Friday, February 13, 2015

Merton's Tale of the Trappists vs. the Icarians

     A  piece by Carl Olsen at Catholic World Report (“More on Merton”) brings to mind one of the more interesting and controversial Catholic figures of the Twentieth Century:  Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton.  His autobiographical The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, is a beautifully written and compelling story of conversion.  He was not without his failings, however, some of them rather serious, and toward the end of his life in the mid to late 1960’s it was not clear that he could still be truly considered a Catholic (I touch on this aspect of Merton in my Sunday Snippets post).

The Founding    

      Prior to his later turn toward Buddhism, however, most of Merton’s writing was thoroughly Catholic and often inspirational.  One of my favorite pieces, from his 1949 book The Waters of Siloe, is his account of the founding of his monastery, Gethsemani Abbey, which had been established in Kentucky by French monks a century earlier.  The tale starts with departure of the founding monks, in the dead of night in the pouring rain, from their monastery in France; it details their many adventures in getting to, and then across, the Atlantic Ocean, and finally their arrival at their new home in the rolling Kentucky hills.
     I had at one time wanted to base a childrens’ book on Merton’s story (which is itself based on a contemporary account in the monastery’s records).  My kids liked the idea, but, sadly, the late monk’s  literary trustees did not share our enthusiasm for the project, so it was not be.  Too bad.
     Nonetheless, it’s worth reading Merton’s version of the story.  He has a wonderful way with a narrative, and makes the most of some of the interesting twists in the story, as when the Trappists lose their luggage in Paris, or when (again in the pouring rain) the “silent monks” need to find a way to wake up the Jesuits under whose roof they were planning to spend the night on their arrival in Kentucky. 

The Parable of the Icarians

     What most appeals to me in Merton’s story, however, is a little parable which he weaves into the larger narrative.  As it happens, among the other passengers on the ship that carries the Trappists to America  are members of a secular communal group called the Icarians.  Merton doesn’t miss an opportunity to contrast the peace and order of the Trappists, whose little society is founded on Jesus Christ, with the Icarians, who follow the ideas of the socialist utopian Etienne Cabet: the trappists feed the other travelers, including the Icarians, from their mobile kitchen, while the Icarians prohibit their members from attending the monks’ masses; the Trappists “owned all their property in common.  They were, in fact, vowed to the most uncompromising poverty, forbidden to possess anything as individuals,” whereas when the Icarians decide to divide up their wealth one member attempts to make off with all of it and another “wrote a letter of delirious invective against Cabet and then blew out his brains.”  The Trappist superior is shocked when one Icarian, who had fallen overboard, confided that he was prepared to stab himself to death rather than drown if nobody came to save him; later, the monk is bemused to discover that another Icarian, who is asking to join the Trappists, is in fact a married man.
     Merton himself explains the difference between the two groups as follows:

. . . the monks had Christ living and working in them by faith, by charity.  The monks were united by the Holy Spirit in the peace of God, which tames and dominates and sublimates man’s nature and ordains it to the highest possible ends.  But the Icarians were united only by the frail bonds of an “armed neutrality” of insatiable animal appetites.


     Merton’s thesis is a simple one (which I address from a somewhat different angle in last week’s post “What Would Darwin Do?”): Jesus Christ is the foundation of all truth, and a society built on Christ will be orderly and flourishing; a society that relies exclusively on human wisdom is doomed to futility and disintegration.  The Icarians (who were actually more successful than most such groups: their last community didn’t disband until 1898, fifty years after they began) are neither the first nor the last example history offers.  Merton saw it himself in his own history, in the contrast between the disorder and unhappiness of his early life, and the joy that he found in the Christ-centered world of the monastery (and one hopes he found his way back to the Lord before the final end).  His tale of the Trappists and the Icarians is just one more illustration that only the house built on the Rock (see Matthew 7:25) will stand.