St. Bernard and Thomas Merton on Simplicity & the True Aim of Life

“…our chief, in fact our only task, is to get rid of the ‘double’ garment, the overlaying layer of duplicity that is not ourselves.”  –Thomas Merton on finding our true self.

Today is the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernard was one of the most prominent figures in the high middle ages in Europe and had a profound influence on the Church.  He was a theologian, a mystic, a fantastic preacher, the founder of the Cistercian monastic order, and a Doctor of the Church.   It was through Thomas Merton that I first became acquainted with Bernard and the Cistercian and Trappist monastic traditions.  I want to share with you today, in honor of St. Bernard, one of my favorite texts of Thomas Merton regarding St. Bernard and some of Merton’s reflection on St. Bernard’s teaching on simplicity.

Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard

Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard published by Cistercian Studies.

The book is a compilation of separately published texts of Merton’s titled Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard and is published by Cistercian Studies.  It has a foreword by Br. Patrick Hart, Merton’s personal secretary when he was alive and following his death and an introduction by Dom. Jean Leclercq, who was one of the most influential and authoritative monastic scholars of the 20th century.  Two better people could not have been found to introduce both Merton and St. Bernard.  The book covers three areas of Bernard’s thought that were important to Merton, and they reflect foundational concepts for Merton’s life and thought.  The first part of the book addresses action and contemplation in St. Bernard.  Anyone who is at least nominally familiar with Merton knows that this is probably the theme that occupied Merton throughout his entire life.  Here he discusses action and contemplation as they relate to the mystery of Christ, the monastic life, apostolate work, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The second part of the book addresses St. Bernard on Interior Simplicity.  More on this part of the book below.  The third part of the book discusses Transforming Union in St. Bernard and St. John of the Cross and was published prior to Merton’s more sustained study of St. John of the Cross in his book Assent to Truth.

Simplicity, the True Self, and Recovering the Image of God

The second part of the book on Interior Simplicity has Merton’s explicit commentaries and reflections on key texts of Bernard’s about simplicity.  These insights and reflections proved to be foundational for Merton.  It is here that Merton first begins to articulate his notions of the false self and the true self and simultaneously zeros in on the essence of Cistercian monastic life: simplicity.  These notions are derived directly from Bernard’s sermons that reflect on the creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God.  I’ll conclude by leaving you with a lengthy quote from Merton on simplicity in the spiritual life based on his reading of St. Bernard.  Italics below are Merton’s; bold text below are my emphasis added.

Even a cursory reading of these notions, which are the very cornerstone of cistercian asceticism, will show that St. Bernard has really vindicated the fundamental goodness of human nature in terms as strong as have ever been used by any philosopher or theologian.  And if the first step in the cistercian ascent to God is for the monk to know himself we may reasonably say that, in some sense, the whole life of such a one will consist in being himself, or rather trying to return to the original simplicity, immortality and freedom which constitute his real self, in the image of God.

     We will never completely succeed in being ourselves until we get to heaven.  Meanwhile on earth our chief, in fact our only task, is to get rid of the ‘double’ garment [CS-Bernard mentions in his sermon on which Merton is commenting], the overlaying layer of duplicity that is not ourselves.  Hence the Cistercian stress on simplicity.  Hence the fact that the whole of Cistercian asceticism may be summed up in that one word.

     And this is true even when the word is taken in several different senses.

     1. The first step in the monks’ ascent to God will be to recognize the truth about himself–and face the fat of his own duplicity.  That means: simplicity in the sense of sincerity, a frank awareness of one’s own shortcomings.

     2.  He will also have to overcome the temptation to excuse himself and argue that his is not, in fact, what he is (whether he argues with other men, with himself or with God, it does not matter).  Hence: simplicity in the sense of meekness–self effacement, humility.

     3.  He must strive to rid himself of everything that is useless, unnecessary to his one big end: the recovery of the divine image, and union with God.  How, simplicity takes on the sense of total and uncompromising mortification.

     (a) Of the lower appetites: hence the simplicity in food, clothing, dwellings, labor, manner of life as laid down in the Little Exordium, Consuetudines, Statutes of the General Chapters [CS-these are Trappist and Cistercian monastic organizational documents].

     (b) Of the interior senses and the intellect:  This means simplicity in devotions, studies, methods of prayer, etc., and calls for the complete simplification in liturgical matters and the decoration of churches for which the early cistercians were so famous.

     (c) Of the will:  This is the most important task of all.  In the works of St. Bernard, the amount of space devoted to other forms of mortification is practically insignificant in comparison to the scores of pages which are given up to the attach on self-will and its utter destruction.  Hence the stress on the great bernerdine means of penance, which resumes all others for the monk: obedience.  This will produce that simplicity which is synonymous with docility, the trustful obedience of a child towards his father; the supernatural, joyous obedience of the monk who seeks to prove his love for Christ by seeing him in his representative, the abbot.

I’ll just leave you with one final note for further reading on Merton and St. Bernard: The Last of the Fathers.

The Last of the Fathers by Thomas Merton

The Last of the Fathers by Thomas Merton

 It is a fantastic introduction and translation to Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on St. Bernard of Clairvaux titled Doctor Mellifluus published in 1953.  The book appears to be out of print and only available via used copies or a Kindle edition.  This is a great early text of Merton reflecting on one of the great Doctor’s of the Church.


The Absence of God and the Asceticism of Ascension

Icon of the Ascension.

Icon of the Ascension.

Today is the feast of the Ascension.  It marks the beginning of one of the strangest periods in the entire liturgical year in the Church.  Jesus leaves us, but the promised helper or Paraclete hasn’t come yet.  The Holy Spirit will not come to us until Pentecost.  That’s ten days away.  We are without two-thirds of the Godhead, liturgically speaking, for the next ten days.  Yikes.

But why? What’s the point in depriving us of two of the persons of the Blessed Trinity?  I think the basic answer is found throughout Scripture.  Whenever Jesus left a place or was on the move what happened?  People followed.  Even the earliest encounters with the first disciples, which were largely one on one or two on one affairs, they followed.  Peter and Andrew were minding their fishing business and up and left their business to follow Jesus.  Each of the Gospel accounts of this differ slightly, but the basics of the story are the same: Jesus moved in and he moved out and people followed.  We see this also further along in Jesus’ ministry with the feeding of the multitude or the stories of the loaves and fishes.  By this point, large numbers of people were “following” the movement of Jesus.  Some remained followers; some didn’t.  Some were in it for the free food; others wanted “more.”  Some just wanted to see the “miracle show,” others knew there was greater depth and healing behind these miraculous happenings.

In any case, when Jesus moved people followed.  His movement created an absence in a space where he once was present.  But his presence has moved on.  He needed people to move on from whatever fixed notion one may have gotten about him and follow him to a greater depth of understanding and experience about God the Father.  But dealing with absence is usually a unpleasent experience.  Nobody likes it when family or friends have to leave; we love spending time with people we love.  We might get sad that the good and times had to end or even anxious about the fact that we might not see them for a while.

We see this paradoxical dynamic of absence and presence illustrated perfectly in the pre-Ascension period when Jesus appears to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus.  The two disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus were confused, disappointed, and disillusioned that the Jesus they had followed and loved so much had left them.  They didn’t believe all this talk about empty tombs and resurrection, even though other disciples had witnessed the empty tomb and a resurrected Jesus.  They seemed to have been hoping for a political leader who would liberate Israel.  A man the two do not recognize as Jesus joins them on their walk to Emmaus and engages them in dialogue about the events of Jesus’ death and discusses the Scriptures that point to the Messiah.  The two disciples still don’t recognize him as Jesus and He attempts to move on from the two disciples, but they urge him to stay with them and have a meal.  It is at the meal in the breaking of the bread that the two disciples finally recognize Jesus, but as soon as they recognize Him, He vanishes.

One of my favorite theologians, Fr. Louis-Marie Chauvet, puts this very well, in his book The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body:

If it is indeed the foundational discourse of the church (its kerygma) we perceive here behind the discourse of the risen Jesus on the Scriptures [in the Road to Emmaus story], the issue which dominates the whole of our story becomes clear: you cannot arrive at the recognition of the risen Jesus unless you renounce seeing/touching/finding him by undeniable proofs.  Faith begins precisely with such a renunciation of the immediacy of the see/know and with the assent to the mediation of the church.  For it is he, the Lord, who speaks through the church each time it reads and interprets the Scriptures as referring to him or, conversely, each time it rereads Jesus’ destiny of death and resurrection as “in accordance with the Scriptures.” [bold emphasis added]

It is this “renunciation of immediacy” that the Church asks of us during these ten days of absence when we have no Holy Spirit and no Jesus.  We are asked yet again to renounce what we thought we knew about Jesus–we’ve done it twice already with both his death and his resurrection in recent weeks.  We are being asked to purge our inadequate or self-serving notions of Jesus so we can again receive the fullness of the fullness of God with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.

May we fully engage the asceticism of the Ascencion and embrace the presence of the absence of the Blessed Trinity!

Thomas Merton, Fuga Mundi & the Benedict Option – Fuga Mundi Series, Part 5


FM Merton Part Five

Thomas Merton’s fuga mundi, or “flight from the world,” was a complex and multi-faceted thing.  When I envisioned this series back in the fall I had to idea it would end where it did.  I didn’t ever think that Star Wars would factor into my fuga mundi reflections.  But there it was, right at the center of Star Wars story–and in the new Force Awakens movie as well.  

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, at his hermitage

So it was too with my thoughts on Thomas Merton and fuga mundi.  I figured I’d say something about the Seven Storey Mountain and perhaps that would be it.  However, I began reading–for the first time–his collection of essays titled Contemplation in a World of Action.  I can’t recall the last time I read something of Merton’s for the first time–but what a treat!  The discovery of something new from an author you love is a rare thrill.  However, this collection of essays isn’t just a “rewarding treat:” it represents Merton’s most mature thought on a range of contemporary problems still relevant to us today.

Contemplation in a World of Action has 14 essays that all grapple in various ways with the Catholic Church’s engagement with the world.  Many of the essays focus on Merton’s vocation as a monk and the renewal of the monasticism to which he had committed his life.   Each of the essays were written in the 1960s and they cover a range of topics that include ecumenism, atheism, vocation, identity, education, the role of the contemplative, among others.

Contemplation in a World of Action by Thomas Merton

Contemplation in a World of Action by Thomas Merton

The other turn I didn’t expect this new engagement with Merton to take is how relevant one essay in particular is for the Benedict Option.  The essay titled “Is the World a Problem?”  addresses many of the themes that Rod Dreher and others are contemplating with the Benedict Option.  More on that below….

Thomas Merton & Fuga Mundi, Part I

Merton’s fuga mundi was a two-phase process.  First, his more traditional fuga mundi took place with his reception into the Catholic Church and entrance into the Trappist monastery.  But it didn’t end there.  In my post on St. Benedict’s Fuga Mundi I introduced this notion of the “little world” that is created within the monastic enclosure.  As Merton lived his monastic life, he gradually began to realize that the monastery isn’t a perfect society of men walking on water.  There are “worldly” elements that can creep into even the most isolated of monasteries.  Merton’s own broad and deep reading of Scripture, the Church Fathers, Theology, Philosophy, and the Monastic Fathers, led him to realize that a monastic community could be just as mechanistic and dehumanizing as any bureaucratic multi-national corporation.

This first phase of Merton’s fuga mundi is recounted in the Seven Storey Mountain.  I won’t say too much about it here, as many are familiar with the story.  For those that aren’t, Merton is a famous Catholic convert from no religious faith whatsoever who eventually became a Trappist monk.  He lived a painful and unsettled early life with his bohemian-painter father, his younger brother John Paul, and artist mother, who died of stomach cancer when Thomas was only six years old.  The young Merton bounced between France, the United States, and England throughout his schooling, living in boarding schools, with his father, his grandparents in the U.S., and an aunt and uncle in London.  At the age of 16 his father, Owen, died of a brain tumor.  Following his father’s death, he entered Cambridge University at age 18.  It was short-lived, and due to a difficult freshman year of drinking, and, by some accounts, fairly free relationships with women, Merton enrolled in Columbia University in New York for his sophomore year.  It was in New York that Merton began to have more serious encounters with the Catholic faith.  His interest in Catholicism continued while at Columbia, and at age 24, while pursuing a Master’s degree in English, he was Baptized and Confirmed in the Catholic Church.  Merton’s faith deepened and his study of the Catholic faith continued.  Upon completing his Master’s degree, he took a teaching job at St. Bonaventure University.  Merton felt he was being called to become a Franciscan friar, but a Franciscan priest, with whom Merton had expressed this interest, felt his youthful indiscretions and worldly past wouldn’t be a good fit for the Order.  Fortunately, God had other plans.  Merton had booked a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in anticipation of Easter in 1941.  He felt an enormous pull to the Trappist life he found there.   Later that year, he applied for admission to the order and was accepted as a Postulant in December 1941 and later as a Novice in March of 1942 at age 27.   To learn more about Merton’s life and conversion, check out his Wikipedia article.

Merton’s conversion to the Catholic faith and embrace of the Trappist monastic life mark one of the most famous fuga mundi stories of the 20th century.  In classic form, similar to the fuga mundi of St. Antony the Great and St. Benedict, he renounced worldly pleasures and aspirations and followed the call of God into solitude and silence.  Yet as Merton’s monastic vocation grew and matured, he began to face the “little world” within the monastery and the “worldly” elements in his own personality.  Merton’s most mature reflection on the fuga mundi comes in an essay originally published in America magazine in June 1966 titled “Is the World a Problem?” and later included as a part of the posthumously published book Contemplation in a Word of Action.  Merton is considering this question not only in light of his 20+ years as a Trappist monk, but also in light the then-recent Second Vatican Council document on the Church and the world titled Gaudium et Spes.

Okay, now to Merton’s essay.  Right from the start, Merton posits a kind of confusion that has prompted him to write:

First of all, the whole question of the world, the secular world, has become extremely ambiguous. It becomes ever more ambiguous when it is set up over against another entity, the world of the sacred. The old duality of time-­eternity, matter-spirit, natural-supernatural and so on (which makes sense in a very limited and definite context) is suddenly transposed into a totally different context in which it creates nothing but confusion. This confusion is certainly a problem. Whether or not “the world” is a problem, a confused idea of what the world might possibly be is quite definitely a problem. So what I want to talk about is this confusion, and what I myself think about it at the moment.

A similar confusion exists around discussions of the Benedict Option today.  The fact that so many confuse it with “giving up on the world and heading for the hills” reveals such a fundamental ignorance of essential aspects of Church history, particularly that aspect of Church history that has Christians renouncing worldly values and striving to live a life more dedicated to Christ.  This is precisely what St. Benedict did, not to mention many others before and after in the monastic tradition.  Many other saints have also done something similar (St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross)

Merton then let’s us know that this isn’t going to be more of the Seven Storey Mountain:

I want to make clear that I speak not as the author of the Seven Storey Mountain, which seemingly a lot of people have read, but as the author of more recent essays and poems which apparently very few people have read. This is not the official voice of Trappist silence, the monk with his hood up and his back to the camera, brooding over the waters of an artificial lake.  This is not the petulant and uncanonizable modern Jerome who never got over the fact that he could give up beer. (I drink beer whenever I can lay hands on any. I love beer, and, by that very fact, the world.).

I am, in other words, a man in the modern world. In fact, I am the world just as you are! Where am I going to look for the world first of all if not in myself?

Merton cuts to the chase quickly.  He acknowledges the fuga mundi of his younger days recounted in the Seven Storey Mountain, but also very clearly prepares the reader for a very different reflection on the fuga mundi:

As long as I assume that the world is something I discover by turning on the radio or looking out the window I am deceived from the start. As long as I imagine that the world is something to be “escaped” in a monastery—that wearing a special costume and following a quaint observance takes me “out of this world,” I am dedicating my life to an illusion.

This is a classic Merton move: cut through the exterior BS and realize the interior root of the problem in all of its spiritual, psychological, and religious aspects.  He goes on to clarify the confusion he mentions earlier and gets to the essence of his topic of the “problem of the world.”

The confusion lies in this; on one hand there is a primitive Christian conception of the world as an object of choice. On the other there is the obvious fact that the world is also something about which there is and can be no choice. And, historically, these notions have sometimes got mixed up, so that what is simply “given” appears to have been chosen, and what is there to be chosen, decided for or against, is simply evaded as if no decision were licit or even possible.

That I should have been born in 1915, that I should be the contemporary of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam and the Watts riots, are things about which I was not first consulted. Yet they are also events in which, whether I like it or not, I am deeply and personally involved. The “world” is not just a physical space traversed by jet planes and full of people running in all directions. It is a complex of responsibilities and options made out of the loves, the hates, the fears, the joys, the hopes, the greed, the cruelty, the kindness, the faith, the trust, the suspicion of all. In the last analysis, if there is a stupid war in Vietnam because nobody trusts anybody, this is in part because I myself am defensive, suspicious, untrusting, and intent on making other people conform themselves to my particular brand of deathwish.

Put in these terms, the world both is and is not a problem. The world is a “problem” in so far as everybody in it is a problem to himself. The world is a problem in so far as we all add up to a big collective question. Starting then from this concept of a world which is essentially problematic because it is full of problematic and self­doubting freedoms, there have been various suggestions made as to what to do about it.

Wow, just wow.  Next, Merton’s reflection starts touching some very Benedict Option themes:

At present the Church is outgrowing what one might call the Carolingian suggestion. This is a worldview which was rooted in the official acceptance of the Church into the world of imperial Rome, the world of Constantine and of Augustine, of Charlemagne in the west and of Byzantium in the east. In crude, simple strokes, this worldview can be sketched as follows: We are living in the last age of salvation history. A world radically evil and doomed to hell has been ransomed from the devil by the Cross of Christ and is now simply marking time until the message of salvation can be preached to everyone. Then will come the judgment. Meanwhile, men being evil and prone to sin at every moment, must be prevented by authority from following their base instincts and getting lost.

They cannot be left to their own freedom or even to God’s loving grace. They have to have their freedom taken away from them because it is their greatest peril. They have to be told at every step what to do, and it is better if what they are told to do is displeasing to their corrupt natures, for this will keep them out of further subtle forms of mischief. Meanwhile the Empire has become, provisionally at least, holy. As figure of the eschatological kingdom, worldly power consecrated to Christ becomes Christ’s reign on earth. In spite of its human limitations the authority of the Christian prince is a guarantee against complete chaos and disorder and must be submitted to—to resist established authority is equivalent to resisting Christ. War on behalf of the Christian prince and his power becomes a holy war for Christ against the devil. War becomesa sacred duty.

The dark strokes in the picture have their historical explanation in the crisis of the Barbarian invasions. But there are also brighter strokes, and we find in the thought of Aquinas, Scotus, Bonaventure, Dante, a basically world-affirming and optimistic view of man, of his world and his work, in the perspective of the Christian redemption. The created world itself is an epiphany of divine wisdom and love, and, redeemed in and by Christ, will return to God with all its beauty restored by the transforming power of grace, which reaches down to material creation through man and his work. However, this view too is static rather than dynamic, hierarchic, layer upon layer, rather than on-going and self-creating, the fulfillment of a predetermined intellectual plan rather than the creative project of a free and self-building love.

This “Carolingian Suggestion” is nearly identical to what Stanley Hauerwas and others have dubbed Constantinianism, an unholy marriage of the church with the state. Hauerwas has also contended that Americans particularly have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing their Christianity from the U.S. citizenship.  Many Americans seem to see being American and being a Christian as being synonymous.  Wrong.  This is a fundamental confusion of priority, and, as Merton, notes, has deep roots beyond that of the U.S.    The more recent surge in popularity of the Benedict Option seems to have been fueled by the Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court, which is easy enough to understand, but the decision and its aftermath also reveals a crisis in discipleship and formation. St. Benedict himself was born into a world of Barbarian invasion and chaos around 480.   He was the dutiful son who went to Rome to study, and in all likelihood to follow in his father’s footsteps in Roman civil government.  But Benedict had different ideas and, by all accounts, simply up and walked away from it all to seek God in the quiet and solitude in the hills outside of Rome.  We too are still laboring with this “Carolingian Suggestion.”  The response of St. Benedict, Thomas Merton, and so many others was to “up and walk away”–fuga mundi– which is fundamentally what the Benedict Option is all about.  We do this not to ignore or abandon the world, but to unplug from the influence and formation by the world and to tune in and be formed by the deeper currents of the Holy Spirit through the deepest spiritual and liturgical traditions of Christianity.

Now that Merton has stated the breadth and depth of the confusion and the “problem” of the world, he addresses where we go from here.  He is cautiously optimistic about the future, but still sees an unwillingness to grapple with the essence of the problem:

One of the essential tasks of aggiornamento is that of renewing the whole perspective of theology in such a way that our ideas of God, man and the world are no longer dominated by the Carolingian-medieval imagery of the sacred and hierarchical cosmos, in which everything is decided beforehand and in which the only choice is to accept gladly what is imposed as part of an immobile and established social structure.

In “turning to the world” the contemporary Church is, first of all, admitting that the world can once again become an object of choice. Not only can it be chosen, but in fact it must be chosen. How? If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living ongoing events. To choose the world is not then merely a pious admission that the world is acceptable because it comes from the hand of God. It is first of all an acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world, in history and in time. To choose the world is to choose to do the work I am capable of doing, in collaboration with my brother, to make the world better, more free, more just, more livable, more human. And it has now become transparently obvious that mere automatic “rejection of the world” and “contempt for the world” is in fact not a choice but the evasion of choice.

On the other hand the stereotype of world-rejection is now being firmly replaced by a collection of equally empty stereotypes of world affirmation in which I, for one, have very little confidence. They often seem to be gestures, charades, mummery designed to make those participating in them feel secure, to make them feel precisely that they are “like participating” and really doing something. So precisely at the moment when it becomes vitally important for the destiny of man that man should learn to choose for himself a peaceful, equitable, sane and humane world the whole question of choice itself becomes a stark and dreadful one. We talk about choosing, yet everything seems more grimly determined than ever before. We are caught in an enormous web of consequences, a net of erroneous and even pathological effects of other men’s decisions. After Hitler, how can Germany be anything but a danger to world peace? To choose the world therefore is to choose the anguish of being hampered and frustrated in a situation fraught with frightful difficulties. We can joyously affirm the world and its secular values all we like, but the complexity of events responds too often with a cold negation of our hopes.

In the old days when everyone compulsively rejected the world it was really not hard at all to secretly make quite a few healthy and positive affirmations of a worldly existence in the best sense of the word, in praise of God and for the good of all men. Nowadays when we talk so muchof freedom, commitment, “engagement” and so on, it becomes imperative to ask whether the choices we are making have any meaning whatever. Do they change anything? Do they get us anywhere? Do we really choose to alter the direction of our lives or do we simply comfort ourselves with the choice of making another choice? Can we really decide effectively for a better world?

Not the most hopeful note on which to end, and Merton does not end there, thankfully, but here:

There remains a profound wisdom in the traditional Christian approach to the world as to an object of choice. But we have to admit that the habitual and mechanical compulsions of a certain limited type of Christian thought have falsified the true value-perspective in which the world can be discovered and chosen as it is. To treat the world merely as an agglomeration of material goods and objects outside ourselves, and to reject these goods and objects in order to seek others which are “interior” and “spiritual” is in fact to miss the whole point of the challenging confrontation of the world and Christ.

Do we really choose between the world and Christ as between two conflicting realities absolutely opposed? Or do we choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him, that is to say created and redeemed by Him, and encountered in the ground of our own personal freedom and of our love?  Do we really renounce ourselves and the world in order to find Christ, or do we renounce our alienated and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time? [emphasis added] If the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love itself and nowhere else will I find myself, and the world, and my brother and Christ. It is not a question of either/or but of all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivism and “purity” but of wholeness, wholeheartedness, unity and Meister Eckhart’s Gleichheit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything.

The world cannot be a problem to anyone who sees that ultimately Christ, the world, his brother and his own inmost ground are made one and the same in grace and redemptive love. If all the current talk about the world helps people to discover this, then it is fine. But if it produces nothing but a whole new divisive gamut of obligatory positions and “contemporary answers” we might as well forget it. The world itself is no problem, but we are a problem to ourselves because we are alienated from ourselves, and this alienation is due precisely to an inveterate habit of division by which we break reality into pieces and then wonder why, after we have manipulated the pieces until they fall apart, we find ourselves out of touch with life, with reality, with the world and most of all with ourselves. [emphasis added]

Amen!  Read the whole thing here.  May the Benedict Option lead us all to a renewal of the monastic and contemplative dimension of Christianity, both inside and outside of the cloister.

Star Wars and Monasticism: A Fuga Mundi Series Extra


Obi-Wan begins to teach Luke about the Force.

A recent post over at ChurchPOP about the conversion to Catholicism of famed actor Alec Guinness (a.k.a Obi-Wan “Ben” Kanobi) got me thinking about the monastic dimension of the whole Star Wars saga.  The picture at the top of the post shows the enrobed Kanobi with the desert planet of Tatooine behind him.  This congers up images of the Christian monks retreating to and living in the desert in the early centuries of Christianity.   Another phrase for this is fuga mundi, or literally “flight from the world,” and it is a fundamental Christian and monastic concept I’ve been writing about recently in a series of blog posts.

In the first Star Wars movie, Episode IV: A New Hope, Kanobi has retreated to the desert to escape some dark aspect of his past.  The hindsight of the five following movies, as they were released, reveals to us that Kanobi feels like he failed in training training the young Anikin Skywalker, who, as we all know, became Star Wars Evil Incarnate, Darth Vader.  Now this retreat, this fuga mundi, seems to be simply an escape from a troubled past.  But, as is always with the Force, there is something deeper going on.  Kanobi, it seems, needed to be lost so he could be found.  And that’s exactly what happened.  The young Luke Skywalker, desiring so much more out of life, encounters Kanobi in the desert.  Luke becomes interested in Kanobi’s past–and his aquaintence with his father.  Kanobi also introduces Skywalker to the Force.

Here we see a classic example of how the desert monastic relationships worked: a Spiritual Father offers hospitality and words of wisdom to a young person seeking “more” out of life.  Not only is this how Star Wars begins–but it is also how the whole of the monastic tradition begins.  The fuga mundi dynamic is a paradoxical move where one retreats from the world in order to be fully present to it.  Jesus called us to be “in” the world but not “of” it.  The fuga mundi of the monastic tradition shows us, through its history and stories, how to do just that.

As many are by now aware, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, presents many familiar themes from the previous Star Wars movies, but especially from Episode IV.  The new movie begins on a desert planet with a main character, Rey, who has also been orphaned.  She is capable and resourceful, but struggling to get by while waiting for her family to return for her.  While Rey is certainly the young seeker in much the same way Luke was in Episode IV, it takes Rey time to discover her vocation over the course of the film, just as it did for Luke in the video clip above. 

As the film comes to an end, we find the young seeker connecting with the Spiritual Father.  In the final scenes of the movie, Rey embarks on the journey to find Luke Skywalker, who has been in hiding for years due to an apparent failure to train more Jedi (not only is Luke the echo of Obi Wan, but Luke now seems to be the new Yoda too).  We also find out that the movie’s new Darth Vader, Kylo Renn, is Han and Leia’s son and he turned to the Dark Side some time after leaving said Jedi camp.  In the final minutes of the movie, we find Rey landing on a remote island and trekking up a large hill with seemingly ancient ruins all around.  As she comes to the top of the hill, we see a figure wearing what looks to be a rough-hewn, dark, monastic-habit-like cloak and hood.  Rey approaches the figure with Luke’s lightsaber in hand and we realize this figure is Luke Skywalker.

The young seeker is comes into contact with the Spiritual Father once again in Star Wars–and just like in the deserts of Egypt and Syria with the likes of St. Antony the Great, St. Pachomius, and St. Benedict.  All of them fled the world–fuga mundi–in order to find a deeper sense of reality.  It was how God called those great saints–and so many others–to be “in” the world, but not “of” the world.

Skellig Michael Co. Kerry Aerial survey works south peak

Skellig Michael Co. Kerry Aerial survey, south peak. Courtsey of World Heritage Ireland.

In a recent post at titled Star Wars and the Isle Named for St. Michael the Archangel, Phillip Kosloski  provides a

insight into the fascinating history behind the site J.J. Abrams chose for that final scene.  Turns out, that island and those ancient ruins are a real island and ruins off the coast of Ireland called Skellig Michael.  That is pretty cool in and of itself, and kudos to Abrams and team for choosing such a historic site.  But that’s not all–those ruins are from an early medieval monastery!  Kosloski offers some of the history and purpose of the monastery and the island:


“The monastery on the island was founded by one of Ireland’s greatest saints, St. Finnian of Clonard, during the sixth century. St. Finnian was taught by disciples of St. Patrick and became an influential teacher inspiring many Irish saints over the years. St. Finnian and the monks who lived on Skellig Michael for centuries were imitating the examples of the Desert Fathers, who retreated from the world to dedicate their lives to prayer, fasting and asceticism. They sought to hold back the tide of Evil in the world by following Jesus’ words to his disciples, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).”

What a perfect statement of monastic fuga mundi–and it is baked right into the final, culminating scene of The Force Awakens!

You can also take a more in-depth visual tour of the island and the monastery, thanks to a post from ChurchPOP.

The next and final installment of the Fuga Mundi Series will feature Thomas Merton and his fuga mundi.  Stay tuned….


Gregorian Chant & 80s New Wave

I came across some wonderful Gregorian Chant from the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria on Spotify today.  You can check them out on Spotify here.  The chant is beautiful, but what really caught my eye was the album cover of their popular Chant Music for the Soul.  It bears a striking resembelance to another similar favorite album of mine: Songs to Learn and Sing by the 80s New Wavers Echo & the Bunnymen, which you can also listen to on Spotify here.  Enjoy!

Gregorian Chant and Echo and the Bunnymen

Monastic Reformers, Cistercians & Maurists – Fuga Mundi Series, Part 4

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The Cistercians and Maurists, or the Congregation of St. Maur, each found themselves in altogether different environs than the previous monastic fathers we have discussed in the Series.  Antony the Great, Pachomius the Great, and St. Benedict each began as anchorites (solitary monks).  Pachomius and St. Benedict shifted their monasticism to cenobitic (communal) monasticism. In contrast, the Cistercians and Maurists represent monastic reform movements that sought to revive monastic life within highly developed ecclesial structures.  They also needed to define their monastic life in relation to longstanding monastic traditions.  Despite these differences from the earlier monastic fathers, we find the same paradoxical fuga mundi dynamic present: they withdraw from the world in order to be Christ to the world.  In both we find a radical detachment from the world involving ardent prayer and rigorous asceticism, but we also find great worldly successes as well.

The Cistercians aimed at a reform of Benedictine monasticism.  In 1098, group of monks from Moleseme Abbey in eastern France founded Cîteaux Abbey, not far from Dijon.  They were dissatisfied with the luxury and perceived laxity of the Cluniac monasteries and sought to live a more literal Benedictine monasticism. In the early 1100s, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, along with 30 companions, joined Cîteaux.  By the end of the 1100s, Cistercian monasteries had spread throughout Europe.  The Cistercians were masters of agriculture and technology and through their zeal for God and industry developed large, prosperous, influential monasteries.

Fast-forward to the early 1600s, the Maurists also sought monastic reform in France.  They, like the Cistercians centuries before, took issue with growing laxity and disorganization within monasteries.  Their reform movement encompassed nearly all the French monasteries.  As a part of this more strict monastic observance, the early superiors sought to train their monks for scholarship and more literary persuits.  Scholarship was not a traditional monastic activity and the Congregation struggled to maintain their monastic priorities.  The decline of the Congregation saw the Maurist monasteries embracing too much Enlightenment rationalism.  The Congregation’s final Superior General, the head of their Congregation, along with forty monks fell victim to the French Revolution’s guillotine and were beheaded.

Again, we see both the Cistercians and the Maurists embodying a more radical fuga mundi which paradoxically enabled them to more successfully engage the secular culture.

The next and last installment of the series will feature Thomas Merton and his very modern fuga mundi.

St. Benedict of Nursia – Fuga Mundi Series, Part 3

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Welcome to the third installment of the Fuga Mundi Series.  

Christians have always been faced with the challenge of how to be “in the world, but not of the world.”  The Latin phrase for this is fuga mundi, which literally translates as “flight from the world.”  This series explores how famous monastic persons or groups lived out the fuga mundi.  

Last week in looking at St. Pachomius the Great, we see the transition from the anchoritic (solitary) type of monastic life to cenobitic (communal) type of monastic life.  Pachomius’ embrace of cenobitic monasticism presented the problem of how to navigate the “little world” created within the monastery.  This phenomenon of the “little world”–and how to keep it at bay–is a central tenet of St. Benedict’s Rule.

By the time St. Benedict wrote his Rule in the early 500s, cenobitic monasticism had evolved and developed for nearly two hundred years.  The Rule represents a short summary of “best practices” Benedict learned from John Cassian, St. Basil and other cenobitic monastic thinkers, but also from his own experience as abbot of several monasteries and perhaps hundreds of monks.  Page citation below come from the RB 1980.9780814612200

 One way to view the structure of the Rule is by the way that it regulates and governs the “little world” that is created in cenobitic monasticism.  Much of the rule is concerned with practices within the monastery.  We see this regulation of the “little world” most prominently in two places: passages concerning the Cellarer and on private ownership.  The Cellarer is to regulate the food and other material possessions of the monastery, and ought to be a monk who possesses an exemplary moral character and is well-formed in the monastic life (228-229).  Benedict is well aware of the “little world” within the monastic enclosure, which is why the position of Cellarer is so pivotal in the rule.  Following the description of the Cellarer is a brief account of how material goods should be used and Benedict’s strong exhortation against private ownership (229-230).  The stricture on private ownership is one of the strongest teachings in the entire rule, further revealing Benedict’s awareness of the necessity to keep the “little world” within the monastery at bay.  Benedict also had the broader secular world to contend with.  We see this awareness depicted in his description of the Porter (a counterpart to the Cellarer in terms of being a guardian against the “world”) (287), of brothers who travel outside the monastery (253, 289-291), concerning the reception of guests (255, 275), and on the selling of goods (265).  In these instances of contact with the world, the fuga mundi that the monk has embarked upon is to be upheld and repented of if broken.

Next week we will look at two more modern examples of fuga mundi with the Cistercians and Maurists, two very different incarnations of the Rule of Benedict.

Chesterton on Advent and Christmas

Now Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home

David Mills recent, insightful essay titled Just Wait: Because Waiting Makes It More Fun: A reflection prompted by a mid-Advent fit of grumpiness got me thinking about G.K. Chesterton’s essay The Spirit of Christmas.   Mills rightly laments the imposition of Commercial Christmas into our observance of Advent:

I write suffering my annual -Advent fit of grumpiness, having spent time with a friend who said “Merrrrrry Christmas!” to everyone and having found myself several times sitting at my computer singing Christmas carols because I’d heard them in the grocery store. It makes me grumpy, our culture’s disregard of Advent, though I probably should admit that I enjoy feeling righteously grumpy.

I love the phrase “righteously grumpy,” as it perfectly sums up my feelings on this encroachment of the false Christmas on my attempts to observe Christmas the way the Church asks me to do it.

Nearly 100 years ago, G. K. Chesterton had similar thoughts and observations about the imposition of Commercial Christmas onto the true spirit of the season, in his essay “The Spirit of Christmas, published in his book The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic.  The essays starts of like this:

I have rather rashly undertaken to write of the Spirit of Christmas; and it presents a preliminary difficulty about which I must be candid.  People are very curious nowadays in their way of talking about “the spirit” of a thing.  There is, for example, a particular sort of prig who is always lecturing us about having the spirit of true Christianity, apart from all names and forms.  As far as I can make out, he means the very opposite of what he says.  He means that we are to go on using the names “Christian” and “Christianity,” and so on, for something in which it is quite specially the spirit that is not Christian; something that is a sort of combination of the baseless optimism of an American atheist with the pacifism of a mild Hindoo. In the same way, we read a great deal about the Spirit of Christmas in modern journalism or commercialism; but it is really a reversal of the same kind.  So far from preserving the essentials without the externals, it is rather preserving the externals where there cannot be the essentials.  It means taking two mere material substances, like holly and mistletoe, and spreading them all over huge and homeless cosmopolitan hotels or round the Doric columns of impersonal clubs full of jaded and cynical old gentlemen; or in any other place where the actual spirit of Christmas is least likely to be. But there is also another way in which modern commercial complexity eats out the heart of the thing, while actually leaving the painted shell of it.  And that is the much too elaborate system of dependence on buying and selling, and therefore on bustle and hustle; and the actual neglect of the new things that might be done by the old Christmas

Chesterton goes on to point out a consequence of our contradictory Modern Christmas:

The Christmas season is domestic; and for that reason most people now prepare for it by struggling tramcars, standing in queues, rushing away in trains, crowding despairingly into tea-shops, and wondering when or whether they will ever get home.  I do no know whether some of them disappear for ever in the toy department or simply lie down and die in the tea-rooms; but by the look of them, it is quite likely.  Just before the great festival of the home the whole population seems to have become homeless.

It is astonishing to me how exactly the same Christmas preparations were in Chesterton’s London are to the hustle and bustle of Modern Christmas in our own day, at least in my corner of the USA.

Please enjoy the whole essay here.  Have a blessed Advent!

Pachomius the Great: Fuga Mundi Series, Part 2

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Welcome to the second installment of the Fuga Mundi Series.  

Christians have always been faced with the challenge of how to be “in the world, but not of the world.”  The Latin phrase for this is fuga mundi, which literally translates as “flight from the world.”  This series explores how famous monastic persons or groups lived out the fuga mundi.  Last week we learned about the life of St. Antony the Great.

St. Pachomius the Great is very likely someone you’ve never heard of.   He is acknowledged as a saint in both Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches and has a very compelling life story.  He is best known as father of cenobitic (communal) monasticism.  Prior to Pachomius, monasticism was largely a solitary affair. He started out as an anchorite (solitary), but discerned a call from God to shift to a more communal form of living.  

He was born to pagan parents in 292 in Thebes (Egypt) and pressed into service in the Roman army (a common occurence) at 21 in 313.  There he encountered the charity and hospitality of Christians during his forced service.  In 314 after escaping the army, he was so impressed by the witness of these Christians that he converted to Christianity and was baptized.  He embarked on the anchoritic (solitary) monastic life shortly thereafter in 317.  Pachomius then discerned a call by God to shift to a more communal form of monastic living.  By 323, he had established a monastery with around 100 near by monks.  Parenthetical page citations below are from the book Pachomian Koinonia: The Life of Saint Pachomius.

In the Life of Pachomius we are introduced to a shift in how the monastic movement engaged the world.  Pachomius’ initial monastic formation and life was anchoritic, yet he gradually transitioned to a cenobitic form of life.  One factor seems to have been the governing force in Pachomius’ life.  Throughout the early narration of his life we find his vocation to be marked by what can be called a Christian humanism, a broad and deep concern for all mankind (xvii, 27, 47, 138).  This humanism first leads Pachomius to an “active” life of charity toward the needy but this leaves him desiring a more solitary life of prayer (29).  After what seems to be a strong and successful anchoritic life lived with Palamon, a local hermit, Pachomius embarks upon the beginnings of his cenobitic life (39).  At this point it is important to note the presence of the same paradoxical fuga mundi dynamic that characterized Antony’s life: Pachomius’ initial humanistic vocation was formed and enhanced by his solitude to the point where he was called to found a communal monastic life.  A key factor of Pachomius’ cenobitic life also arises at this point in the narrative: a concern over material possessions.  We are told that Pachomius and his brother John “lived in great renunciation, for they gave away everything they earned through their manual work except what they absolutely needed” (41).

It is no accident that we find this strong statement concerning renunciation very shortly before Pachomius builds his first monastery (47).  One of the unique challenges of cenobitic monasticism and its fuga mundi is that it creates what I have called a “little world” that that must be contended with in addition to the broader world outside of the monastery.  The principal concern in this “little world” is often over material possessions, which dominates the latter half of the narrative, especially after Pachomius’ death.  The material growth of the Pachomian system of monasteries is testified to in a series of stories about boats gifted to the monks, one from a wealthy man (73), and the other from a bishop (74).  These vignettes capture the nature and scale of the material growth of the Pachomian monasteries.  Their influence and fame had spread through many sectors of the secular world, to the point where wealthy men and bishops solicited their attention.  Following the death of Pachomius we find a sustained concern over material possessions begin to manifest itself.  Theodore, who is given the charge of a large monastic system, expresses this concern on at least three occasions: once in a lengthy exhortation at a gathering of brothers (205-209); next, in back to back stories concerning the evils of material possessions (215-216); finally, we learn of Theodore’s outright distress over the monasteries’ many possessions (244-247).

Stay tuned next week when we will look at St. Benedict and his fuga mundi.

Thomas Merton, RIP

Merton’s grave at Gethsemani Abbey

On this day 47 years ago in 1968, the Church lost one of its greatest spiritual teachers.  Everything in me wants this day to be known as the Feast of St. Thomas Merton.  But alas, the Church has not seen fit to canonize this 20th century spiritual master.  It hasn’t been too many years since his death, so perhaps some day….

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and prolific spiritual writer, was on a tour of several Asian countries, giving talks on a variety of subjects to Christian monastics when he was accidentally electrocuted while taking a bath in Bangkok, Thailand.

Thomas Merton (along with G. K. Chesterton and Russell Kirk) is largely responsible for my reception into the Catholic Church as a 21 year old college student.  He is also responsible for my much of my early education in monasticism (and the monks of St. Martin’s Abbey!).  His ranging intellect, wisdom, and prophetic vision for both the Church and the world continue to inspire me, and probably always will.

Merton in his hermitage.

Merton in his hermitage.

I want to commemorate this day with with some of Merton’s own words that he spoke 47 years ago this morning.  The following is an excerpt from his last, public talk titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.”  Merton emphasizes one statement in particular in the talk:

From now on, everybody stands on their own two feet.

He is referencing the experience of the Dalhi Lama and the difficulties he had living a monastic life in Communist China.  Merton goes on to further emphasize that “we can no longer rely on structures,” meaning the social, political, and I’d say, even the intellectual and cultural structures that order our lives and take for granted.  These words have lost none of their urgency in our current cultural context.  I’d even say, these words are needed more today than ever.

Requiescat in Pace