Merton the Rigid?

On Facebook this evening I posted a quotation, asking people to guess its author without recourse to Google. There were some interesting guesses, but one canny lady got to it by a clever process of questioning and reasoning.

The author was none other than Fr Thomas Merton OCSO (or O.C.R. as it was), from his 1950 pamphlet “What is Contemplation?” as published by Burns & Oates as title 7 in their Paternoster Series. This is early Cistercian Merton, grappling intellectually and manfully with spiritual things. Reading this particular little section, I was stopped in my tracks on page 13:

The liturgy teaches active contemplation above all by its rich content of theology and scriptural revelation, which it surrounds with art and music and poetry of chaste and austere power, deeply affecting to any soul that has not had its taste perverted by the artistic fashions of a degenerate age.

Once one has recovered from the stridency of tone (dare I say, rigidity!), a re-read and a longer meditation on his words is worth the effort. A little further down the page he concludes:

The Blessed Sacrament is not a sign or a figure of contemplation; it contains Him Who is the beginning and end of all contemplation. It should not be surprising then that one of the most normal ways of entering into infused prayer is through the graces given in Holy Communion.

It is hard to avoid applying his teaching, clearly drawn from the pre-cociliar liturgy, to our situation since the Council. It is a rare Mass indeed in the modern rite, unless one knows to look, that lends itself to this truest participation in the liturgy. Contemplative prayer is pure preparation for the life of heaven, and so is the (unwitting for many, but that is fine) goal of anyone who aspires to holiness. Far from being solely the product of techniques learned from books, it is most readily accessed through the Mass and the graces of Communion.


Perhaps if Pope Francis and his courtiers were made aware of this they might be a little less quick to shoot from the lip at those, especially the young, who are attracted to the old liturgy, or at the very least the new liturgy performed in fidelity to the letter and (I will say it!) the spirit of its rubrics. That said, the new liturgy’s rubrics themselves shatter the sacred silence that the old rite more generously afforded to those who wished not to do something but to pray and to worship.

So far from being rigid-minded adopters of a retro-liturgical fashion or a faux nostalgia for what they grew up with, perhaps these people, both young and not so young, have encountered the old rite and found Him Whom their hearts sought, and having found Him long to abide with Him in the peace and order of the old liturgy. Perhaps they do not want to be constantly talking and talked at, forced to recite this and that, to sing what is too often in many places not worthy of the human voice. Perhaps they would rather let the drama of the liturgy unfold as it has been crafted to do over the centuries, the great Sacrifice made present almost anti-climactically. With the distractions removed, perhaps they find it easier to behold Christ. Perhaps what the conciliar generation discarded as old and obsolete, the young have discovered as new and thoroughly timely.

Perhaps these apparently rigid people might find their experience given voice in that least rigid of Divine books, the Song of Songs (3:1-4a):

On my bed by night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not.
I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him, but found him not.
The watchmen found me
as they went about in the city.
“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
Scarcely had I passed them
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go…


11 thoughts on “Merton the Rigid?

  1. Thanks, Fr Hugh, for this insightful observation.

    Last week I downloaded from the Liturgy Office web site their latest contribution, the document The Place of Silence from the Liturgy Committee of the Department for Christian Life and Worship.

    Click to access Silence.pdf

    A wholesome tool for any interested party, of which there ought to be many. Dutifully downloaded, stapled in A5 booklet format, I made a ‘gift’ to each member (6 of us) of my religious community, only subsequently to be scoffed at by two of the Fathers: Where did you get that from???? – with guffaws of scathing ‘laughter’.

    What strange times we live in.

    Sic transit gloria mundi (from the former Rite of the Coronation of a Pope).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah Br Tony, the slings and arrows of community life. They purify our intentions if we allow them to. Easier said, of course. I get the same here about ad orientem. Offer it up and make it something useful! Blessings!


  2. Beautifully put Father…and might I say, I love that “shoot from the lip”
    as an educator, I am well aware of shooting from the hip but it was rather more from lip was it not 🙂
    and ode to those courtiers…..
    and I confess, as I’ve shared with you before,…the 1928 Book of Common Prayer is my particular favorite…and funny that coming from someone who grew up post Vatican II and lived through two adopted prayer books and hymnal revisions…
    something more true about those earlier spoken words with their more reverent and ascending cadence of power…more so than the overt colloquial and overtly growing politically correct dribble of today….


  3. Fri Hugh, this blog made me think! When I mentioned, a few years ago, that I had read Merton’s book on Contemplation I was told he wrote it when he was immature and his later works show how he grew in faith. I was surprised when I read his later diaries to find a man of contradictions who actually seemed to be desperately searching for peace and meaning in isolation, in Eastern religion, anywhere really.but within the Church. Perhaps the truth is that when the liturgy changed it no longer satisfied him spiritually – he did, after all, continue to offer the Old Rite, ostensibly for the Old monks?


    1. You are on to something here, it seems to me. It is quite schizoid, all things being equal, to be offering the old rite yet wallowing in Eastern religions. Unless, as you suggest, he finds in both the same relief from the chaos and the “heresy of formlessness” that swept through the Church in the 1960s and after (and probably from the late 1950s if we are honest). His Cistercian soul must have found it all doubly distressing. You have put it into my mind to go delving further into the life of Fr Merton.


      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful post, Father.
    I suspect the ‘rigidity’ criticism is in part a generational misunderstanding. As a university chaplain, I have been trying – with the barest of resources (no chapel of our own for example, merely a concrete box which we catholicise twice weekly) – to pull our liturgy just a little more in the direction indicated by Sacrosanctum Concilium; so for example the students now sing more of the Mass, in Latin, than was the case previously. But they don’t complain! This week, I had to rush back from a school nativity to campus Mass for the Immaculate Conception – with no time to prepare the students for the liturgy. ‘O well.’ I thought, ‘I’ll just start singing the Gloria (to the Lourdes tone), and the students will no doubt join in with the gloria in excelsis deo between verses…’ But they surprised me: the happiest moment of my day was hearing 20 students sing the entire Gloria in Latin, from memory, without prompting. And quite happily.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Deacon Andrew,

      Very good to hear that the students have been learning from your efforts, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Keep these efforts going, regardless of the lack of resources…Our Blessed Lord, God has and will continue to provide the necessary resources!
      Deus Amo te…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.