Saturday, October 22, 2011

Monastic Observances: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 5

By Thomas Merton, 335 pages,

The intellectual and spiritual life Merton sought for himself and others, reflected in Monastic Observances 5, portrays the best not only of Merton but of the Catholic tradition he so loved. The book's material was taken from the notes Merton used for teaching as Novice Master at the Cistercian Monastery in Kentucky, Gethsemane.

His keen psychological insights into the contemplative life does not mirror modern pop psychology or the social sciences. Rather, they reflect Merton's own monastic lifestyle, and the training it demanded, as well as his reading of the Bible, Church Fathers, and medieval scholastics. He has broadened Catholic theology and spiritual practice with his integration of the Eastern Fathers.

Above all, Merton calls his brothers to a practical life. This differs sharply, surprisingly, from the utilitarian approach to life offered to us all by present-day capitalists. He cites the exterior "pitfalls" of laziness, sloppiness, messiness, and also noisiness. Doors should be closed quietly; brothers should walk without noise; and eating should be modest and mannerly.

Much of this contrasts with our own day, even within the Church at present. He warns, for instance, against "subjectivism," the practice of giving our own viewpoints a high regard. When discussing the Eucharist, he warns against judging one's own feelings too much when receiving communion. Psychological games, working oneself into a certain feeling, is a meaningless distraction.

His discussion on the Eucharist is detailed, full of practical advice for how to best approach the Lord's Supper, yet also highlighting the basic theology behind the sacrament: "the Mass is the Passion of Christ. When I am assisting at Mass, I am present at the Passion... The Mass becomes, in fact, a meditation on the Passion."

Merton rejects a psychological or sentimental view of the Mass or the Eucharist. Something happens at Mass, specifically with the Eucharist. He explains this in detail, discussing the prayers used, as well as the meaning behind the rubrics of the Mass.

Again, he rejects sentimentalism, noting that the fruits of the Mass include increased charity in the heart and actions of the believer, "quite apart from any feelings or conscious desires of charity."

Merton's simplicity also affects his view of lectio divina, or sacred reading, when Christians read not simply to fill our brains but as a spiritual practice. In lectio divina, the prayerful style of reading practiced by monks, the point is not to finish a book or arrive at some higher intellectual understanding, but to grow in the spiritual life, to have a deeper relationship with God.

Reading in this way flows into the daily meditation and prayer of a monk, which is centered in the Mass. Thus Merton envisions a unity. The monk's day should not be fragmented into work, pray, work, pray, eat, and so on. The bells, which are a call to holiness according to Merton, call the man from one meditative, prayerful action, such as his daily work routine, to another meditative, prayerful action, such as evening prayer.

Centered on the Eucharist and the internal unity of the man, which feeds the external unity of the monastic community, Monastic Observances 5 shows Merton's deep respect for the Catholic tradition and suspicion of innovation. He was a most unrevolutionary monk.

No comments:

Post a Comment