Beyond Merton: Exploring the Riches of Cistercian Literature

 

Everyone was caught off guard by The Seven Storey Mountain. There were so many things "wrong" with the book: an autobiography of a young man still in his 30s; a 500-page tome about a rather unremarkable life that involved, well, a religious conversion—and not just any conversion, but a decision to become a monk in one of the most austere of monastic orders. Apparently the publisher took on the book because the editor was an old college buddy of Merton's, and no one really expected it to sell very well. A hundred thousand copies later (in its first year, no less), and the most famous Cistercian author since Bernard of Clairvaux had arrived.

The Seven Storey Mountain came out in 1948; Merton died, accidentally, twenty years later. In the meantime he wrote prolifically, dozens of books covering monasticism, Catholic spirituality, social issues, poetry, literary criticism, and interfaith dialog. Since his passing, new Merton titles have continued to be released: his journals, several previously unpublished manuscripts, and his letters. Nearly a half-century after his untimely death, Merton's place in the literary canon of great Christian writers seems assured.

Not bad for a man who, in the words of the title of the first UK edition of his autobiography, "elected silence." But it would be a tremendous mistake to see Merton as the only word—or final word—in the literature of the Cistercians. Although this cloistered order lacks the romantic appeal of the Franciscans, the dramatic mysticism of the Carmelites, or the intellectual sophistication of the Jesuits, a steady stream of Cistercian authors, both before and after Merton, have made significant contributions to the literature of Christian spirituality. And while none of them have enjoyed the "rock star" status that Merton achieved (primarily because of The Seven Storey Mountain), that's really okay; Cistercian spirituality, after all, is meant to be "obscure." So many Cistercian authors are like hidden treats: the pleasures of their writing await those who know where to look to find them.

Since Merton died, probably the two best known Cistercian authors have been M. Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating. They, along with William Meninger (also the author of several books) have been the monks most closely associated with the Centering Prayer movement, which seeks to make the spirituality of classical authors like Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, and The Cloud of Unknowing accessible to laypersons today. Pennington's Centering Prayer and Keating's Open Mind, Open Heart are good places to start. Pennington died in 2005; Keating rarely travels but lives now at Snowmass Monastery in Colorado, along with Meninger and another monk called Theophane the Monk (whose collection of monkish parables, Tales from a Magic Monastery, is a sheer delight).

From the other side of the world come the writings of one of my favorite living authors (Trappist or otherwise), Michael Casey. The novice master at an Australian Abbey, Casey has written extensively on the Rule of Saint Benedict and the spiritual practices of the monks; but I think his masterpiece is Fully Human, Fully Divine, a brilliant study of the Gospel of Mark.

Lest you think only monks bother to write, several Trappistine (Cistercian nun) authors are worth exploring as well. Lillian Shank has produced several scholarly anthologies of Cistercian women's writings from the Middle Ages, while Gail Fitzpatrick, former abbess of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Iowa, penned a poetic collection of meditations called Seasons of Grace. Moving outside the cloister walls, a Lay Cistercian from Wisconsin named Trisha Day had written an insightful book on Lay Cistercian spirituality, based on her experience living as a short-term guest in Mississippi Abbey. Day's book, Inside the School of Charity, is an eloquent statement of how this 900-year-old cloistered spirituality remains relevant, even for people who live thoroughly secular lives.