Looking at all these BIG questions
Today we present the third and final 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"...
Spirituality as the key to
The danger of excessive activism
Another concern of Merton's was what he discerned was the Church's becoming swallowed up in excessive activism in order to prove its worth in the secularized twentieth century. This was a betrayal of its purpose to be prayerful and a contemplative presence in the world. He asked, as the third session was about to begin: Why was that happening? "I think the root of the trouble is fear and truculence, unrealized, deep down. The realization that the Church of Rome is not going to be able to maintain a grandiose and pre-eminent sort of position, the old prestige she has always had and the decisive say in the things of the world, to some extent even in the last centuries. Contemplation will be regarded more and more as an official 'dynamo' source of inspiration and power for the big guns out there: Carmelite nuns generating electricity for the Holy Office, not so much by contemplative prayer as by action and official public prayer within an enclosure. In a word, the tempter of the Roman Church is combative and 'aroused' and the emphasis on contemplation is (if there is any at all) dominated by a specific end in view so that implicitly contemplation becomes ordered to action, which is so easy in a certain type of scholastic thought, misunderstood. When this happens, the real purity of the life of prayer is gone". (HGL 367-368)
At the end of session three Merton was more convinced than ever that the Church was having great difficulty moving beyond its ancient philosophical structures which meant little to that time and place. "It is even more true that among many Christians there is a lack of a living presence and witness to God, but rather an abundance of words and formulas, together with rites that many no longer understand. It is the old problem of institutional religion and of traditions that remain fixed in the past". (HGL 452)
The Trappist wrote to a Sufi scholar, Martin Lings, in early 1965 of feeling caught between baroque conservatism and "a rather irresponsible and fantastic progressivism a la Teilhard". He was trying to cling to what he called "a sane and living traditionalism in full contact with the living contemplative experience of the past — and with the presence of the Spirit here and now". (HGL 454) He somewhat cynically sensed that progressives didn't know what they were talking about "in their declarations about modern man, the modern world, etc. Perhaps they are dealing with some private myth or other. That is their affair." (HGL 546) Merton was in favor definitely of "a new mentality" in the Church but one that "implies above all a recovery of ancient and original wisdom. And a real contact with what is right before our noses". (HGL 382)
In the years following the Council, despite the initial enthusiasm for renewal and reform, Thomas Merton judged that the conciliar hopes were being sidetracked or neglected. "It is getting clearer and clearer that the institutional Church does not measure up to the tasks that she believes and proclaims to be hers, and it is a wonder more people are not fully aware of that. I guess a lot are..." (HGL 166) He expressed his fears that an authoritarian Church would destroy itself by becoming increasingly incredible to its thinking members. "Authority has simply been abused too long in the Catholic Church and for many people it just becomes utterly stupid and intolerable to have to put up with the kind of jackassing around that is posed in God's name. It is an insult to God Himself and in the end it can only discredit all idea of authority and obedience. There comes a point where they simply forfeit the right to be listened to". (HGL 230)
In early 1967, in correspondence with Rosemary Radford Ruether, the monk was trying to identify his place within the Church, wondering if he belonged there any longer. "I do wonder at times if the Church is real at all, I believe it, you know. But I wonder if I am nuts to do so. Am I part of a great big hoax? ... there is a real sense of and confidence in an underlying reality, the presence of Christ in the world which I don't doubt for an instant. But is that presence where we are all saying it is? We are all pointing (in various directions) and my dreadful feeling is that we are all pointing wrong. Could you point someplace for me maybe?" (HGL 499-500)
Ruether told Merton she considered the Church to be less of an institution and more of a "happening". He liked that image and thought that if the two of them and others were thinking in this direction "then there is something going on". He said, though, that he felt the Church of the future "will be a very scattered Church for a while. But as long as I know what directions to be the one to do in, I will gladly go in it". He just did not want his sense of Church to be a "deception". "Because if that is where God speaks and the Spirit acts, then I can be confident that God has not abandoned us. Nor left us at the mercy of the princes of the Church". As he looked back over the history of the Church, he could see "a bigger and bigger hole of conscious bad faith". One example of which was the Catholic Church's dictating to all other religions "that we are the one authentic outfit that has the real goods". (HGL 500-502)
By mid-1967 Merton was clear that he needed "to be free from a sort of denominational tag. Though I have one in theory (people still have me categorized in terms of The Seven Storey Mtn) I am really not any of the things they think, and I don't comfortable wear the label of monk either, because I am now convinced that the first way to be a decent monk is to be a non-monk and an anti-monk, as far as the 'image' goes: but I am certainly quite definite about wanting to stay in the bushes (provided I can make some sort of noises that will reach my offbeat friends)..." (HGL 511) He even told Ruether that, in some ways, he was "sneaking out the back door of the Church without telling myself that this is what I am doing. I don't feel guilty about this, though, and am conscious of it". (HGL 509)
Later in 1967 the Trappist wrote of his pure faith as a Christian. "Of all religions, Christianity is the one that least needs techniques, or least needs to depend on them. Nor is the overemphasis on sacraments necessary either: the great thing is faith. With a pure faith, our use of techniques, our understanding of the psyche and our use of the sacraments all become really meaningful. Without it, they are just routines". (HGL 532)
In the end Merton could see himself as a bridge builder within the Church "to keep communication open between the extremists at both ends". For "whatever may happen," he believed, "let us remember that persons are more important than opinions". (HGL 324-325) One of the things her most admired about John XXIII was his commitment to the Socratic principle. "This means respect for persons, to the point where the person of the adversary demands a hearing even when the authority of one's own ecclesial institution might appear to be temporarily questioned. Actually, this Socratic confidence in dialogue implies a deeper faith in the Church than you find in a merely rigid, defensive, and negative attitude which refuses all dialogue. The negative view really suggests that the Church has something to lose by engaging in dialogue with her adversaries. This in turn is a rejection of the Christian Socratism which sees that truth develops in conversation". This meant for John and for Merton that one meets one's adversary as an equal and "The moment one does this, he ceases to be an adversary". (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 217-218)
He could see this new life for the Church beginning to be expressed in Latin American, Africa and Asia and he felt that the real movement, when it comes, will start of itself.
Perhaps, as his life ended in 1968 at the age of 53, Thomas Merton had become in his own renewal and reform an incarnation of something he had written to Catherine de Hueck Doherty in 1966: "Well, we won't really get out of the wilderness until everything is pressed out and there is nothing left but the pure wine to be offered to the Lord, transubstantiated into his blood". (HGL 24)
Dr Patrick W Collins
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©2006Patrick W Collins