Nicaragua, Cardenal had followed in Merton’s footsteps to study at Columbia, and subsequently to Gethsemani, where Merton became his spiritual advisor. 

Trappists vow to speak only when absolutely necessary, and undertake often strenuous physical labor. While in orders there, Cardenal was forbidden from writing poetry. Beset with intense anxiety resulting in ill health, Cardenal eventually left the order, at Merton’s recommendation. 

Cardenal went on to found an artistic Christian community in the Solentiname Islands, and eventually joined the revolution that overthrew the oppressive Somoza regime in Nicaragua. He served as the Nicaraguan Minister of Culture under the Sandinista government from 1979 to 1988.

Merton himself had vowed to remain at Gethsemani for the remainder of his life. Leaving the monastery, even for a few days, required permission from the abbott and the Pope; Merton petitioned more than once to be permitted to join Cardenal at Solentiname, unsuccessfully.

Cardenal too met his share of constraints from the Church. Ordered by Rome to resign his government office, Cardenal refused. Becker showed a clip of the infamous 1983 incident in which Pope John Paul II, visiting Nicaragua, openly scolded Cardenal on the tarmac upon his arrival. The Pope subsequently prohibited Cardenal from administering the sacraments.

One of the highlights of the talk was Becker elaborating on her personal connection with Cardenal. Becker was the Chair of the Graduate Division at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1985 when Cardenal came to read his poetry there. Becker had originally extended the invitation two years earlier, but by 1985, when Cardenal responded, anti-Sandinista Reagan had replaced Carter in the White House, “so my once rather benign invitation,” Becker recalled, “now took on an intense political significance.”

She detailed the arrangements necessary for Cardenal’s visit, assembling a “coalition” of friends and allies, including the Chicago chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who served as personal security for Cardenal. 

Becker’s memories of the time were full of reverence and appreciation. Perhaps the most moving anecdote was her account of a reception and fundraiser in honor of Cardenal. She was accompanied by Monsignor John Joseph Egan, a priest, well-known Chicago figure, and highly respected community organizer, who had helped arrange the event. Becker described arriving at the event with Egan, finding Cardenal surrounded by admiring priests and nuns.

“When Jack [Egan] entered the room, the guests moved aside, allowing him to approach Cardenal. And once in front of Cardenal, Jack unexpectedly lowered himself, and knelt before him. He then took Cardenal’s hand, and placed it on his own head, and asked Cardenal to offer him a blessing. Everyone inhaled at once, and the space around these two giants contracted.”

The request was a public rebuke of the Pope’s decision to strip Cardenal of his ability to offer the sacraments. “At first, Cardenal refused to comply, but Jack said quietly and firmly that he would not stand up until Cardenal offered him a blessing. By now, some of us were holding hands and many were in tears. After a time, Cardenal relented, and we all released our breath.”

Becker went on to recount Cardenal’s literary output, his epic works of poetry containing allusions to Amer-Indian creation myths, biology, catholic iconography, particle physics, and much more. “One of his most poignant poems,” she reflected, “was written after he was notified of Merton’s death.” 

In 1968, Merton had traveled to India to meet the Dalai Lama, and Thailand to give a major lecture to a convocation of abbotts in Bangkok. In Bangkok, he suffered a horrific accident while getting out of the shower, fatally electrocuted by a standing fan, his chest burned by the fan blades which had fallen on top of him.

In the poem "Coplas on the Death of Merton," Cardenal speaks directly to Merton as if he were nearby, referring to him as “Tom,” his secular name. “The poem was an invocation of the minute particulars of their friendship, and it brings together their shared critique of media and its effects on society, their deep knowledge of contemporary poetry, Ameri-Indian mythology, Buddhism, Catholicism, allusions to Merton’s books…but mostly the poem reflects their questioning,” Becker summarized. 

Becker wondered whether it was the daily practice of writing which allowed Merton and Cardenal to weave together the complexities of their beliefs, convictions, and interests. And of course, “it was their unique friendship that propelled an ongoing search for what a Solentiname campesino called ‘the spirit of the future society.’”

Dean Carol stands with two women and a man at a reception

“Carol, all of us have witnessed a love story,” said Rita Charon, Chair of Medical Humanities & Ethics, and Professor of Medicine at Vagelos College. “We have witnessed the love story of these two men…but mediated through your discovery of their written correspondence…not just a love story, but a story of revolution. It’s an incredible journey you’ve just brought us on.”

“It’s the journey I’ve been on writing it,” Becker responded simply. She demurred about being unsure whether anyone would be interested along with her. But Becker had conveyed, in the intricacy and excitement of her telling, the ineffable feeling of discovering details which are simply too interesting to be real, facts more powerful than fiction.

Watch a recording of the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons below.