Thomas Merton, Tertullian For Our Time
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
You’re probably familiar with the quote above, a favorite of Pope St. John Paul the Great. It’s author is Tertullian (c. A.D. 160 – c. A.D. 220), one of the foremost Christian writers and apologists of his age, who also gave us such essential terms as “Trinity” (Trinitas) and “Three Persons, One Substance” (Tres Personae, Una Substantia). Despite his enormous achievements, however, and his lasting influence, Tertullian is not considered a Father of the Church; we don’t even call him “Saint” Tertullian: he chose, sadly, to follow his own judgment rather than that of the Apostolic Church, and fell into heresy in the latter part of his life.
I’m reminded of Tertullian by several things I’ve read recently about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who, were he still with us, would have celebrated his 100th birthday a couple weeks ago (January 31st). I don’t mean to suggest that Merton was a figure on a par with Tertullian: the late Trappist made no lasting contribution to Catholic Doctrine, and added no new words to our vocabulary, although he was quite influential in his time (and still is, to a degree). Like Tertullian, however, he didn’t stay the course: while he never believed that he had left the Church, his growing involvement with Buddhism carried him outside the bounds of Christian belief and practice.
He has always reminded me of an image from the Venerable Bede (672-730 A.D), although not in the way Bede meant it. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, a retainer of King Edwin of Northumbria convinces him to embrace Christianity by telling him that his life is like a bird that passes through an open window into a well-lit hall, and then out again into the stormy night: his pagan worldview can only explain that brief moment in the light, but what comes before or after is dark. The Christian Faith, on the other hand, can explain it all. In Merton’s case, he flew out of the darkness of his early years into the light of the Faith, but appeared to be headed out the far window when he met his end in Thailand in 1968.
On the Catholic World Report site Karl Olsen has posted a piece (“More on Merton”) consisting largely of excerpts from an earlier piece (“Can You Trust Thomas Merton?”) that he had illustrated for This Rock written by Anthony E. Clark. The two pieces highlight the dilemma presented by this conflicted, contradictory monk: yes he was a good Catholic gone bad, but he was also a gifted writer who, in his orthodox period, wrote some wonderful and inspiring things. Clark’s This Rock article very helpfully includes a list of Merton works to avoid, but also recommended readings, which Clark introduces by saying: “These works represent the early era of Merton’s monastic life, and his views are still quite orthodox. These books are beautifully written; they are what made Thomas Merton Thomas Merton.” I’ll second that. We haven’t thrown out the word “Trinity” because Tertullian became a Montanist, and we likewise should not forget The Seven Storey Mountain just because Thomas Merton seemed to lose his way later in life.
Sunday Snippets – A Catholic Carnival
As it happens, I discussed one example of Merton’s work in a post earlier this week, which gives me a good lead-in to today’s Sunday Snippets (A Catholic Carnival). Sunday Snippets, incidentally, is a weekly gathering of Catholic Bloggers [here] who share their posts for the week (why be selfish?) at This That and the Other Thing, home of our fearless leader RAnn.
It was a busy week at Principium et Finis:
Tuesday – “Miserere Mei, Have Mercy on Me – Psalm 51” Allegri’s stunning “Miserere”, written to be performed in the Sistine Chapel, is here paired with views of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which is painted above the same Chapel’s altar. It's a pleasing mach.
“Attende, Domine” – The choir sings this beautiful traditional hymn as Pope Benedict XVI blesses ashes on Ash Wednesday, 2010, at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome.
Wednesday - – “Abortion Myth #2” Abortion promoters will tell you that abortion is safer than childbirth; the facts say something else . . .
Thursday – “Feed My Sheep” When Jesus asks us whether we love him, how will we answer?
“Remember,Man, That Thou Art Dust” – A Reflection on Humility, Ash Wednesday, and Roman Triumphs
Friday – “Aborigines, Materialists, and the Veracity of the Gospels” If a magazine with” Scientific “ in its title says so, they’ll believe that Australia’s original inhabitants can remember detailed information from 10,000 years before . . . but somehow the first Christians couldn’t remember the Son of God accurately after a few decades?
"Merton's Tale of the Trappists vs. the Icarians" Thomas Merton’s parable about what happens when the City of God meets the City of Man.