A 2017 Lenten Bookshelf: A Second Look at a Six Fold Path: Part 1 – Trappist
By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.
(From Article 540 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church)
In this six-part series, Kevin Burns selects a book for each week of Lent. Each book speaks to one of the great traditions within Catholic culture. Each book also shows how its author struggles to apply that tradition. Six different approaches to the same journey through the desert of Lent to the Easter promise of resurrection.
Week One: Thomas Merton experiences Lent as a Trappist
In 1948, the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain made a young cloistered monk, Thomas Merton, an international literary star. This much-edited book contains the two fundamental components that make Merton’s work so readable and memorable. The first is the way he observes the sacred within the day-to-day details of life. The second is his commitment to write with a clear purpose. Like all Cistercian novices, Merton was immersed in the ideas of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who in a sermon about knowledge, reminded his monks – though he could also be talking about teachers and writers – about being clear about you responsibilities for what you do with what you learn:
[T]here are some who long to know for the sole purpose of knowing, and that is shameful curiosity; others who long to know in order to become known, and that is shameful vanity. … There are others still who long for knowledge to sell its fruits for money or honors, and this is shameful profiteering; others again who long to know in order to be of service, and this is charity. Finally there are those who long to know in order to benefit themselves, and this is prudence. Of all these categories, only the last two avoid the abuse of knowledge because they desire to know for the purpose of doing good.
In this selection from The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton describes his experience of Lent at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. It’s 1943, and he seems a little disappointed at how easily he manages to deal with something he thought would be difficult:
I had fasted a little during my first Lent, the year before, but it had been broken up by nearly two weeks in the infirmary. This was my first chance to go through the whole fast without any mitigation. In those days, since I still had the world’s ideas about food and nourishment and health, I thought the fast we have in Trappist monasteries in Lent was severe. We eat nothing until noon, when we get the regular two bowls, one of soup and the other of vegetables, and as much bread as we like, but then in the evening there is a light collation – a piece of bread and a dish of something like applesauce – two ounces of it. However, if I had entered a Cistercian monastery in the twelfth century – or even some Trappist monasteries of the nineteenth, for that matter – I would have had to tighten my belt and go hungry until four o’clock in the afternoon: and there was nothing besides that one meal: no collation, no frustulum. Humiliated by this discovery, I find that the Lenten fast we now have does not bother me.
Lent successfully completed, Merton has a joyous experience of Easter. Then, the first of two letters arrives. How he writes about that gives his writing a very different purpose.
Easter Tuesday, and we were in choir for the Conventual Mass… Father Master came in and made me the sign for “Abbot.” I went out to Reverend Father’s room. There was no difficulty in guessing what it was.
I passed the pieta at the comer of the cloister, and buried my will and my natural affections and all the rest in the wounded side of the dead Christ.
Reverend Father flashed the sign to come in, and I knelt by his desk and received his blessing and kissed his ring and he read me the telegram that Sergeant J. P. Merton, my brother, had been reported missing in action on April 17th.
… Some more days went by, letters of confirmation came, and finally, after a few weeks, I learned that John Paul was definitely dead. The story was simply this. On the night of Friday the sixteenth, which had been the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, he and his crew had taken off in their bomber with Mannheim as their objective. I never discovered whether they crashed on the way out or the way home, but the plane came down in the North Sea. John Paul was severely injured in the crash, but he managed to keep himself afloat, and even tried to support the pilot, who, was already dead. His companions had managed to float their rubber dinghy and pulled him in.
He was very badly hurt: maybe his neck was broken. He lay in the bottom of the dinghy in delirium.
He was terribly thirsty. He kept asking for water. But they didn’t have any… It did not last too long. He had three hours of it, and then he died. Something of the three hours of the thirst of Christ Who loved him, and died for him many centuries ago, and had been offered again that very day, too, on many altars.
The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, has remained in print in many different languages ever since.
St. Bernard’s sermon (#36) is contained in Honey and Salt – Selected Spiritual Writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, (eds.) John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne (New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2007).
Judith Valente on the Benedictine path. “We say a prayer, promising to give ‘strength and support to one another on the Lenten journey to the Easter Triduum’.”