Thomas Merton: Seeing the Salvation of God

For several months I have been feeling diffuse, totally out of control of my life. Tension and anxiety can rule during such periods, and it’s no fun. I sleep with the television on to block out the runaway train of my ruminations. Sometimes it works; sometimes it makes things worse.

I had been seeking some good wholesome, even spiritual, reading to put myself back together, to get rid of that feeling of being a disassembled jigsaw puzzle. But what should I read? Nothing I found in my own library or on Amazon seemed to be what I needed right now. Then a friend of mine gave me this book, The Intimate Merton—a selection of his journal writings from just before he entered the monastery in 1941 until his untimely death in 1968.

Merton was a monk of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance at the Abbey of Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he went by his religious name, Fr. Louis. He was born into a cultured family and spent a great deal of his childhood in Europe. He was a student at Oxford and Columbia and a gifted writer.

Merton is perhaps most famous for his confessions, The Seven-Storey Mountain, his story of conversion to Catholicism, which was published early in his life. This is how I first made my acquaintance with his work in college, but since then I’ve been unable to dig in too much to his other books, until this volume of journals came along.

He was no stranger to controversy. Even in the “anything goes” Sixties a monk was playing with fire by dabbling in Eastern religions. In about 1965 the Abbot gave Merton permission to live by himself in a hermitage separate from the rest of the monastery, which occasioned some murmuring amongst the more traditionally-minded. Documentation of irregular behavior—he did in fact fall in love with a nurse who cared for him after an operation and stayed in touch with her for some time—has almost certainly derailed any possibility of his ever becoming a canonized saint in the Catholic Church, though the Episcopalians celebrate a feast in his honor on December 10, the date of his death.

Merton was an honest soul, which is to say that he was a tortured one. His private journals illustrate constant agonizing over whether or not he was doing the right thing. This only seemed to get worse with age. Some people can’t stand indecision, but I think this is what makes Merton so readable. There is an intellectual humility that appeals to anyone who is not a self-assured jackass. Bertrand Russell seems to be his agnostic or atheist counterpart. It certainly isn’t Richard Dawkins. “Humility is more important than zeal,” Merton wrote on December 11, 1961.

Like many great figures of history, Merton’s work is needlessly circumscribed by the human tendency to shoehorn everyone into a category, to decide if he’s a This or a That—and then to embrace or oppose him accordingly. This does great violence to thinkers, even to many of the people we admire the most. Merton is often considered a darling of the Catholic Left, and certainly he was liberal about many things. But I wonder how many people who fixate on these things know, for instance, that Merton carved out his own path with respect to the reforms and upheavals that were taking place in the Catholic Church in the wake of the II Vatican Council. The point, I guess, is that he deserves to be taken on his own terms, like everyone else does. Off with the tyranny of intellectual collectivization!

As a musician, I found a number of journal entries that could be set to music. His recounting of the fire watch on July 4, 1952 is particularly stirring, in which he intertwines a description of the rounds of the monastery’s night watchman with a love song to God that serves as a precious mirror image of the work of St. Francis:

The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me.

As an owl, this appeals to me very much. “The night,” says Merton, “was never made to hide sin but only to open infinite distances to charity and send our souls to play among the stars.”

Young Fr. Louis winds his way through the monastery, and eventually up to its peak, the steeple, from which he can seeing the rolling hills of the countryside, where he meditates on the beauty of creation and what he calls God’s unanswered question—hints of Leonard Bernstein?

Lord God of this Great night: do you see the woods? Do You hear the rumor of their loneliness? Do You behold their secrecy? Do You remember their solitudes? Do You see that my soul is beginning to dissolve like wax within me?

“It must be nice to sit around and think all the time,” some of you must be saying. Merton clears this up: solitude will force you to face all your faults, all the ugly stuff of life, in a very real way. I have heard as much from other monks. And look at all the distraction people indulge just to avoid having to think about anything. That’s what television is for, after all. In a very real sense, Merton, in all his solitude was more alive than many of us will ever be. This kind of life is not meant for everyone, but it’s the only way to live for those who are destined for it.

This is one of those books that changes the tempo of the reader’s life. It’s impossible to spend much time with Merton before he rubs off on you. I found myself cultivating little shelters of silence, slowing down my pace in general, stopping to enjoy little beauties that we’re usually tempted to dismiss as insignificant. And then I stopped needing the television to put me to sleep at night, and I’m even considering cutting back on the caffeine. Well, maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

More significantly, though, I have developed more of an aptitude for patience while reading this book. Most thoughtful people grant Merton a certain measure of respect, and yet his whole life seems unresolved. One of the debates which is had about him is whether or not he was ceasing to be Christian in favor of Buddhism toward the end of his life. (His journal entries do not bear this out, in my opinion.) His life is one big, aimless journey through the desert. In fact, Merton spends a great deal of time in his journals talking about Bl. Conrad, a Cistercian monk who was quite literally a wanderer. Conrad did not appeal to him early in life, but as he grew older he started to see the value of his story, and he ceased to expect his life to be a microcosm of the Whig Theory of History—a constant ascent uninterrupted by setbacks, detours, and even deliberate changes.

I have this same frustration. We all do, I suppose, and experience teaches us to chill out about it. “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans,” John Lennon said. And that’s okay. We are meant to live life as human beings, and not as online dating profiles where everyone has a master plan to be well fed and happy into eternity, working in the amazing career that they envisioned for themselves at the ripe old age of nineteen while living in an eight bedroom house in West Chester.

The same concept applies to all of God’s unanswered questions. There are puzzles which we will never be able to solve, and other puzzles that we will assemble and put back together a hundred times in the course of our life. These are not failures; these attempts are some of the greatest joys of human existence. Certainty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it is hard to find someone who is certain who is not also an insufferable jerk. (Mea culpa.) So I am content with the questions and enough space to contemplate them all. As Merton himself said, “There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”

Maybe this makes the most sense when we consider one final thing. Merton offers a meditation on the sentence, “Be vigilant, and you will see the salvation of God.” He makes an important distinction here: This does not be mean to be patient while you wait for the salvation of God to arrive. Rather, be vigilant, so that you can see the salvation of God which is already here and which we often miss because we aren’t looking.  How often do we waste energy actively looking for something when what we need is right under our noses, but we don’t see it because we aren’t looking in the right place? I suppose that an important part of humility is being willing to sit tight and allow the unanswered questions to answer themselves.

Traditional Roman Liturgy and Christmas Pudding

Here is a nice, short article on the so-called Stir-up Sunday. I would only argue that this tradition is not only Anglican but is also Roman.  I always thought this was sometime in Advent, but, alas, it is the last Sunday before Advent, which this year was November 30—as I jokingly called it, the “Sunday within the Octave of Thanksgiving.”

Incidentally, from the last Sunday before Advent through the Fourth Sunday of Advent, all but one of the Collects begins with excita, the Latin word which is translated “stir up.” Consequently, I was never sure which one was Stir-Up Sunday; I always figured it to be closer to Christmas.

In any case, the age-old tradition is that people would go to church and hear “excita” and know that it was time to stir up the Christmas pudding. It is, in truth, a quaint and innocuous custom—hardly the red meat that built the Medieval cathedrals or wrote the polyphony of Leonin and Perotin–but it is nonetheless an example of the mutual discourse between religion and culture which is presently absent. In this subject area, contemporary Christianity of all types (well, maybe not Eastern Orthodoxy…) has chosen various swords of stupidity on which to fall. Some insist on a “dialogue” with culture which ultimately co-opts the most vapid aspects of peasant taste. Others pride themselves on not being of the world and therefore eschew anything that is less than a century old. Both approaches are suicidal.

A solution for this? I’ll have to think about that.

The Monks of Springbank: Accomplishing What Leviathan Never Could

Over at the New Liturgical Movement, I have posted a story about the Abbey of Our Lady of Springbank, a Cistercian monastery in rural Wisconsin.  They were featured this morning on the Today show:

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The amazing thing about these monks is that they have achieved everything that Leviathan has tried to achieve but could not.  They noticed printer cartridges selling for obscene mark-ups, so they started selling them at reasonable prices (instead of enacting price controls a la Richard Nixon).  They teach people how to ride horses, and they even do charitable work and give useful employment (not make-work projects like FDR) to those who need it.

This is all part of a great tradition of the Catholic Church:  helping to build up the community.  It is accomplished through hard work and the discernment of what the existing needs are in a given area, and this kind of success depends at least in part upon the glorious principle of subsidiarity.  Of all of this, the government is completely incapable.

One further note:  after the fall of Rome in the 5th century, A.D., those who rebuilt western civilization were not the State-worshipers or the flag-wavers, but indeed they were the monasteries, who preserved all manner of things, including learning.

So, three cheers for the monks of Springbank.

ICEL, bishops decide not to charge royalties to those offering music for free download

I hereby take back my remarks earlier this month in which I called ICEL and the bishops “tyrannical.” The big publishers may be, but ICEL and the bishops have hammered out a very liberal policy concerning musical settings of the liturgical texts which are made available for free download: They will not be charging any royalties or flat fees for such services. This is a great victory, and it shows that ICEL and the bishops have a far more reasonable view of Intellectual Property than I had thus far given them credit for.

This decision effectively emancipates the creativity of composers everywhere who wish to make musical settings of the new translation of the liturgy. Anyone can now compose and publish; no one need gain the favor of one of the big publishers in order for his work to see the light of day. This ends a monopoly, and I hope it also begins an era of artistic renaissance.

The New Mass: Bringing Socialism to the Catholic Church Since 1969

The following insights are indebted almost entirely to Friederich August von Hayek’s book The Counter-Revolution of Science, which I highly recommend and which is certainly a hell of a lot better than The Road to Serfdom.

For those readers who may not be aware of it, the Roman Catholic Church completely redesigned her liturgy in the late 1960’s, very suddenly and in such a way that the Mass and Divine Office of 1955 seemed like a completely different animal than the services of 1965 or 1970. After a little more than a decade of haphazard experimentation, the reforms of the Church were cemented in the form of the Roman Missal of 1969. The history here is actually more complex than I have intimated, but for purposes of this post, the above summary should suffice.

It should be noted that, contrary to popular history, the reformed Mass which is now in vogue in the Catholic Church was not the direct product of the Second Vatican Council. The Council stated, for instance, that the native tongue may be used instead of Latin in varying degrees, not that it must completely replace Latin–or even that it must be introduced at all. It said nothing about the priest facing the people, or using folk songs (“tra-la-la music,” as one of my professors called it) instead of the timeless art music which the Church has cultivated for centuries. On this last point, as a matter of fact, the Church said the opposite (See Article 116 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). The truth is that most of the reforms which most have embraced over the past several decades–and which are considered de rigeur by many–are extra-Conciliar: They were not voted on by the Council, and minutes of the Council suggest that dumbing-down the liturgy was the last thing most of the bishops had in mind. Rather, the worst of these atrocities were foisted on the Church by a small committee which was formed to carry out the dictates of the Council (commissio ad exsequendam), headed by Father (later Archbishop) Annibale Bugnini. They took the reforms far beyond the mandate established by the Council.

Back to Hayek. While working my way through the last few pages of Part I of The Counter-Revolution of Science last evening, something struck me like a bolt of lightning: The Mass of 1970 (the Novus Ordo Missae, as it is called) is a direct descendant of socialism. Consider the following:

1. While the free market operates with many individuals freely interacting with each other as needs dictate, the socialist Weltanschauung desires that economies, and even entire societies, be subject to Central Planning, self-conscious control. Hayek points out that this requires a mastermind, a single individual, to direct. (The irony here is delicious that egalitarian socialists must ultimately submit to a single authority.) In the development of the New Mass that mastermind was none other than Annibale Bugnini, who directed the entire process of post-Conciliar liturgical reform.

In contrast, the Traditional Mass, which was in widespread use until 1965, was the result of un-self-conscious development over many centuries. It was influenced by many people and many circumstances and spontaneously adapted to needs as they arose. This far more closely resembles the free market.

2. Hayek points out that, for socialists such as H.G. Wells and Max Weber, efficiency was the god of all the gods. The goal was to make every man a mere part of the perfectly well-oiled machine of society, so that the economy could become the perfect piece of equipment, which you might say could effectively translate all its resources into a needed product–with the needs being determined by the mastermind, of course.

This maniacal estimation of efficiency is reminiscent of the determination of the liturgical reformers to remove all “useless repetitions” from the liturgy. It should be noted that this particular measure was indeed included in the diktats of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The idea that one would repeat himself in prayer is very offensive to utilitarians (I have a friend with a thick Philadelphia accent who accidentally says “utalitarians,” but truly it is fitting and I just might try to get it in the dictionary some day), but what they seem to be unaware of is the fact that in ancient times such repetition was a method of emphasis. “With weeping I have wept” is one of my favorite examples of this.

It was not only words that were struck down with the “useless repetitions” doctrine, but also many gestures. The ceremonial of the Roman Rite was castrated on the altar of efficiency.

3. Hayek recounts the utter impatience of social planners with any factor that they could not understand. He uses the example of engineers resenting the price system. This also recalls the attitude of the liturgical reformers, who demanded that the meaning of everything in the liturgy be immediately comprehensible to every observer. This involves not only the simplifying of symbolic gestures, but also the actual order of the liturgy itself. If the order of a particular service didn’t “make sense” to the figures in charge of the liturgical revolt, they changed it so that it “made sense.”

The arrogance here is astounding. Instead of asking, “Why has the liturgy been ordered this way for centuries?” the reformers instead employed their historicist hubris (thank you, Whig theory) and changed by fiat what had been enshrined by tradition.

4. The New Mass is anthropocentric. Although it wasn’t made mandatory in the rubrics of the Missal of 1969, the de facto law was that the high altars should be replaced by tables so that the priest could face the people, and create, as Joseph Ratzinger has observed, a community that is closed in on itself. Often the line between the nave and the sanctuary was blurred as well, with the table being brought out into the midst of the people. These egalitarian frenzies were the proletariat’s dream come true. (For more on the anthropocentrism of the Mass, see J. Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy as well as Jonathan Robinson’s The Mass and Modernity.

The Church mandated that the New Mass be implemented on the first Sunday of Advent in December of 1969. Pope Paul VI, in his last two general audiences before this deadline, gave two strikingly different speeches. In the first audience, he explained why the Mass needed to change. In the second, he claimed, in astounding contradiction to the first allocution, why the Mass really isn’t changing. George Orwell himself couldn’t have come up with this. It seems as though Paul was falling for a kind of empiricist emancipation of tangible symbol from invisible reality and relying on the intellect alone to appreciate the true nature of the liturgy.

“I am afraid I have to admit it,” said Martin Mosebach in his tour-de-force, The Heresy of Formlessness, “I am a Stone Age Man.” Why? Mosebach says that he expects outward symbols to reflect the inner reality of what they represent. A Stone Age Man has no concern over the future. But a socialist is imprisoned by dreams of the future and empiricist claptrap. Is there more, though? Have not the Central Planners of the liturgy actually created a religious service which very much is an outward symbol of the inner workings of the parricidal socialist mind?