Today we present the second part of a thought-provoking reflection Fr Patrick Collins has submitted to us which not only addresses issues raised in a range of commentaries and posts in our forum but it poses a very different way of looking at the overview of where the Church has been heading since the Second Vatican Council. The broad thrust of his argument, following the thinking of Thomas Merton, is that not enough energy has been put into spiritual reform — the bread and butter matter of how we relate to and intersect with God. Read what Patrick has to say and, I mean it, if you can handle the mental
gear shift that is involved, "start really living"...
For the Church to be authentic...
For the Church to be authentic, according to Merton, it had to contribute to the forward thrust of humanity because it is the continuation of the Incarnation. He wrote of this in late 1961 and early 1962. To the extent that the Church stands in the way of being a matrix for the humanization of persons and cultures, it may foreshadow the end of Western Christianity. His sense of the human was grounded in the biblical understanding of persons as the object of divine mercy and special concern on the part of God. In some mysterious sense "the spouse of God" and "an epiphany of divine wisdom". But he judged that the institutional Church was, in some ways, far from such an agent of divinization. Rather than a "body of perfections to be salvaged" but one of "infidelity and imperfection". He criticized efforts to stress the value and supreme importance of Western Christian cultural heritage which has become in some ways a religion of abstract formality without a humanist matrix. (HGL 541-2) A large part of the Church's infidelity to the Gospel lay, Merton thought, in its over-identification with the secular order, thus losing its real Christian center. "Centuries of identification between Christian and civil life have done more to secularize Christianity than to sanctify civil life". (HGL 649)
On the eve of the Second Vatican Council which began in the fall of 1962, Thomas Merton wrote to Catherine de Hueck Doherty, saying that, while he was tired of all of the complaining about the state of the Church, he realized that the Church was experiencing "a terrible spiritual sickness, even though there is always that inexpressible life". And then he added his own complaints: "What is wanted is love. But love has been buried under words, noise, plans, projects, systems, and apostolic gimmicks ... We are afflicted with the disease of constant talking with almost nothing to say ... People like to get around the responsibility by entering into a routine of trivialities in which everything seems clear and noble and defined: but when you look at it honestly it falls apart, for it is riddled with absurdity from top to bottom..." (HGL 19)
During the summer of 1962 the monk, in a letter to an English friend spoke of the Church's graces and its need for renewal and reform. "What can I tell you about the Church? ... In a sense it is true that one only comes in with blinders on, blinders one has put on and kept on. One has to refuse to be disturbed by so many things ... The Church is not of this world, and she complacently reminds us of this when we try to budge her in any direction. But on the other hand we also are of the Church and we also have our duty to speak up and say the Church is not of this world when her refusal to budge turns out, in effect, to be a refusal to budge from a solidly and immovable temporal position. You will have the grace to see through all that is inconsequential and unfortunate in the Church."
Merton's advice in the face of difficulties with the Church was born of his spirituality. Church reform must flow from the spiritual renewal of the members of the Body of Christ. "Be true to the Spirit of God and to Christ. Read your Prophets sometimes, and go through the Gospels and St. Paul and see what is said there: there is your life. You are called to a totally new, risen, transformed life in the Spirit of Christ. A life of simplicity and truth and joy that is not of this world". (HGL 397-399)
"The Church is not just an institution for the benefit of priests and nuns, with lay people around to fill in the background. The coming Council, may, we hope, give light and direction on these things."
Monk Merton in June of 1962 held out some hope that the Council would help the Church become more than a kind of ark into which one scrambles to escape life's flood. Sometimes, he admitted "one can also be tempted to wonder if the ark itself is going to leak or even founded. But God is the one to worry about that". He spoke at that time for the first time of the Church as the People of God, a metaphor that would come to dominate the ecclesiological visions of Vatican II. He told a lay woman entering the Church that she would find that she would have some serious work to do because the Council would show how important is the contribution of the laity, the People of God. "The Church is not just an institution for the benefit of priests and nuns, with lay people around to fill in the background. The coming Council, may, we hope, give light and direction on these things". (HGL 110)
During the first session of the Council, while Thomas Merton continued to express his concern about not "feeling snug in the Church" as an institution - largely due to its "continual complicity with secular interests for purposes of gain for the Church" — he spoke glowingly of the holiness of the Church from a spiritual perspective — "the communion of saints in the Holy Spirit".
By the end of the session, he judged that the discussions were not radical enough. "The great problem is the fact that the Church is utterly embedded in a social matrix that is radically unfriendly to stifle justice and charity as well as genuine inner life". (HGL 580) Christianity, he feared, "has become a complex and multifarious thing. It takes Chuang Tzu to remind us of essential elements of the Gospel which we have simply 'tuned out.'" (HGL 723) He thought that Christianity had, over the years, done exactly what they had accused the Jews of doing: "finding an earthly fulfillment of prophecy in political institutions dressed up as theocracy ... so perhaps we will be humble enough to dig down to a deeper and more burning truth". (HGL 432)
After the second session of Vatican II, Thomas Merton saw signs of hope in the conciliar discussion of collegial governance in the Church. This was based upon faith in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the entire Church, Head and members of Christ's Body, the People of God. He wrote with some tongue-in-cheek no doubt: "Let's throw out the skeleton for good and all and take off for nowhere with that Vagabond (that notorious illuminist, the Holy Spirit)". This notion Merton found expressed especially in the Russian orthodox notion of sobornost, i.e. the doctrine of the Spirit acting and leading the whole Church into the truth. "Collegiality is a step in that direction," he believed. (HGL 104)
By the summer of 1964, as the third session neared, Merton found himself discouraged and disillusioned about the Church inability to address important public issues of reform and renewal such as justice, war and peace. The Church seemed "paralyzed by institutionalism, formalism, rigidity and regressions. The real life of the Church is not in her hierarchy, it is dormant somwhere". (CT 192) To Daniel Berrigan SJ he wrote: "It is of course not God's will that a religious or a priest should spend his life more or less in frustration and defeat over the most important issues in the church ... I realize that I am about at the end of some kind of a line. What
"What is the trolley I am probably getting off? The trolley is called a special kind of hope ... I don't need to be on the trolley car anyway, I don't belong riding in a trolley ... As a priest I am a burnt-out case, repeat, burnt-out-case. I am waiting to fall over and it may take about ten more years of writing. When I fall over, it will be a big laugh because I wasn't there at all ... Where we are all going is where we went a long time ago, over the falls. We are in a new river and we don't know it". (HGL 83)
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Dr Patrick W Collins
Fr Patrick W. Collins PhD lives in Michigan and has long been very supportive of our endeavours here at Catholica. Fr Collins retired from active ministry earlier last year but one suspects that "retirement" is the inappropriate descriptor. It's more like a change of direction as to how he continues his ministry. On his own website (www.vatican2.org/patrickcollins/) he describes himself as "author, preacher, musician and university professor. He senses that his principal vocation is to contemplative living — out of which his various ministries flow. In addition to numerous books and articles, Fr. Collins has produced forty-five TV programs, and a number of videos, among them Thomas Merton: Man, Monk, Myth with Music. Fr. Collins presents various kinds of retreats, missions, and workshops, including what he calls 'spiritual concerts' which combine texts and tunes for spiritual insight and growth. This approach gives a feelingful dimension to the meaning of the words and connects head with heart, reason and imagination. He calls it "Music with a Message."
What are your thoughts on this commentary? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.
©2006Patrick W Collins
[Index of Commentaries by Dr Patrick Collins]