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.’