I imagine, though I’m not sure of this, that most of our readers actually remember when Thomas Merton was alive and living at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. You may remember noting when his next book was published, what the reviewers said and how quickly you purchased your own copy. If you still have that original copy you may be staggered to read on the dust jacket that it only cost $4.95 for the hard cover edition. Perhaps you also remember how many more books followed after his death in 1968: Contemplative Prayer or the Climate of Monastic Prayer was published in 1969; Contemplation in a World of Action did not appear until 1971 and The Asian Journal in 1973. I do not hesitate to say that much has happened since 10 December, 1968 when Thomas Merton died in Bangkok and the American Catholic Church is very different from the immigrant ghetto Church I was born into.
Have American Catholics, once so inspired by Merton’s works, also changed?
I can’t really answer that question but I can note the changed religious culture of American Catholics; I do believe we are faced by a very different agenda than faced Thomas Merton.
Whereas I clearly remember that the titanic Swiss Reform Theologian, Karl Barth, also died on 10 December, 1968 I honestly hadn’t remembered that that the Paul VI Missal, the novus ordo was not promulgated until 1969. We were indeed celebrating Mass with a provisional English translation but the official version of the “new” Eucharistic Prayers, a missal with the Mass readings removed to a separate lectionary, was not yet in hand when Thomas Merton died. It was only in 1968 that the ground breaking Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) meeting in Medillin gave its support to “Base ecclesial communities” and spoke of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” and warned us to acknowledge the “institutional violence of poverty”.
It had been 4 April, 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and white clergy, including Catholics and Jews, had already joined in Civil Rights Demonstrations. Often, except for a handful of exceptions and alienated youth, they were light years ahead of their congregations. It was only in 1969 James Hal Cone would publish Black Liberation Theology. In 1972, Gustavo Gutierrez would publish his influential A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. In 1979, the CELAM, meeting at Puebla, would reaffirm and define, against much interior opposition, the preferential option for the poor. Already the former consensus was crumbling and prelates were taking sides on theological approaches to poverty and the poor and politics.
Remember in world politics, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlevi, known to most of us as the Shah of Iran; he reigned from 1941 until 1979. Supported by the U.S. government, by the standards of the times he seemed like enlightened leader of the “white revolution” bringing economic, social and political reform (including women’s suffrage) to Iran while he also attempted to keep a firm, centralized control on Iran’s politics. At the time he seemed a firm bulwark against communism. And with his beautiful consort, Empress Farah (crowned by him in 1967) who supported women in the professions, they seemed another one of those charismatic, “beautiful people” on the political scene. Today we might dismiss them as rather right wing.
I never presumed in 1968 that the days of the communist regimes were numbered or that a Polish Pope would be elected ten years later (weren’t popes always Italian?) and be instrumental in the fall of communism.
In 1968 ten feminists protested the Miss America Beauty Pageant. As far back as 1961 John F. Kennedy had created the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, appointing Eleanor Roosevelt the Commission’s Chairperson–though we didn’t yet use that word. 1964 and 1965 saw court decisions defining gender discrimination in employment practices, but it wasn’t until the 1969 Bane versus Colgate-Palmolive that the Supreme Court unambiguously decided that there were no “male only” job openings. And its worth noting that although in New York City in 1967 the New York Radical Women “Women’s Community” was formed, that did not exactly make the headlines. However Rosemary Radford Ruether, raised as a Catholic, had already joined the theology faculty of Howard University in 1965, publishing The Church Against Itself (1967) and Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (1974). But it wasn’t until 1983 that she’d begin to address issue of Christianity’s role in marginalizing women in Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Her Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (1994), underlined the relationship between the systematic oppression of women and the exploitation of the natural environment. Mary Daley joined the faculty of Boston College in 1967 but didn’t publish her ground breaking, if moderate, Beyond God the Father until 1973. But already in 1978, her Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism even broke the mold of theological writing; to me, it wasn’t unlike what Gertrude Stein had done to American literature with her A Geographical History of America. Thereafter, the question of women in the Church would arise again and again
At the other end of the spectrum of women’s issues, in reaction to the Supreme Court Decision Wade versus Roe, the New York State Right to Life Party would not be founded until 1970, first appearing on the State Ballot in 1978. However, the first March for Life, organized by Nellie Grey, made its presence felt in Nation’s Capitol on 22 January, 1974. Right to Life would provoke Right to Choice, henceforth defining one another and defining in the minds of American urban culture a distinction between churches based on the authority of a male hierarchy and traditional teaching from churches encompassing a broader range of ideologies and impacted by secular culture. Of course that simplistic construct hardly fits any reality, any church. But it shapes the arguments and criticisms that confuse the issues at stake.
On the night of 28 June, 1969, the Stonewall Riot erupted pushing to the forefront the question of Gay Liberation. Along with abortion, the ethical response to gay life style would become obsessive issues in American Catholic agenda.
On the lighter side, in 1968 The Eurovision Song Contest began across the ocean and on 29 April, Hair opened on Broadway. Neither seem to have had a significant impact on Merton’s thought. Neither did the final airing of Batman on TV–in the same year The Man from Uncle, I Spy and the Monkees all bit the dust. I suspect Thomas Merton could have waxed irreverent on such a collective demise. They were replaced by The Dick Cavet Show, Hawaii Five-0, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Julia, Mayberry R.F.D., The Mod Squad, What’s My Line?, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and, of all things, Here’s Lucy. Quite a bumper crop! The 1968 Academy awards passed over Best Picture nominees Romeo and Juliet, The Lion in Winter, Rachel, Rachel and Funny Girl to grant the laurels to Carol Reed’s forgettable Oliver. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey and Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic War and Peace weren’t even nominated. Katherine Hepburn received the Oscar for Best Actress but didn’t bother to attend the ceremonies. Thomas Merton was unavailable for comment.
In the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance itself, monks and nuns awaited for the “New” Code of Canon Law (1983), mandated by Vatican Council II. Thomas Merton would have known the Order’s legislation the 1965 Decree on Unification which gave the Lay Brothers and Sisters the right to vote in Abbatial elections and to be elected to certain offices, creating one “class” of monks and nuns in our communities. It would also spawn a common Liturgy of the Hours accessible for all, i.e., celebrated in the vernacular, not Latin. After Merton’s death, 1969 would give the Order The Statute on Unity and Pluralism and the Declaration on Cistercian Life, directing us from external observances to the core values of our vocation that could be actualized in various ways. Without that, the spread of Cistercian life to Asia and Africa, free from European culture, would not have been possible or fruitful. Oddly enough 1969 also contributed the Statute on Hermits, which Thomas Merton could have used many years before. It would not be until 1990 that our Revised Constitutions and Statutes (with the Order’s spiritual foundations as part of the text) were approved by the Holy See.
If readers remember The Asian Journal as vintage Merton, he was only at the start of the monastic East-West dialogue. In 1967, for example, Bede Griffiths had published Christ in India. But the full flow of his dialogue with India’s ancient traditions, both theological and spiritual, would come later: Return to the Center (1976), Marriage of East and West (1982), Cosmic Revelation (1983), A New Vision of Reality (1990) and The River of Compassion (1987). Abishiktananda (Henri Le Saux), Jules Monchanin, Francis Acharya, Raimundo Pannikar, Yves Raguin, William Johnston, Anthony de Mello, Francis Xavier Clooney had been or would be deepening the conversation and defining the parameters of the dialogue. In our Order, Michael Casey from Tarrawarra, our monastery in Australia, emerged as a major spiritual writer towards the end of the Twentieth Century, responding to the changed society–and monasticism–we now live in. Graced with a longer life and longer monastic life than Thomas Merton, he’s impacted Cistercian formation around the globe, teaching a new generation of monks and nuns through workshops, even more than in writing. It’s a possibility neither Merton nor his superiors could have imagined.
Is it just an older generation that reads Thomas Merton today? I wouldn’t say so. I know of clergy introducing younger readers to New Seeds of Contemplation, and they lap it up. Of course Merton’s writings do not address issues like abortion, gay marriage, alienation from Catholicism, the sex scandals, multi-cultural Catholic communities, immigration, Generation X’s propensity to change churches, the deconstructionist critique of literature (Scripture is not immune), polarization and lots, lots more. How could he?
Some monks cannot reread Seven Story Mountain since they’ve outgrown the kind of monasticism Merton describes there. It no longer exists; perhaps it never quite did as he describes it for he a relatively young monk when he wrote it. But in the tangle of our current agenda, might not books like The Wisdom of the Desert, Contemplative Prayer, Opening the Bible or Contemplation in a World of Action still make us wonder if we’re ignoring something important, if we’re failing to invest our time in the one thing necessary?
I don’t know whether American Catholics have really changed. Certainly our preoccupations and agenda have changed. How relevant the writings of Thomas Merton are to all that, well that’s what the Comment Box is for!