Monday, September 22, 2008

Lamplighters

I had never so much as heard of Thomas Merton until, just short of a decade ago, a good friend showed me his copy of Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. A couple years later, at a time when my former life was crumbing into a heap, a little unction prompted me to buy a copy of New Seeds. Coinciding with purchasing New Seeds, we also found a first edition hardback of The Seven Story Mountain at a yard sale in New Jersey. It cost a buck. One weekend, on a little getaway into Pennsylvania, we picked up a fine copy of A Thomas Merton Reader at an estate sale. It, as well, cost a buck.

When I began to read Merton, I had, at the time, no idea that this deceased Trappist monk would become such an instrumental mentor directing me to where I am today. That’s the way it is with lamplighters though. It’s been quite a journey, one that is really only now beginning to show some flowering, one that is still only beginning, one that will always be beginning, one being lived out in the warm glow of the Eternal Light in ways I’d never previously considered.

Merton lived on the cusp of changing times and had a very clear way of describing in advance the consequences of falling headlong into the pit that modernism had begun to open, a pit that is now excavated broader and deeper than at the time of Merton’s life and writing. His was, and still is, a prophetic life and witness. Monastic life is a testament that dares to hold onto the bedrock of living historic ideals. It also serves as a prophetic testimony, a voice of sound reason, in a world given to and spilling over with ever changing social values and norms.

I need the grounding and stability that I’ve discovered in the historical and prophetic witness, something that was either overlooked, ignored, or abandoned by those responsible for my earlier Protestant Christian formation. I do not say this as a railing accusation. It is simply a matter of fact. We are where we are when we are there and no apologies are necessarily needed for this. It’s not enough though to be conservative, fundamental, or anything else if what we become in the process is based on the faulty premises that serve as the major contributors to a myriad of sensational divisions.

It’s also not enough to be comfortable where we are while comfortably neglecting such a vast storehouse of historical Truth and Tradition. We do ourselves a terrible disservice when we do, something akin to holding our breath when there’s nothing wrong with the air around us. Merton tells us, “The living Tradition of Catholicism is like a breath of a physical body. It renews life by repelling stagnation. It is a constant, quiet, peaceful revolution against death.”[1]

We see the ideals of Benedictine spirituality in Merton’s statement. We also see its life renewing origin and base. There is nothing tepid about Benedictine spirituality. Nor is there any sensationalism about it. “Christianity loses its meaning when it is described in the language of those whose mind is a constant series of uninterpreted sensations.”[2]

Everything will come to light and all deeds will be manifest. Definitely. Perhaps not immediately. But definitely. Christ’s words to us today tell us, “No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel or sets it under a bed; rather, he places it on a lampstand so that those who enter may see the light.”[3]

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 142
[2] Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, p. 143
[3] Luke 8:16-18
Photo: Merton's grave marker.