Monasticism and Modernity

“For [Thomas] Merton, the monastic life was not an escape or refuge but a modern choice, a spiritual vocation which grew from the depths of secularism toward the heights of sanctification. He notes: “[a]s long as I imagine that the world is something to be ‘escaped’ in the monastery — that wearing that quaint costume and following a quaint observance takes me ‘out of the world,’ I am dedicating my life to an illusion.” The monastic choice was simultaneously traditional and counter-cultural. “The monk,” he says, “is someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the contemporary world and its structures.” He does not reject the world — he criticizes it from within.
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On this Brother Patrick Hart, who was Merton’s secretary, comments, “The monk in this context is in protest against modern society like the Egyptian desert dweller of the fourth century who fled the Roman culture of his day.” Brother Hart has brought the truth to the surface. Physically, Merton lived in the monastery, but his heart lived in the desert, before the time when Christianity was confined by the opaque walls of the “religious institution.” “The monastic horizon is clearly the horizon of the desert. The monastic Church is the church of the wilderness, the woman who has fled into the desert from the dragon that seeks to devour the infant Word.”
From the nakedness of the desert Merton taught us how to reverse the trajectory of modernity without abandoning its goals. We seek the certain; Merton, like the desert Fathers, tells us to seek the void. We seek God’s voice; Merton tells us to seek God’s silence. We pray for mercy; Merton teaches us how to pray for love. We seek meaning in the world; Merton taught us that meaning in the world can only be found in the abyss, the very place of its absence….
“It is true that when I came to the monastery where I am I came in revolt against the meaningless confusion of a life in which there was so much activity, so much movement, so much useless talk. . . that I could not remember who I was. But the fact remains that my flight from the world is not a reproach to you who remain in the world, and I have no right to repudiate the world in a purely negative fashion, because if I do that my flight will have not taken me to truth and to God but to a private, though doubtless, pious illusion.”
The monastic journey is one of penitence — not in the formal sense of repentance from sin, but in the spiritual sense that one’s growth allows one to see the superficiality of that which brought her to that place… Monastic critique is always only perpetual self-critique, for the monk knows that the turmoil of the world is no more than a reflection of the turmoil in his own heart. If he envisions the monastic choice as a choice to retreat from the world then he has failed. The monastic choice for Merton is one of protest. It is not protest against the world, only against the world’s limitations. It is the choice to be liberated from the confines of human potentiality that the world wants us to believe in.
We normally do not think of monasticism as protest; we think of it as escape or at best retreat.
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“Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”, Merton’s contribution to political activism, taught us the ways in which monasticism is a politico/spiritual protest — the protest of the humble and the guilty as opposed to the protest of the sanctimonious and the righteous. It is a deeper and more treacherous kind of protest than we normally practice. It does not dwell on the evils of the world but on the failure of the self. “[The monastic] flight is not an evasion. If the monk were able to understand what goes on inside him, he would be able to say how well he knows that the battle [of the world] is being fought in his own heart.” This leads us back to the early Christian critique of the institution of the Church, to those fourth-century desert dwellers who left the Church to find God, cognizant of the fact that religion + politics = politics. For these seekers, the success of the Church in the world was the failure of its essence as critique. Retreat is not always abandonment; it is sometimes deep critique, especially when we retreat more deeply into and not away from the center of the storm. Merton did not want to abandon the world for the desert; he wanted us to make the world the desert.
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Although the Desert Fathers were deeply influential for him, he was acutely aware of the dangers of reviving their asceticism in our modern society, knowing that God had to become more and not less a part of our world. He also knew that the model of retreat, which was the conventional way in which we moderns viewed monasticism, was not a productive one for the twentieth century…”

An extract from Shaul Magid “Monastic Liberation as Counter-cutural Critique in the Life and Thought of Thomas Merton” “Cross Currents”, Winter 1999/2000, Vol. 49 Issue 4.


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