Monthly Archives: October 2019

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘this business of saying the Office’

Shortly after this disappointment of not entering the Franciscan novitiate Thomas Merton buys a set of four books; he shows his brother who he unexpectedly runs into:

‘I handed him one of the volumes. It was sleek and smelled new. The pages were edged in gold. There were red and green markers.

“What are they?” Said John Paul.


The four books represented a decision. They said that if I could not live in the monastery, I should try to live in the world as if I were a monk in a monastery.’

Gone is the pride and certainty instead Merton writes that he wanted grace and needed prayer and that ‘I was helpless without God, and that I wanted to do everything that people did to keep close to Him.’ He reflects that buying the books that day was one of the best things he ever did in his life: ‘the inspiration to do it was a very great grace. There are few things I can remember that give me more joy.’

He begins and the first time he tries to say the Office (and this is in Latin) was on the train:

‘I opened up the book and began right away with Matins … It was a happy experience, although its exultancy was subdued and lost under my hesitations and external confusion about how to find my way around in the jungle of the rubrics… I went on from psalm to psalm, smoothly enough. By the time I got to the Lessons of the Second Nocturn, I had figured out whose feast it was that I was celebrating.’

And so Merton starts saying and praying the Offices and gradually the anguish and sorrow reduces. Initially he found it difficult, as surely everyone does, in finding his way round the books, ‘every step was labour and confusion, not to mention the mistakes and perplexities I got myself into.’ Apart from getting advice on how to work out the feasts and so on Merton decides not to mention it to anyone: ‘half fearing that someone would make fun of me, or think I was eccentric, or try to snatch my books away from me on some pretext.’

And the benefit of the regular routine of reading the office has a gradual effect:

‘Yes, and from the secret places of His essence, God began to fill my soul with grace in those days, grace that spring from deep within me, I could not know how or where. But yet I would be able, after not so many months, to realize what was there, in the peace and the strength that was growing in me through my constant immersion in this tremendous, unending cycle of prayer, ever renewing its vitality, its inexhaustible , sweet energies from hour to hour, from season to season in its returning around.’

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘the horrible humility of hell’

Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘the horrible humility of hell’

The description of Merton’s realisation that he might not be able to become a Franciscan and his subsequent thinking is powerful because it so well illustrates those hot and cold moments when one realises who one is in the light of some situation or how people have ‘wrongly’ assumed how one is from an immediate impression. Merton calls such self-knowledge ‘anguish’. He links it to a type of humility in hell – which is not the humility of the saints that leads to peace but is rather a ‘false humility of hell which is an unending burning shame.’ It is part of self-love because it is our pride based on how we see ourselves that is hurt and it is this pride that has to be burned away by God. This is of course Merton at his most zealous, unsubtle and unforgiving:

‘It is the proud that have to be burned and devoured by the horrible humility of hell … But as long as we are in this life, even that burning anguish can be turned into a grace, and should be a cause of joy.’

There is something familiar to be taken from this dismay as we read how Merton comes to see that when he was meeting the various monks none of them knew ‘who I really was’.

‘They knew nothing about my past. They did not know how I had lived before I entered the Church. They had simply accepted me because I was superficially presentable, I had a fairly open sort of face and seemed to be sincere and to have an ordinary amount of sense and good will.’

Merton describes his agitation whilst waiting for the decision to be made and then experiencing his anguish and restlessness. He prayed to God for God’s will to be done.

‘My own mind was full of strange, exaggerated ideas. I was in a kind of nightmare. I could not see anything straight.’

After hearing that he was being turned away Merton goes to confession – which again because he is in deep distress goes badly wrong.

‘The priest was in no mood to stand for any nonsense, and I myself was confused and miserable, and couldn’t explain myself properly, and so he got my story all mixed up…The whole thing was so hopeless that finally in spite of myself, I began to choke and sob and I couldn’t talk any more. So the priest, probably judging that I was some emotional and unstable and stupid character, began to tell me in very strong terms that I certainly did not belong in the monastery, still less the priesthood and, in fact, gave me to understand that I was simply wasting his time and insulting the Sacrament of Penance by indulging my self-pity in his confessional.’

Learning from Thomas Merton’s early experiences: ‘living as if … for temporal favours’

The Seven Storey Mountain is (for me) a wonderful book to return to, either to re-read or to dip into from time to time. Admittedly the late Merton contains the deep understanding of his mature spiritual thinking but there is much to be learnt from Merton’s early insights.

One that has resonance is linked to the time of Merton’s realization that he could not join the novitiate and become a Franciscan. For those who may not remember this is a little while before Merton goes to the Abbey of Gethsemani and enters the Trappist order. It is in the summer of 1940 when Merton muses on what he might be called and how he will be as a Franciscan:

‘I would come humbly along the corridor in my sandals – or rather our sandals – with my eyes down, with the rapid but decorous gait of a young Friar who knew his business: Frater John Spaniard. It made a pleasant picture.’

And so the summer months pass before his planned autumn departure to join the Franciscans and it is only looking back that Merton can see that God wanted to ask more about this vocation – one which Merton can admit attracted him because of the teaching and writing and the surroundings where he would probably live. The questions were raised when Merton was reading the bible – chapter 9 of the book of Job. Merton quotes parts of the chapter, here from verse nine:

“‘Who maketh Arcturus and Orion and Hyades and the inner parts of the south…”

There was something deep and disturbing in the lines. I thought they only moved me as poetry: and yet, I also felt, obscurely enough, that there was something personal about them. God often talks to us directly in Scripture. That is, He plants the words full of actual graces as we read them and sudden undiscovered meanings are sown in our hearts, if we attend to them, reading with minds that are at prayer.’

Merton says he didn’t at that stage have the art of reading in that way but the following words began to burn and sear within him:

“If he come to me, I shall not see Him: if He depart, I shall not understand … If He examine me on a sudden who shall answer Him? Or who can say, why dost Thou so?”

From the grace of such reading came the realization of,

‘an accusation that would unveil forgotten realities. I had fallen asleep in my sweet security. I was living as if God only existed to do me temporal favours’.