Sunday, November 2, 2008


One of the dangers of modern life is the tendency to contemporize everything, to see life only in the context of the here and now, disregarding how life in the here and now will affect the future, paying no heed to the revealed truths and lessons of antiquity. Life, in these contemporary times, has more than a tendency to become a complicated mess, one that possesses an unstable nature that is easily adversely molded by life’s changing contemporary scenery.

Merton’s insight into monastic life, when we realize that, as a community, a monastery is a microcosm of the Church, shows us something important about life in the here and now, even when this here and now is lived out in the secular world. It filters down to where we live in our day to day relationships – with God, with our self as we discover this self, in our relationships within our families (another microcosm of the Church), and in the church communities where we gather to worship as faith-communities of believers.

“The monastic Orders are, of all religious Orders, the ones with the most ancient and the most monumental traditions. To be called to the monastic life is to be called to a way of sanctity that is rooted in the wisdom of the distant past, and yet is living and young, with something peculiarly new and original to say to the men of our own time. One cannot become a monk in the fullest sense of the word unless one’s soul is attuned to the transforming and life-giving effect of the monastic tradition. And if this is true everywhere, it is especially true in America – a country in which men are not used to ancient traditions, and are not often ready to understand them.”[1]

I think, and this is largely conjecture on my part, that the primary reason we are not often ready to understand the ancient traditions is due to a lack of trust. We all arrive at this point in time in well pre-conditioned fashion and trust isn’t usually part of the standard equipment. Before we can understand the ancient Christian traditions we have to study them. Before we can trust them we have to understand, or at least begin to understand, them. We simply have to learn, by whatever means, to trust in the ancient traditions of the Church. It has always, and still does, have our best temporal and eternal good in mind.

What Merton is saying is true not only for the monk but also for every fellow pilgrim hoping for their eventual arrival in heaven. It’s obvious that we have to live in our contemporary society. We don’t have another one. This is the world that we must either contend with or conform to. This is the world that we are intended to influence by the lives we live. How we live, the things we say and do, the things we permit or avoid in our lives – all possess the potential to grant permission to others to “go and do thou likewise” whatever that likewise may be.

I’m reminded of something that Jesus said about a millstone.[2] It’s more than a little alarming to think about what Jesus said regarding the millstone when we frame it within the context formed by contemporary theologies, interpretations, and ideologies that fail to take into account a more complete and historical Apostolic testimony. It’s important, and growing more important each day, for me to put my trust, root my sanctity, in the safe and sure wisdom of the distant Christian past.

[1] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p. 148
[2] Matthew 18:6