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Merton's Franciscan Heart

From: Franciscan Studies
Volume 55, 1998
pp. 299-309 | 10.1353/frc.1998.0038

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MERTON'S FRANCISCAN HEART It is commonly recognized that Thomas Merton was a firm critic of the North American culture of his day.1 From the knobs of Nelson County, he addressed some of the most pressing issues of the late 1950s and the 1960s: racism, the nuclear arms race, the war in Viet Nam, among others.2 Far less consideration has been given to Merton's sharp critique of the monastic culture which shaped him and the monks at Gethsemani, as well as the members of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance throughout the world. The purpose of this essay is to draw attention to some of the features of Merton's spirituality that served to sharpen his critique of "modern" culture. I am persuaded that Merton's critique of North American culture is better understood in light of his sustained critique of the Trappist culture which he inhabited, a critique rooted in a fundamentally Cistercian worldview. He was willing to raise his voice to address some of the problems of "the world" because he had first posed a serious challenge to the prevailing Trappist culture of Gethsemani, fueled by the fire of the Cistercian charism. THE CISTERCIAN TURN TO THE SOURCES Merton's critique of Trappist culture was fueled by a repertoire of insights gained from his hermeneutical recovery of the Cisterican sources, a task he was uniquely equipped to undertake for several reasons, not least of which was his knowledge of historical sources and his facility with various languages. Such a hermeneutical recovery enabled him to recognize the centrality of cor and affecius in the Cistercian Fathers. But in recovering these insights he found himself on a terrain with which he had already become familiar 'Worthwhile studies on this topic include James Thomas Baker, Thomas Merton: Social Critic (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Presses, 1971); Frederic Kelly, Man Before God: Thomas Merton on Social Responsibility (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974). 2As but one example of Merton's sustained cultural critique see his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966). 299 Franciscan Studies, 55 (1998) 300MICHAEL DOWNEY through the earlier efforts of his teacher and guide Daniel C. Walsh.3 Merton's vocation as a Cistercian was recognized and nurtured by the Scotist Daniel Walsh. It is the modest thesis of this essay that Merton's impulse was Franciscan throughout his life. But the Franciscan impulse is the Cistercian impulse. Though there is no strict equation between the two, they are roughly approximate. What led Merton first to the Franciscans and then to Gethsemani was a profoundly Franciscan/Scotistic intuition. And it is this that was nurtured, if not planted, by Walsh. Such an intuition is altogether Christocentric, rooted in the primacy of love and freedom. Further, since for Scotus God creates the world for Christ, the Franciscan/Scotistic worldview gives emphasis to relationality as a primary ontological category. Relationality of a specific kind, rooted in love and freedom in Christ, is the very principle and end of all created things. In his recovery of the Cistercian sources—Bernard of Clairvaux, William of Saint Thierry, Guerric of Igny, Aelred of Rievaulx— Merton not only discovered the centrality of cor and affectus, i.e., the heart, but also recognized his own vocation which had led him first to the Franciscans and then to the Trappists at Gethsemani who, at the time, had very little exposure to the Cistercian patrimony. The culture of "Trappism," which eclipsed the legacy of the Cistercian Fathers, was not easily reconcilable with what had led the Holy Founders to establish the New Monastery. This "Trappism" was foreign to Merton and gave rise to his critique of monastic culture which, in turn, fueled his critique of "modern" society. Merton was at heart a Cistercian, a foreigner to the Trappist culture which permeated the Gethsemani he entered and in which he was formed. And it was this that he slowly dislodged through his recovery of the Cistercian patrimony. Merton's critique of monastic culture was waged not so much in his ostensibly chronic complaining about abbot and censors, his moaning over the industrialization of Gethsemani's production of 3An effort to trace...