Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laborant qui aedificaverunt eam - "Unless the Lord built the house, they worked in vain who built it" Ps. 127

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Parable of theTrappists and the Icarians

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 and Allison Gingras at

Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey
A  piece by Carl Olsen at Catholic World Report (“More on Merton”) brings to mind one of the more interesting and controversial Catholic figures of the Twentieth Century:  Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton.  The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography he published in 1948, is the beautifully written and compelling story of his conversion to Christ and to Catholicism.  He was not without his failings, however, some of them rather serious. Not only that, but toward the end of his life in the mid to late 1960’s he became increasingly enamored of Zen Buddhism; it was not clear that he could still be truly considered a Catholic at the time of his unexpected death in Thailand in 1968.

The Founding    

      Prior to his later turn toward Buddhism, however, most of Merton’s writing was thoroughly Catholic and often inspirational.  One of my favorite pieces, from his 1949 book The Waters of Siloe, is his account of the founding of the monastery in which he was living, Gethsemani Abbey, which had been established in Kentucky by French monks a century earlier.  The tale starts with the departure of the founding monks, in the dead of night in the pouring rain, from their monastery in France; it details their many adventures in getting to, and then across, the Atlantic Ocean, and finally their arrival at their new home in the rolling Kentucky hills.
     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
     What most strikes me in Merton’s story, however, is a little parable which he weaves into the larger narrative.  As it happens, among the other passengers on the ship that carries the Trappists to America  are members of a secular communal group called the Icarians.  Merton doesn’t miss an opportunity to contrast the peace and order of the Trappists, whose little society is founded on Jesus Christ, with the Icarians, who follow the ideas of the socialist utopian Etienne Cabet: the trappists feed the other travelers, including the Icarians, from their mobile kitchen, while the Icarians prohibit their members from taking spiritual sustenance at the monks’ masses; the Trappists “owned all their property in common.  They were, in fact, vowed to the most uncompromising poverty, forbidden to possess anything as individuals,” whereas when the Icarians decide to divide up their wealth one member attempts to make off with all of it and another “wrote a letter of delirious invective against Cabet and then blew out his brains.”  The Trappist superior is shocked when one Icarian, who had fallen overboard, confided that he was prepared to stab himself to death rather than drown if nobody came to save him; later, the monk is bemused to discover that another Icarian, who is asking to join the Trappists, is in fact a married man.
     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.

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