Of Merton, Monks & the Fortresses of God

Of Merton, Monks & the Fortresses of God March 31, 2014


“I looked at the rolling country, and at the pale ribbon of road in front of us, stretching out as grey as lead in the light of the moon. Then suddenly I saw a steeple that shone like silver in the moonlight, growing into sight from behind a rounded knoll. The tires sang on the empty road, and, breathless, I looked at the monastery that was revealed before me as we came over the rise. At the end of an avenue of trees was a big rectangular block of buildings, all dark, with a church crowned by a tower and a steeple and a cross: and the steeple was as bright as platinum and the whole place was as quiet as midnight and lost in the all-absorbing silence and solitude of the fields. Behind the monastery was a dark curtain of woods, and over to the west was a wooded valley, and beyond that a rampart of wooded hills, a barrier and a defence against the world.

     And over all the valley smiled the mild gentle Easter moon, the full moon in her kindness, loving this silent place.

At the end of the avenue, in the shadows under the trees, I could make out the lowering arch of the gate, and the words: ‘Pax Intrantibus.’

     The driver of the car did not go to the bell rope by the heavy wooden door. Instead he went over and scratched on one of the windows and called, in a low voice:

‘Brother! Brother!’

I could hear someone stirring inside. Presently the key turned in the door. I passed inside. The door closed quietly behind me. I was out of the world.”

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain 

It was Holy Week, 1941. And Thomas Merton found himself on a late night car ride to Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery, in rural Kentucky. Merton would spend a week with priests and religious brothers fasting, praying and spending hours in unfathomable union with God. To read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, is to walk with him on a winding path leading from the empty pursuit of honor and pleasure to a life of rich, selfless devotion to God. The path which led him to “this heavy stone building with dark and silent windows” was not one he could ever have anticipated. While he chose to follow the path, it was a path he was called to. And he found a door near the end of it. “The key turned in the door. I passed inside. The door closed quietly behind me. I was out of the world.” Thomas Merton had just entered one of the Fortresses of God.

To be honest, reading The Seven Storey Mountain was a challenge for me. Prior to becoming Catholic, I just didn’t “get” monks. Forswearing marriage, divesting oneself of possessions, and living the ascetic life of prayer, fasting and earnest labor amidst a group of religious brothers simply seemed painfully isolating (if not masochistic). At the very least, it didn’t appeal to me. What is more, there were times I even felt a certain (now, admittedly naive) disdain for monks. It seemed that deeply ingrained in me was a Protestant ethic that believed you must “live and work in the world” lest you squander the gifts God has given you. I couldn’t escape the notion that monks represented the servant who buried his master’s talents in the ground and, hence, shamefully gained no return on investment in “The Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). It’s not that I felt monks were bad people, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether they were living up to God’s call or simply hiding away? Perhaps they hadn’t understood God’s true intention for their lives. Perhaps they simply needed an awakening. Or, maybe, just maybe, the monks weren’t in need of awakening. Perhaps I was. Perhaps.

And so, in time, I would realize that it was I who had fallen asleep. And I would be awakened to something I once understood, but had sadly forgotten. While I have always found myself attracted to the robust intellectual tradition of Catholicism, my world and worldview began to change as I have grown older. In the midst of the entrancing apologetics and brilliant philosophy of Catholicism, and in the throes of ardent debate and thoughtful deliberation on issues of religion, it became apparent that something was missing from my faith. With age, I felt less sure of myself and more vulnerable. With time and experience, I became painfully acquainted with life’s trials and my own imperfections. As a result, I realized that I simply could not be sustained by the intellectual riches of the Faith alone. I needed to rekindle a deeper, more enduring relationship with Christ. I sought to reintroduce myself to Christ on a very personal level. I yearned to reacquaint myself with vital moments enamored with God – talking, listening, seeking, thanking, and simply being in His presence. With this, books, journals and essays fell away during irreplaceable, personal and poignant moments – sacramental moments – of prayer, meditation, and adoration. In these moments I found my mind quiet and my heart speaking with a visceral eloquence – of love, of adoration, of gratitude. Suddenly I had momentary glimpses of the sanctity of a monk’s life – a life immersed in the sea of God.

In further reading about Thomas Merton’s first Holy Week experience in the monastery, I was mesmerized. And humbled. My original naive criticisms were laid low as I was forced to reckon with the what monks are, what they believe, and why we need them. Even Thomas Merton was dumbstruck,

“How shall I explain or communicate to those who have not seen these holy houses, your consecrated churches and…cloisters, the might of the truths that overpowered me all the days of that week?”

Just who were these men? Thomas Merton would note as he observed monks washing and kissing the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday,

“And all through this…when I saw them at close range, I was amazed at the way these monks, who were evidently just plain young Americans from the factories and colleges and farms and high-schools of the various states, were nevertheless absorbed and transformed in the liturgy. The thing that was most impressive was their absolute simplicity. They were concerned with one thing only: doing the things they had to do, singing what they had to sing, bowing and kneeling and so on when it was prescribed, and doing it as well as they could, without fuss or flourish or display. It was all utterly simple and unvarnished and straightforward, and I don’t think I had ever seen anything, anywhere, so unaffected, so unself-conscious as these monks. There was not a shadow of anything that could be called parade or display. They did not seem to realize that they were being watched – and, as a matter of fact, I can say from experience that they did not know it at all.”

“The monk in hiding himself from the world becomes not less himself, not less of a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself: for his personality and individuality are perfected in their true order, the spiritual, interior order, of union with God, the principle of all perfection. Omnis gloria ejus filiae regis ab intus.”

Just what was their Creed? Thomas Merton would witness with awe the Liturgy and Sacrifice of the Mass as he had never experienced it before. And as the Consecrated Host was raised, he knew the Creed of the monks,

“See, see Who God is, see the glory of God, going up to Him out of this incomprehensible and infinite Sacrifice in which all history begins and ends, all individual lives begin and end, in which every story is told, and finished, and settled for joy or for sorrow: the one point of reference for all the truths that are outside of God, their center, their focus: Love.”

“Do you know what Love is? You have never known the meaning of Love, never, you who have always drawn all things to the center of your own nothingness. Here is Love in this chalice full of Blood, Sacrifice, mactation. Do you know that to love means to be killed for glory of the Beloved? And where is your love? Where is now your Cross, if you say you want to follow Me, if you pretend to love Me?”

“All around the church bells rang as gentle and fresh as dew.”

These monks were the soldiers of God, their monastery was God’s Fortress and their Creed was God’s Truth clandestinely smuggled into a world asleep or antagonistic. But sweetly, so sweetly, this Truth, as Just as refined iron and as Merciful as the softest kiss, was not smuggled in to destroy the world. It was brought in to save it. And through fervent prayer, endless supplication, and undying devotion, men with faces we too soon forget and names we would never know would beg God’s sweet mercy for you and for me. It turns out that these monks never buried their master’s talents. They faithfully invested them. On your behalf and mine.

Just why do we need these monks? Thomas Merton would reflect,

“[There was] one, simple, cogent, tremendous truth: this church…is the real capital of the country in which we are living. This is the center of all the vitality that is in America. This is the cause and the reason why the nation is holding together. These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for it the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.”

During Holy Week of 1941, Thomas Merton discovered these Truths – Truths the world has forgotten, but which are preserved by monks, priests, and women religious in the Fortresses of God. May we find moments – many moments – where the key turns in the door, we pass inside, the door quietly closes behind us and we find ourselves out of the world.

May the Lord bless all priests, men and women religious doing faithful work on our behalf deep in the Fortresses of God.



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