I recently arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, after driving across much of the country from Richmond, Virginia. It’s the second summer I’ve driven this distance (2,000 miles) so I varied my route a bit from last year, stopping at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, for a short visit. This is the place the popular and prolific monk, Thomas Merton, also known as Brother Louis, called home for twenty-seven years (1941-1968) . (Merton was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan in Bangkok while attending a conference—December 1968.)
The grounds are verdant, well-kept, and peaceful. Visitors are free to wend their way along various paths on the property, attend any (and all) of the services held in the church, and watch a film on (male) monastic life (running continuously) in the visitors’ center. The gift shop sells books (many authored by Merton), fruit cake and fudge made by the monks at the Abbey, and an array of “stuff.” Accommodations for retreat are available by reservation.
Some time ago, I audited a class that included readings by Thomas Merton. During the semester, the professor mentioned a book titled, At Home in the World The Letters of Thomas Merton & Rosemary Radford Ruether, Edited by Mary Tardiff, OP (1995). Ruether (b. 1936) is a feminist scholar and Catholic theologian. She is also a prolific author and popular speaker.
The letters in the slim volume cover a period of eighteen months—August 1966 to February 1968. Merton and Ruether correspond about, among other things, the role (if any) of monastic life in modernity. Ruether thought Merton “was at the end of a period of development of his own thinking on monasticism…and was very much testing the waters to explore what he should do next” (p. xiv). Ruether (who was twenty-one years younger than Merton) initiated the correspondence, looking for “a genuine Catholic intellectual peer, one who would treat me as a peer, and with whom I could be ruthlessly honest about my own questions of intellectual and existential integrity” (p. xvi). Ruether found Merton to be such a person.
Monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani lead lives of prayer, work, and sacred reading. Merton also wrote. His books include subjects such as the contemplative life and prayer as well as social issues—race relations, violence, nuclear war, and economic injustice. Although fully committed to monastic life, he chafed under its restrictions. He supported monastic renewal, believing that institutionalized monastic life is built on “a perverse doctrine of authority-humility- obedience” (p. 37). Merton had interests that extended beyond the monastery walls and he “felt like an outsider…in his monastery, his church, and his society” (p. 103). Nevertheless, the contemplative life sustained him, feeling most at home with solitude and silence.
Although I know little about monastic life, the contemplative life has always held some vague appeal for me. Modern society, especially given the “immediacy” we’ve come to expect from our technological devices, places little value on the discipline of self-exploration and/or encountering God/ess—a discipline that requires time and patience. One of the reasons I like coming to New Mexico for much of the summer is that I can more easily give myself blocks of time to read and think than seems possible back in Virginia. What would it be like to devote a lifetime to such activity?
Ruether “had a brief and superficial interest in monastic life” (p. xiii) in the early 1960s. She had become disillusioned, though, with the monastic community, specifically regarding her role as a laywoman. While corresponding with Merton, she taught and worked “in urban churches on issues of racism, poverty, and militarism” (p. xiv), focusing on how the Church could positively impact the lives of people vulnerable to the effects of structural injustice.
Ruether writes, “When are our schools going to stop preparing people for some other world and making them unfit to deal with this one???” (p. 10). She also asserts (correctly, I would add) that “monasticism got mixed up with anti-matter theology and hence got involved in a fearful ambiguity towards creation…” (p. 39). She insists that all creation is good and continues, “[M]onasticism…always was a misunderstanding of the gospel, and the dichotomies of monastic life have ever revealed this fact…a view of the gospel that makes salvation a salvation from the world and not a salvation of the world” (p. 28).
Merton writes, “I am more and more convinced of the reality of my own job, which is meditation and study and prayer in silence” (p. 15). He rejects Ruether’s “other-worldly” monastic theme stating , “[M]anual work has been held in honor” and monks “have had…sensual contact with matter and have not in fact despised matter at all except in theory…” (p. 43).
Merton contends Ruether expresses an “absolutist version” of monasticism—a version he does not accept. He writes, “[T]o my mind the monk is one of those who not only saves the world in the theological sense, but saves it literally, protecting it against the destructiveness of the rampaging city of greed, war, etc.” (p. 35). He suggested that monks run our national parks. He believed the contemplative life to be a restorative life.
Merton gives me a fresh look at monastic life. In light of our current, dismal political landscape, perhaps the contemplative life can be used as an excellent form of resistance. Merton was disillusioned with the politics of his own day. “[P]olitical action is too often rendered futile by the massive corruption and dishonesty and fakery which neutralize it everywhere” (p.43-44). He does not mean that “political action is ineffective and hopeless: just that something else is needed” (p.44). Might that “something else” be the contemplative life? Merton states, “[T]he monastic life can play a very helpful part in the worldly struggle precisely because of the different perspective which it has and should preserve” (p. 45).
I’m still not clear what the monastic life is all about, but I am drawn to its possibilities birthed from silence, meditation, and deep thought.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.