An earlier version of this Worth Revisiting post was first published 13 February 2015 on the blog Principium et Finis. To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at theologyisaverb.com and Allison Gingras at reconciledtoyou.com.
|Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey|
I had at one time hoped to write a children's book drawing on Merton’s story (which is itself based on a contemporary account in the monastery’s records). My own kids liked the idea, but, sadly, the late monk’s literary trustees did not share our enthusiasm for the project, so it was not be. Too bad.
Nonetheless, it’s worth reading Merton’s version of the story. He has a wonderful way with a narrative, and makes the most of some of the amusing twists in the story, as when the reclusive Trappists lose their luggage in the worldly sprawl of Paris, or when (again in the pouring rain) the “Silent Monks” need to find a way to wake up the Jesuits under whose roof they were planning to spend their first night on their arrival in Kentucky.
The Parable of the Icarians
|Gethsemani Abbey as it looked during|
Merton's residence in the 1950's
Merton himself explains the difference between the two groups as follows:
. . . the monks had Christ living and working in them by faith, by charity. The monks were united by the Holy Spirit in the peace of God, which tames and dominates and sublimates man’s nature and ordains it to the highest possible ends. But the Icarians were united only by the frail bonds of an “armed neutrality” of insatiable animal appetites.
Merton’s thesis is a simple one (which I address from a somewhat different angle in my recent post :"Random Selection Favors Religion, or What Would Darwin Do?"): Jesus Christ is the foundation of all truth, and a society built on Christ will be orderly and flourishing; a society that relies exclusively on human wisdom is doomed to futility and disintegration. The Icarians (who were actually more successful than most such groups: their last community didn’t disband until 1898, fifty years after they began) are neither the first nor the last example history offers. Merton saw it himself in his own history, in the contrast between the disorder and unhappiness of his early, worldly, life, and the joy that he found in the Christ-centered world of the monastery (and one hopes he found his way back to the Lord before the final end). His tale of the Trappists and the Icarians is just one more illustration that only the house built on the Rock (see Matthew 7:25) will stand.