In this two-part commentary Dr Patrick Collins , who is a great apostle for the thinking of Thomas Merton, explores where the Church is heading in the area of liturgical renewal. Part 1 of the commentary looks at Merton's changing attitudes towards the liturgical reforms which were made at the Second Vatican Council and Dr Collins offers his own thoughts on where the present leadership seem to be now heading in this realm. In the second part, which we will publish tomorrow, Dr Collins, puts forward proposals which might form the basis for a way forward again at some point in the future when the present "reform of the reform" has driven everybody out of the pews except the remnant.
"I think the whole thing needs to be changed, the whole idea of the priesthood has to be changed. I think we need to develop a whole new style of worship in which there is no need for one hierarchical person to have a big central place, a form of worship in which everyone is involved." (Thomas Merton, The Springs of Contemplation, pp. 134-135)
Those words, spoken by Thomas Merton at an informal gathering of contemplative women religious at the Abbey of Gethsemani in May of 1968, spawn and ground the reflections of this article on further developments of Roman Catholic liturgical renewal and reform.
Merton's surprisingly radical view of reshaping the forms of Roman Catholic worship reflected a dramatic development in his own thought. Let me describe the evolution of his reactions to post-Vatican II liturgy based upon his published correspondence from his earliest experiences of post-Vatican II liturgy until the time of his untimely death at age 53 in 1968.
The mysterium trememdens and fascinans...
Thomas Merton's first adult experience of Roman Catholic worship occurred while he was studying at Columbia University in New York City. One Sunday morning he felt an urge to attend a Roman Catholic Mass. He walked into nearby Corpus Christi Church and was deeply impressed by the serious prayerfulness of those worshipping there. He recorded his reactions in his autobiography. "What a revelation it was, to discover many ordinary people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another: not there to show off their hats or their clothes, but to pray, or at least to fulfill a religious obligation, not a human one. For even those who might have been there for no better motive than that they were obliged to be, were at least free from any of the self-conscious and human constraint which is never absent from a Protestant church where people are definitely gather together as people, as neighbors, and always have at least half an eye for one another, if not all of both eyes." (The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 227) During the Mass Merton was also moved by the "clear and solid doctrine" that was preached that day. "For behind those words you felt the full force not only of Scripture but of centuries of a unified and continuous and consistent tradition. And above all it was a vital tradition: there was nothing stupid or antique about it." (p. 228) He left at the end of what was then called the Mass of the Catechumens and as he walked leisurely down Broadway in the sun he realized: "All I know is that I walked in a new world." (p. 230-231) The awe, the mystical dimension, the mysterium trememdens and fascinans, had captivated his being.
Thomas Merton was baptized as a Roman Catholic Church at Corpus Christi Church on November 16, 1938. In his early years as a Catholic, he experienced the importance of the liturgy in his own life and participated in Mass as often as possible — often every day. In 1949, after eight years in the monastery, he wrote to his Columbia University friend, Robert Lax, of his deep sense of scripture and the liturgy : "Someone should be able to find the living God in Scripture — and this is His word — and then lead others to find him there, and all theology properly ends in contemplation and love and union with God - not ideas about Him and a set of rules about how to wear your hat. The Mass is the center of everything and insofar as it is Calvary it is the center of Scripture and the key to everything - history, everything. All the trouble going on now." (Robert Lax, 11.27.49 RJ 172)
Early reactions rather negative...
Monk Merton's early reactions to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in the 1960's were largely negative. He had come to love the Latin prayers and chants of the pre-Vatican II liturgy during his twenty -five years as a Catholic. As an intellectual, Merton had a solid knowledge of Latin. He found it most effective to pray the liturgy in that traditional ritual language. These rich traditions, he feared, were being replaced after the council with overly enthusiastic experimentations which he judged to be trite and banal.
Liturgical music was one of the first things to change after Vatican II. Music in the vernacular for congregational participation began to be borrowed from the Protestant tradition. Some vernacular music was also being composed by Catholics, largely in the casual folk idiom. By 1964 the Trappist judged this to be an experience of musical impoverishment: "I passed your English-Gregorian texts to our choirmaster, who is a little cool toward Gregorian with English as I am myself. But I am not as cool as he is because I am no professional, and as far as I am concerned I think people ought to try out everything feasible and see what happens. The texts look all right but not inspiring to me." (Leslie Dewart WF 298, 9.23.64)
Merton's lack of enthusiasm for liturgical reform, rooted in his love and respect for tradition, had been expressed prior to the Council in a letter to his former Gethsemani novice, the Nicaraguan priest-poet Ernesto Cardenal: "The psalms are for poor men, or solitary men, or men who suffer: not for liturgical enthusiasts in a comfortable, well-heated choir." (Ernesto Cardenal CT 120, 11.18.59)
As the council began in October of 1962, the first topic for discussion was liturgy. Merton reacted to these early conciliar discussions with cautious hope in a letter to his English correspondent, Etta Gullick: "Apparently they are on the liturgy now. I don't know what will come, but the whole thing seems to be making sense. Probably it is bound to bog down a bit somewhere, but it is going better than expected." (Etta Gullick HGL 355, 10.29.62)
By December, 1963, following the promulgation of The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the first solemn declaration of Vatican II, Merton was less optimistic in his letter to the philosopher, E. I. Watkin:
"The question of liturgy is of course a very complex one, and I think it is going to disturb very many people on both sides of the question. The adaptation is not going to be easy, nor is the sweeping optimism of liturgical reformers always a guarantee of the greatest intelligence. I am afraid that inevitably much that is good will be lost, and needlessly lost, and this will be very sad. However, it is certain that there must be a warmer and more intelligent relationship between what goes on at the altar and what is done by the people. It is easy enough for you and for me to appreciate the familiar forms which have remained to a great extent unchanged since Charlemagne. It is also easy for us to understand the Middle Ages and to feel our deep indebtedness to them, and to realize the continuity of our experience with that of the Middle Ages. A vast majority of Christians in our day cannot do this, unfortunately...
From the start, the Trappist had found fault with the dominant approach to liturgical reform which seemed to favor haste over caution. Merton's negative reactions to the rapid and enthusiastic changes in liturgical forms were rooted in many sources. Principally he feared that the contemplative dimension of public worship was being undermined through an overly activist approach. To Gullick in March, 1963, he wrote: "...I don't hold with these extreme liturgy people for whom all personal and contemplative prayer is suspect. If you make a meditation they think you are a Buddhist." (Etta Gullick HGL 359, 3.24.63)
Thomas Merton had been studying Buddhism for some time. He had found that the Zen approach to meditation to be very helpful for his own prayer and worship. To E. I. Watkin he had written in November, 1962:
"That brings me to Buddhism. I am on and off thinking a great deal about it, when I can, because I think in many ways it is very germane and close to our own approaches to inner truth in Christ. Naturally, I am glad to find myself in the company of such a man as Don Chapman, in being called a Buddhist, because that is one of the standard jokes in the community here: that I am a hermit and a Buddhist and that in choir I am praying as a Buddhist (how do they know?), while others are all wrapped up in the liturgical movement and in getting the choir on pitch and in manifesting togetherness, whatever that is. Really I do not feel myself in opposition with anyone or with any form of spirituality, because I no longer think in such terms at all: this spirituality is the right kind, that is the wrong kind, etc. Right sort and wrong sort: these are sources of delusion in the spiritual life and there precisely is where the Buddhists score, for they bypass all that. Neither this side of the stream nor on the other side: yet one must cross the stream and throw away the boat, before seeing that the stream wasn't there..." (E.I. Watkin, HGL 584-585, 12.12.63)
Fear of the loss of the contemplative aspect...
By 1965, Merton's fears about the loss of the contemplative dimension in liturgy were deepening. He wrote to Gullick:
"It seems to me that the atmosphere in our Church... is going to become more and more hostile to contemplative prayer. There will certainly be official pronouncements approving it and blessing it. But in fact the movement points in the direction of activism, and an activistic concept of liturgy. I think the root of the trouble is fear and truculence, unrealized, deep down....
Thomas Merton also feared that the beauty of ritual language would not be respected in the translations of the liturgical texts. He wrote of this to his Oxford scholar and Anglican friend, A. M. Allchin, in April, 1964: "I do think it is terribly important for Roman Catholics now plunging into the vernacular to have some sense of the Anglican tradition. This, however, is only a faint hope in my mind, because on the one hand so many of the highest Anglicans are outrageously Latin, and on the other, the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer, etc., is out of reach of the majority in this country now, and is perhaps no longer relevant. But the spirit and lingo of modern Roman Catholicism in English-speaking countries has been in so many ways a disaster." (A. M. Allchin HGL 26, 4.25.64)
By the fall of 1964, Merton's expressed some tentative views of liturgical renewal in his own monastic community as he wrote to philosopher, Leslie Dewart:
"Actually, however, this liturgy thing has, at least in monasteries, become so much of a professional specialty that I am not one of those that can afford initiatives and declarations. I go along with it, and enjoy what is offered, but I cannot do the offering (of new texts and ideas) though people have pestered me a little to write hymns and whatnot. I don't intend to touch any of it because I think it is all extremely fluid (as it ought to be) and the flowing is usually a mile ahead of me, as I cannot keep up with the required information, attend conferences, and so on. It would be naive of me to try to contribute anything worthwhile. I have a rather silly article on liturgy coming out in the Critic in December, but that is only a gesture of good will." (Leslie Dewart, WF 298, 9.23.64)
By 1965, Merton's fears about the loss of liturgy's contemplative core were being confirmed by his own and others' liturgical experiences. He was also more and more aware of his own inadequacy in the area of liturgical history and the implementation of the reforms. Later that year Merton noted with appreciation that there was a growing interest in prayer and contemplation throughout the world. But liturgy was of little help in this regard as he wrote to Gullick: "There are a lot of people getting interested in prayer in this country, mostly in academic circles, and in a rather mixed-up context of psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism. This is the area where people at the moment are most interested in our kind of contemplation. The Catholics are all hopped up about liturgy at the moment." (Etta Gullick HGL 373, 11.1.65)
A more positive view on liturgical renewal...
By 1967 Thomas Merton was expressing some more positive views of liturgical renewal. He seemed to sense more gain than loss in the changes in worship. This was clearly a change from his earlier attitudes. In his letter to friends at Pentecost, he expressed what the liturgical reforms had come to mean to him personally. He also noted that there were considerable positive results in the worship life of parishes.
"Personally, my own life and vocation have their own peculiar dimension which is a little different from all this. I have always tended more toward a deepening of faith in solitude, a 'desert' and 'wilderness' existence in which one does not seek special experiences. But I concur with these others in being unable to remain satisfied with a formal and exterior kind of religion. Nor do I think that a more lively liturgy is enough. Worship and belief have become ossified and rigid, and so has the religious life in many cases...
That concern for "depth" and Merton's more balanced view of liturgical reform was expressed again in the fall of 1967 in his letter to a woman religious: "...I am sure that the basic thing will always remain the need for deep prayer in the heart, and the deepest and most authentic response to the word of God. We must certainly bring renewal to our liturgical worship, but we must also preserve a place for silence and for contemplative prayer. However, it must be admitted that entirely new ways of explaining contemplative experiences must be found. However, when we see the Beatles (you've heard of them in England?) going to an Indian Yogi to learn meditation, it can certainly not be said that all desire for the contemplative life is extinct in modern youth!!!" (Sister Maria Blanca Olim WF 198, 10.16.67)
By December of 1967, the Trappist had celebrated some small group liturgies which gave him an even more positive attitude about some of the directions of liturgical renewal. He expressed this in a letter to author, John Howard Griffin: "I just got through a really marvelous new venture: first time a group of cloistered nun-superiors was here for retreat and seminar, fifteen of them, including your 'neighbor,' Mother Henry of the cloistered Dominicans at Lufkin. We had a really first-rate session, ending with Mass together at the hermitage yesterday, and such a Mass as you never saw: all joined in to give bits of the homily, to utter petitions at the prayer of the people, et.c etc. Really groovy, as they say." (John Howard Griffin RJ 139, 12.8.67)
Experience is the best teacher...
The old adage, "experience is the best teacher", proved to be true for Merton and the reformed liturgical rites. Before his death in 1968, the Trappist had come to appreciate many of the new approaches although he remained somewhat skeptical of liturgical experiments. As he wrote to a high school student correspondent in April, 1968: "Good folk music at Mass can be a big help, but bad singing and trifling hymns are not much help. But so is bad Gregorian an obstacle rather than a help. I think what counts is life and fervor in the celebration of the liturgy, and whatever helps that in the right way is good. ... I had the opportunity to offer Mass in a home and this is a fine thing, I believe. Undoubtedly there will be more changes, but let's hope they will be really useful ones. Change for the sake of change is useless. I think a lot of progressive Catholics in this country don't really know where they want to go - but will take anything as long as it is different - and gets good publicity." (Philip J. Cascia RJ 366, 4.10.68)
Eight months before his sudden death in Bangkok, Thailand, Merton expressed the startling position both about liturgy and about priesthood cited at the beginning of this article: the whole thing must be totally changed . There should not be so much centrality for a single presider or leader. Instead the forms of worship should be an expression and an experience more actively involving the entire Assembly. What might this shift in focus mean for the evolving shape of Eucharistic ritual today and in the future?
Some guiding principles...
Extracting from Merton's thoughts above let me suggest some guiding principles for such ongoing reform of the shape of Roman Catholic worship.
The first stages of implementing liturgical reform and renewal in the 1960's were largely external: changing the shape of the worship space and the structure of the rite, turning altars around and getting more people around ambo and altar, getting the assembly to actively participate in actions, prayers and songs, getting more people from the pews into roles of liturgical ministers, translating the Latin texts into the various vernaculars of the world and finally creating liturgies that were more than reading together what is written on the pages of the official texts but rather lifted off the pages into enlivening, energized celebrations.
While many enthusiastically embraced the reforms in the years following Vatican II, others resented and resisted. They sensed a loss of the sense of sacred mystery in the new rites. Liturgical reform seemed to be about getting more people busy doing more things with, as Merton feared, a loss of the contemplative dimension in the liturgy. As many said, "Where did the Mystery go?"
Questioning Benedict's approach...
Today Pope Benedict XVI has responded to the desires of those Catholics who prefer the older, more solemn, more priest-centered and less participative form of liturgy by making more available the pre-Vatican II rites promulgated at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. This could indeed be a partial diagnosis of one part of the problem with our post-Vatican II liturgy, namely, the loss of the experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – the loss or at least the diminishment of the contemplative dimension of the liturgical experience.
However I question whether returning to older forms is the best or even a helpful answer to that problem. In fact I consider this retrogression to open us to ecclesiological dangers. The older forms tend to return the People of God, the Body of Christ into passive spectators as the priest "says" or "reads" the Holy Sacifice of the Mass. Thus it is not just a question of a preferred style of liturgical prayer. It is a way of being Church that is fundamentally at odds with the Vatican II vision of Church.
Thomas Merton has it right, I think, when he suggests re-imagining the priesthood and the liturgy, moving beyond older forms, be they pre-conciliar or post-conciliar. Fluidity rather than fixity are needed for a liturgy that is founded on relationality and the active participation of the entire assembly. The new wine of Spirit simply does not belong in the old wineskins we have evolved thus far – either of Trent or Vatican II. The Church needs to encourage experimentation with new shapes for Eucharistic ritual and other non-eucharistic rituals.
What I will propose in the second part of this commentary – trying to explore concretely what Merton suggested – would not replace the Vatican II or the Tridentine liturgies. It would be a supplement to them. Special permission and encouragement of the bishop would be granted to communities of faith that are: a) interested in being centers of such exploration/experimentation; b) would properly prepare the priest and other ministers for these roles; c) would not replace the Vatican II or Tridentine liturgies with only these more fluid rites.
Dr Patrick W Collins 27/05/2009
What are your thoughts on this commentary by Dr Collins?
©2009Patrick W Collins