JULY 1, 2013 - THOMAS MERTON

"Cistercian Charter, Customs, and Constitutions": Initiation into the Monastic tradition 8

When father Thomas Merton, whom we knew as Fr Louis in those early days, was serving as Master of Novices, he expended immense energy in research of the monastic sources of the current norms, practices, and spirituality of the Cistercian life.  He undertook this exacting labor by way of preparing his conferences he gave to novices as part of their training and introduction to our community's way of life.  The result of this exploration of these sources that originated from earliest times (the text of the Charter), to the twentieth century (the Constitutions), is evidenced by the texts published in this volume.  He was at pains to "return to the sources" in order to maintain continuity with traditional monastic values while adapting them to the men and conditions of mid twentieth century.  He had already entered upon such a program of thorough research some years before his appointment as Novice Master in his talks to the young monks in simple vows For four years he had functioned as Master of Juniors.  I can still recall how he would rapidly glance at his extensive notes and, skipping over some paragraphs, would spontaneously comment at length on selected passages.  Regularly he had prepared more material than he could cover in the allotted time.  I was impressed with the extensive and conscientious preparation he obviously brought to bear on each of his conferences which he presented with an alert and friendly manner.  Such serious and friendly dedication, translated into a respectful concern to provide us with an authentic exposure to the values of our life as Cistercian monks.  We eagerly attended his talks that he managed to make interesting as well as informative.

Although buttressed by the authority of considerable learning, Fr Louis managed to avoid a sense of heaviness by hisstyle of presentation.  For Merton invariably brought an enthusiasm to the sessions imparting a liveliness of spirit that added markedly to the interest we felt even in regard to legislative materials.  This light touch did much to render more palatable what on paper might seem to anyone reading the printed text rather heavy and even dull in some particulars.  Merton, invariably lively and given to spontaneous comments, possessed a sense of humor that provided welcome relief even when treating of disciplinary and legal matters.  He had a way of conveying teachings rooted in the past so as to render them suited to our current times.  A decade after Fr. Louis wrote and taught these documents Pope John XXIII was to refer to the same approach he recommended to Vatican II Council as "aggiornamento."

The commentaries on the Charter, the Customs, and Constitutions published in modern English translation in this work were composed at the end of long period of development.  The Charter text that Merton commented on is a writing of the early twelfth century that applied the earlier Rule of Benedict to the new requirements of religious communities of the Middle Ages that continue in large part to be suited to modern times.  The Customary and Constitutions reflect an evolution that took place over the intervening centuries.  The form these texts had assumed at the period when Merton commented on them reflects the circumstances of monastic life and its practices at the very end of a long period following the Council of Trent.  By his more dynamic and personal contributions to monastic spirituality and observance in his teaching and various writings, Merton contributed appreciably to the climate that prepared for Vatican Council II.  Shortly after these texts were first written, the event of Vatican II marked the beginning of a new phase in monastic life as well as in the Church as a whole.  That Merton contributed to the thought and spirit of the Council, and had some measure of influence on Pope John himself is evident from the fact he was invited to contribute to a text on monastic spirituality for the work of the Council and by the symbolic gift of his own stole the Pope sent to him at Gethsemani.

Although less obvious in these commentaries on legislative documents than in his more personal writings such as his autobiography and his diaries, yet even at places in these texts there are glimpses of a more profound spiritual insight than appears on the surface.  In reading these commentaries we do well to recall that Merton was a poet and a master of words.  Pope Benedict XVI has cogently observed that "Every great human utterance reaches beyond what was consciously said into greater, more profound depths; there is always hidden in what is said, a surplus of what is not said, which lets the words grow with the passing of time . . ."  Father Louis wrote, and more freely spoke, in such a manner as to cause even his words to young beginners in the art of monastic living to suggest much more than they explicitly state if the reader knows how to listen He himself was alive to this hidden dimension of his style of writing as is evidenced by the concluding words of his preface to the Japanese translation of The Seven Storey Mountain:

Therefore, most honorable reader, it is not as an author that I would speak to you, not as a story-teller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only: I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self.  Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know.  But if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book.  And this will be due not to me, but to One who lives and speaks to both.

Not only in this account of his life that has spoken to the hearts of readers in many different countries and cultures but in other works as well does the tone, and the unstated but ever present background resonate in Merton's words.  In another context, he refers to the same phenomenon in a more poetic strain in his preface to the Japanese translation of "Thoughts in Solitude":

No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.  These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is "heard" when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests.  But what can the wind say when there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer.  That deeper silence must be heard before these pages can speak truly of solitude.  ("Honorable Reader", New York: Crossroad, 111)

This contemplative dimension, in a less obvious manner, is a feature even of these commentaries composed and delivered for young beginners in the spiritual life.  The words of these writings point to more than they explicitly state.  Arising from such a background as Merton's broad and sophisticated culture and his extensive studies of the traditions, by their roots in personal experience these commentaries rendered more accessible to novices of that period these documents that can seem rather formal and exterior.

The rapidity of changes in the period since these commentaries were produced has meant that they were composed in a cultural period strongly marked by very different values than our present times.  We can observe the striking change of style and tone in comparing these documents with the version of customs and constitutions elaborated by the Order in the General Chapters beginning ten years after Merton's commentaries were produced For it was in the General Chapter of 1969 that a major adaptation of the Order's uniform legislation was to effect a new approach to maintaining the unity of life of the monasteries while avoiding strict uniformity.  The chief instrument of this fresh approach to Cistercian practice is the Statute on Unity and Pluralism. The increased presence of monasteries in countries outside Europe that live in social, geographical, and economic circumstances at considerable variance from those prevailing in European environment had revealed the need for special exceptions to practices suited to quite different requirements.  This Statute was accepted by the 1969 Chapter and has provided the flexibility within acceptable limits that responded to these different practices and needs.  Daily life in cultures as different as the Congo and Northern Canada presented monks with conditions affecting lifestyle and physical requirements in divergent ways.  The concept of a Statute that allowed for greater flexibility while preserving sufficient limits as assure an effective unity of practice and support the same spirituality originated at Gethsemani and was presented to the Order by its abbot who was formed to our life by Merton's teaching and example.  The texts presented in this present book eventually gave rise to the Cistercian way of spiritual living that continues to contribute to the Church's witness in this new millenium.  This publication is a witness to the process of transformation that assures the continuity of the Catholic monastic tradition that witnesses to the God who, as Saint Augustine observed is "ever old and ever new."


Abbot John Eudes Bamberger