Rev. Patrick W. Collins, Ph.D.

This is the third and final installment of Fr. Collins’ essay. See the Vineyard issues of Nov. 16 and 30 for the first two parts. The VOTF Cleveland, OH site has the complete text and Fr. Collins has his own website.

Another of his concerns was what he discerned to be 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 that was 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 preeminent 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 go 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 Mountain). I am really not any of the things they think, and I don’t comfortably 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).

Thomas Merton’s attitude toward church reform came through perhaps most strongly in his reactions to the resignation of English theologian, Father Charles Davis, both from the priesthood and from the Roman Catholic Church in early 1967. He judged Davis’ criticisms of the hierarchy as not “altogether baseless or unjust.” Merton said that the institutional church at that time was “too antiquated, too baroque, and is so often in practice unjust, inhuman, arbitrary and even absurd in its functioning. It sometimes imposes useless and intolerable burdens on the human person and demands outrageous sacrifices, often with no better result than to maintain a rigid system in its rigidity and to keep the same abuses established, one might think, until kingdom comes.”

While Merton shared and respected Davis’ anguish about the state of church affairs, he could not, however, follow him in his conclusion “that the institutional Church has now reached the point where it can hardly be anything other than dishonest, tyrannical, mendacious and inhuman....” “One can feel Fr. Davis is still a brother without coming to the same conclusions as he did.”

Merton noted an endemic pattern of combativeness in Catholicism, a necessity to prove an adversary wrong and a compulsion to always be right. This, he said, can easily lead to witch-hunting in the Church and “finally needs to find them in Rome.” “There comes a time when it is no longer important to prove one’s point, but simply to live, to surrender to God and to love. There have been bad days when I might have considered doing what Fr. Davis has done. In actual fact I have never seriously considered leaving the Church, and though the question of leaving the monastic state has presented itself, I was not able to take it seriously for more than five or ten minutes.... The absurdity, the prejudice, the rigidity and unreasonableness one encounters in some Catholics are nothing whatever when placed in the balance with the grace, love and infinite mercy of Christ in His Church.... This by no means implies passive obsequiousness and blind obedience, but a willingness to listen, to be patient, and to keep working to help the Church change and renew herself from within. This is our task. Therefore by God’s grace I remain a Catholic, a monk and a hermit.”

Finally in this Lenten circular letter to friends, Merton wrote that, ever since he had come to live in his hermitage, he has wanted to stop fighting and arguing and proclaiming and criticizing. “When one gets older,” he said, “one realizes the futility of a life wasted in argument when it should be given entirely to love” (Road to Joy, 95-97).

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 he 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.” [bold added] 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 suddenly and tragically in 1968 at the early 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).


What can we who continue to care about ecclesial renewal and reform learn from these gleaning’s from Merton’s writings?

The Church is not primarily an organization but an organism. One seeks to reform the structures of an organism in a much more interior way than one sets about to restructure an organization. One begins in a sense from the inside and works toward the outside. I submit that one of the reasons the reforms of the Second Vatican Council ran into trouble and have caused so much contention and division is that reform was not preceded by or at least accompanied by profound spiritual renewal in the Mertonian model. In many ways today’s intense questing for spirituality can be read precisely as a symptom of the Church’s failure to take spiritual renewal more seriously than ecclesial reform.

Reforming Church governance is not about shared power but about mutual empowerment in the Holy Spirit. And that comes first of all and primarily from being persons and communities of shared contemplative prayer. Otherwise it can become much ado about nothing. Theology can be a word game and governance a power struggle.

The Church exists as servant of The Reign of God. It is not about itself but is a pointer to The Point. Unless spiritual renewal is at the core of ecclesial reform, the cart can be before the horse and the entire endeavor will not be properly rooted and grounded. It will be like building a house on sand rather than on a firm foundation. That is why I began by quoting an old age: A theologian is one who prayers and one who prays is a theologian. And Thomas Merton was just such a contemplative theologian.


Seven Storey Mountain, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1948.
The Hidden Ground of Love, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, New York: Doubleday, 1965
The Road to Joy, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989
The Courage to Truth, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993
Witness to Freedom, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994

In the Vineyard
January, 4, 2007
Volume 6, Issue 1 Printer Friendly Version (PDF)

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