Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain remains an inspiring, and for many readers, an iconic account of the monastic vocation. For many people, a purely entertaining film like The Sound of Music, with an only tangential connection to monasticism, defines expectations of the cloistered life. Although most readers of this blog will chuckle at the reference to The Sound of Music (or I hope you will!), many people still think that The Seven Storey Mountain tells it as it is. Or should be. But let’s consider the facts. When Thomas Merton entered Gethsemani during World War II, the United States was still a largely agricultural and largely isolationist nation, baffled by its involvement in a World War. The Catholic Church in this country was still identified with immigrant, ethnic communities from Europe and young Catholic enlistees were proving that they were loyal Americans and not attached to their countries of origin. The reforms of Vatican Council II were not even imagined. The Abbey of Gethsemani was a medium-sized rural community depending for vocations on the concentration of Catholic Kentuckians in their strongly Catholic county.
In Merton’s own lifetime, Gethsemani Abbey would mushroom to a community of about 200 monks, Merton himself would experiment with the eremitical life, Vatican II and the reforms of the Order would change the composition of the community (ameliorating the differences between “choir monks” and “lay brothers”) and Merton would engage in inter-religious dialogue, including conversations with Tibetan Buddhists. In his own lifetime, monasticism would change, just as family life would change, marriage would change and society would change. I evoked the title of The Sound of Music because I sense that many people, religious or irreligious, somehow expect monastic life to be timeless. It is as if, when one enters the door to an Abbey, one should step back into the middle ages. But why? Is there no place for the love of God or for faith now? Do not the challenges of our culture, of our times and experiences require faith and hope and charity more now than ever? And don’t we need to express them in forms and language and concepts accessible to people of our own day? If the Christian life or its monastic expression were only a museum piece, carefully preserved and protected under glass, how could it respond to, how could it be part of life in the Twenty-first Century?
I am not claiming that monasticism has “progressed” to some new and improved make-over of itself. The more I teach monastic history, however, and study the primary sources, the more I perceive that monasticism has continually responded to the culture that incarnates it. Monks and nuns have adjusted the details of their organization and observances to the challenges of their times and the spiritual hunger of contemporary Christians.
One great way to discourage monastic vocations is to build up expectations of a timeless, unchanging institution–or worse, a stylization of past, an endless nostalgia-trip. In a society like ours, is it realistic to expect an endless train of new applicants, as we saw in American monasticism after World War II? In an age when we apply psychological screening and discernment of vocations, can we expect any and every applicant to fill up our empty choir stalls? Is it sensible to expect communities to be large and bursting at the seams?
A great way to encourage monastic vocations is to inquire why monastic life is different than sixty or seventy years ago. Or how leadership, community and dialogue are realized. Or what are the concrete traditions, the practices or primitive or medieval monasticism that were lost in the course of the Counter-reformation or the Nineteenth Century but recovered in the late Twentieth Century. Hopefully a tool of our electronic technology, like this website, can help candidates, and the people who support them, explore these issues.
to be continued…