On Thomas Merton: A Reflection

Let’s talk about “Holy Water.” Why do we use Holy Water? Why do we do a “sprinkling rite” with Holy Water only during Easter? (Part 1 of 2)

There are many, many scriptural references to water, and its significance is deep. But for the Catholic, water is first and foremost a reminder of our baptism—one of the most significant events in the life of a Christian. In baptism, we are freed from sin, born anew spiritually, and adopted into the covenant family of God. Many of the saints, realizing the importance of baptism, venerated the place and day of their baptism with great fervor, just as we would celebrate our physical birthday. St. Louis de Montfort even changed his last name to “de Montfort” as Montfort was the town in which he was baptized.

Holy water is the primary way Catholics encounter water as a sacramental. It is blessed on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) and is used throughout the year.

On Sundays, especially in Easter Time, in place of the customary Penitential Act, a “Sprinkling Rite” is done to recall the water of Baptism that was received by the new Catechumens during the Vigil Mass. Further information can be found on the website. Now, on to our topic this week:

When the topic of Thomas Merton comes up, I have found that people have three reactions. Some absolutely swoon. Some (like me) have read him and just don’t get him. We’re not sure what all the fuss is about. Some think he was a charlatan and a fraud.

Merton died 50 years ago last year. To commemorate his passing away, many articles were written. One appeared in New Yorker Magazine. Another was seen in National Catholic Reporter.

Now, one year later, a new book, On Thomas Merton by Mary Gordon, has recently been published. Mary Gordon is a teacher at Barnard College. She is an award-winning author of eight novels and three collections of short fiction. Reviews of the book are appearing. As you could expect, opinions and emotions on the former Trappist run all over the place. Gary Wills rips Merton in Harpers Magazine. Author and blogger Rod Dreher calls him a “pious fraud.” Orthodox priest Patrick Henry Reardon offers a more measured assessment.

So why write about him? Like him or not, he was a phenomenon. He lived and wrote during a turbulent period in the Catholic Church in general. It was a challenging time for the Catholic Church in America in particular. Communism was at its nadir. Churches and religions were being fiercely persecuted in countries around the world. The post-Vatican II church was in the midst of tumultuous changes. She was struggling to find Her bearings. Vocations from post-World War II until the mid-1960s had exploded. Massive castle-like seminaries were being constructed all over the America and in the northeast U.S. in particular. Yet, as we entered the 1970s, vocations for men and women were collapsing. Interest in religion and spirituality was great. So was interesting psychology and psychology-therapy. Swami Vivekananda delivered his famous address on Eastern religion at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Eastern mysticism became vogue soon afterwards. In the midst of this Merton struck a chord that affected many people - often in very positive ways.

I had seminary professors who knew Merton personally. They were quintessential professionals. They did not offer their opinions of the monk to young, impressionable seminarian minds. During one private conversation, however, one priest-professor offered his assessment. He felt that Merton was emotionally conflicted and had serious issues. Merton had a huge ego and success didn’t help that. The professor said, cautiously, that one had to give Merton’s writing some credit. You also had to be careful. The corpus of Merton’s material needed to be understood with great care. This was especially the case if Merton was being used within the context of spiritual direction.

Ok, Merton had issues. Who doesn’t? He could be the patron saint of contemporary people who keep saying that they’re “fine.” (Fearful - Insecure – Neurotic – Emotional ..to quote the movie “The Italian Job”). We’re all there in some capacity. We live in a tough and challenging world. Everybody gets smacked around. No exceptions.

Why is this relevant? When you read about Merton, you see “loving God and loving neighbor… as yourself” in all its sloppiness. We read about what Merton was trying, using and applying to get to a closer relationship with God and to get a better understanding of himself. His “tools” included solitude (which he loved) and community (many members of which he seemed to despise). He relished quiet and noise (he found the city exciting). He read Scripture and secular material. He enjoyed America and foreign countries. He loved the stalwart conservative Roman Catholicism of the Middle-Ages. He greatly admired the spirituality of Eastern mysticism.

Recently Archbishop Chaput and the priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were in Hershey for a few days. The occasion was our priest’s convocation. Bishop Andrew Cozzens (Auxiliary Bishop, Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul) was the keynote speaker. He quoted two French writers: 19th century Cistercian monk Dom Chautard (and his book The Soul of the Apostolate) and contemporary French priest-author Jacques Philippe. Bishop Cozzens said that your spiritual life might be a mess. God might not seem to be hearing your prayers. Perhaps God doesn’t even seem to exist. Your temporal life might seem to be getting nowhere. If this is the case, you’re probably doing it right. God is currently making things hard for his best disciples. He’s teaching them. He’s training them. He’s preparing them for important tasks in a world that is spiritually and emotionally turning to mush. The temporal aspects of the world (politics, military, economics education, etc..) don’t seem to be doing all that great either. Thus “true” seasoned Disciples are going to be needed in the future. In order to “season” such Christians, their spiritual lives are fraught with ironies, incongruities, contradictions, and points of paradox.

Much like Merton.




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