Saturday, October 05, 2013

Old Voice for New Times

Thomas Merton in his cinderblock
hermitage at the Cisterican Monastery
of Gethsemane, Kentucky
The Trappist monk Father Louis, or Thomas Merton as he is commonly known, died 45 years ago. One would think that now in these fast paced times, in  a period considered by some as 'post-institutional religion', he would be 'done and over'. He could just be a little remembered phenom; the writing hermit whose literary voice helped to usher eager Catholics into the long awaited reforms of the Second Vatican Council and invited them to plumb the spiritual depths of the God relationship so that the renewal could take root. Then he died too young, only age 53, victim of accidental electrocution in Thailand during his exceptional Asian journey.
But Thomas Merton is still speaking to us and it is the very technological blessings of these fast-paced times that is making him available to us in surprisingly intimate ways. He has spoken to me these days with the force of a therapeutic jolting, a seismic jolt out of dysfunctional malaise.
Seeking spiritual guidance and intellectual enrichment I let my eyes wander through our community collection of recorded courses and lectures now in CD format. Through the years I had listened to poor quality audio tapes of Merton's lectures to his Novices. He was Novice Master for 15 years. Before cassette tapes became available, reel to reel tapes of his talks were informally circulated among contemplatives and laity eager to share his wisdom. As I looked at our current collection I sought titles of things I had not previously heard.
All of Merton's literary output and his recorded lectures are held by the Merton Legacy Trust and the Merton Center of Bellarmine University. (A lesson to us all - he died so young but had the wisdom to prepare his Literary Will some years before.) Now the gifts of technology are serving to make every recorded word Merton uttered available to anyone who wants to hear them today. CDs are available from NowYouKnowMedia.
These days I have been listening to a series of lectures Merton recorded alone in the natural surroundings of his own hermitage. These rather spontaneous talks were intended for the Sisters of Loretto whose motherhouse was nearby. They requested that Merton record his responses to written questions submitted by them. His tapes (reel to reel) would then be shared among the members of the Loretto community as part of their preparation for a General Chapter in 1967, a Chapter which would deal with the call to renewal of religious life.
He speaks in such a relaxed manner, in a tone suggesting that he considers the sisters to be an audience of his peers with whom he can be frank and to whom he has no need to condescend. Indeed, it was very touching to hear at the end of one lecture, " I will pray for you. I love you."
Merton's words in these lectures were so relevant to his times but it is striking to me that they have so much relevance for the situation in which we find ourselves today. His words have been gift to me and so appropriate for our current time as the Church, under the significant leadership of Pope Francis, seems to be emerging from a long period of self-absorption; denial of its own grievous faults; and its failure to preserve the value and significance of its spiritual voice for all people.
And Merton is so real. There is no Pollyanna here. He calls a spade a spade; warns of the pitfalls; acknowledges his own weakness; and acknowledges the price to be paid in taking the higher road. But he urges always that we must remain rooted in Jesus Christ and seeking the freedom of the children of God.
Why not revisit Merton? Why not visit him for the first time?

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