Saturday, January 31, 2015

Thomas Merton at 100

Had he lived, Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968), who hid himself behind the cloister walls only to become America's most famous Trappist monk and something close to a household Catholic name, would have been 100 today. For members of my generation who were discerning a religious vocation or who were otherwise seriously interested in Church issues, Merton was a major resource. His literary output was enormous, beginning with his unexpected 1948 best-seller, The Seven Storey Mountain, which recounted the story of his early life and spiritual search that led him to Roman Catholicism and priesthood in the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. That and his 1953 monastic journal, The Sign of Jonas, enormously influenced me personally at a time of particular turbulence in my own adolescence and early adulthood. 

Merton went on to write about all sorts of subjects - from monastic spirituality, to liturgy, to changes in the Church, to civil rights, and other political issues. I can hardly here try to do justice to his lengthy bibliography or to his wide-ranging interests and influence. I have, however, personally always been especially attracted to his journals, his more personal reflections on his life, his vocation and the Church and world in which all that was taking place. Last year, I re-read the 7-volume set of his now published journals. So today, in honor of his centennial, I will just recall a few quotations from those journals that I believe speak specifically to the priestly and religious vocation in the Church and that still seem to me to be particularly appropriate to highlight at this juncture in the Church's story.

“The life of Christ in the soul of the priest depends in large measure on the priest’s attitude toward the ‘needy and poor’ – the materially poor, if he deals with them, or, at heart, the spiritually underprivileged in the community where all are supposed to be materially poor together.” (August 12, 1952)

“Not to judge success in priestly life by narcissistic standards – success is not what makes me admired. Success of a priest is fruit in the lives of others. Real fruit, not a river of compliments.” (July 19, 1956)

“Maybe what is wrong with American Catholicism is that it is in large measure Protestant rather than Catholic. Whether this be true or not, one would look in vain for any of the trace of the spirit of Medieval Catholicism in America or in this monastery – its broadness, its universality, its all-embracing compassion, its joy, its understanding of man and his nature, its cosmic outlook, its genuine eschatology; its asceticism; its mysticism; its poetry.” (December 7, 1958)

“God is asking of me, the unworthy, to forget my unworthiness and that of my brothers and to dare to advance in the love which has redeemed and renewed us in the divine likeness.”
(April 29, 1961)          

“To announce peace is something quite other than to preach it – it is not to exhort men to be peaceable, but to announce that the Lord has broken through the wickedness and confusion of the world to establish His kingdom of peace.” (December 20, 1961)

“I am a Christian, and a member of a Christian community. I and my brothers are to put aside everything else and recognize that we belong not to ourselves but to God in Christ. That we have vowed obedience that is intended to unite us to Christ ‘obedient unto death – even the death of the cross.’ That without our listening and attention and submission, in total renunciation and love for the Father’s will, in union with Christ, our life is false and without meaning. But in so far as we desire, with Christ that the Father’s will may be done in us as it is in heaven and in Christ, that even the smallest and most ordinary things are made holy and great. And then in all things the love of God opens and flowers, and our lives are transformed. This transformation is a manifestation and advent of God in the world.”
(April 9, 1965)  

“The crux of the matter seems to be to what extent a Christian thinker can preserve his independence from obsessive modes of thought about secular progress. (Behind which is always the anxiety for us and for the Church to be ‘acceptable’ in a society that is leaving us behind in a cloud of dust.) In other words, where is our hope? If in fact our hope is in a temporal and secular humanism of technological and political progress, we will find ourselves, in the name of Christ, joining in the stupidity and barbarism of those who are despoiling His creation in order to make money or get power for themselves. But our hope must be in God. And he who hopes in God will find himself sooner or later making apparently hopeless and useless protests against this barbarism of power.” (April 15, 1965)

"I admit that when one believes, then the liturgy is a place of holiness and sharing in God’s presence and in His peace. But for me this was even more true in the old Liturgy – though also true of concelebration, true of my own Mass – I can’t seem to find the differences that are declared to be so important.” (July 13, 1967)


No comments:

Post a Comment