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Religion: Benedictine v. Trappist

4 minute read

Ever since the publication four years ago of his bestselling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Trappist Thomas Merton (Father Louis) has been testifying to the virtues of the strict monastic life.* At least one of his fellow monks thinks that Merton makes too broad a case. Dom Aelred Graham, 46, a British theologian and an author himself (his latest book: Catholicism and the World Today), is now prior of St. Gregory’s Priory in Portsmouth, R.I. He belongs to the Benedictines, an order older than the Trappists and far less stern in its practices. Writing for the Atlantic Monthly, he takes a “long, steady” second look at Trappist Merton.

“Thomas Merton,” as Father Graham sees him, “belongs to the class of writers—intense, one-sided, humorless, propagandist, morally indignant—whose work falls outside the normal canons of criticism . . . Having conceived for himself a sublime ideal, he has heroically given it effect . . . There can be no withholding tribute to the earnestness of his convictions.”

After thus giving Merton an A for effort, Benedictine Graham goes on to scan Merton’s message to readers. He admits the deep appeal of this message—”at a time when men are perplexed with fear and disillusionment, the call of the ascetic to world-renunciation can go to the head like wine.” But how deep does the message go, and how true is it? Asks Graham: Is Thomas Merton “an exponent of Christian holiness?—or a preacher of pseudo-perfectionism?”

Mysticism for the Masses. To begin with, Benedictine Graham finds Merton’s approach to mysticism, i.e., “the highest form of union with God to which man can attain on earth,” at once too rigid and too loose. It is too rigid because Merton implies that the monastic, ascetic life is the only way to sainthood. It is too loose because he implies that the monastic ideal can be realized by almost anybody. “Merton … is in fact a propagandist of mysticism for the masses.”

Mystics, absorbed in the effort to contemplate God, tend to scorn the physical world around them. Graham concedes that Merton, despite his bent toward mysticism, recognizes the basic Roman Catholic philosophy that “human nature must somehow be essentially good.” He doubts, however, that Merton has put this idea clearly across to his readers. His message, stated mostly in terms of his personal experience, is not sufficiently qualified in the light of Catholic doctrine, Graham objects. “He may well already be the saint of his aspirations; theologically, I am afraid, he is still a young man in a hurry.”

Merton is obviously conversant with St. John of the Cross, St. Bernard, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, but Graham thinks he is not too well grounded in his Bible (“Merton could have written all his books with less knowledge of the New Testament than the educated Christian layman’s, eked out by a Scripture concordance.”) “In one of his poems,” writes Graham, “[he] is so far forgetful of the Book of Genesis as to speak of ‘God and his bad earth.’ ”

A Monk in the World. The result of all this, according to Critic Graham, is a dangerous oversimplification. He disapprovingly quotes some of Merton’s advice to his readers—”Do everything you can to avoid the amusements and the noise and the business of men … do not read their newspapers … do not bother with their unearthly songs.” In short—Graham summarizes—”become a Trappist-Cistercian monk while living in the world.”

Benedictine Graham thinks of his own monastery “not as an asylum in which to escape from the contagion of the worldly-minded, but as a place of withdrawal from which to obtain a truer view of the world God so loved as to send his Son to save it —a world to whose well-being [we] owe a direct contribution.”

His parting advice to Merton: “Mysticism is not for the masses but for an elite. To lose sight of this is to divert Christians from what may well be, for the majority of them, their most urgent business. Their call is not to take flight from society but to revivify it … For this undertaking prayer will be the inspiration; but prayer, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out at length, is no substitute for energies employed in direct relation to the needs of the hour. In our present predicament no religious propaganda could be more in harmony with the Marxist book than an appeal to Christians to let the world go to the devil in its own way.”

*His latest book, The Sign of Jonas (Harcourt, Brace; $3.50), will be published next week. It is a personal journal covering five years of his life in the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Louisville, from 1947 to 1952.

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