Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Tertullian For Our Time

(An earlier version of this Throwback appeared as a part of my Sunday Snippets post on 15 February 2015)

“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 just over a year ago (January 31st 2015).  I don’t mean to suggest that Merton was a figure on a par with Tertullian: the late Trappist made no lasting contribution to the development of 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 considered himself to have left the Church, his growing involvement with Buddhism seemed to be carrying him outside the bounds of Christian belief and practice.

Thomas Merton
      I resisted reading anything by Thomas Merton for a long time, largely, I confess, because I was put off by certain enthusiasts who were mostly interested in his Zen phase. When I first picked up The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography he wrote shortly after joining the Trappists, I wished that I hadn't waited so long: the story of his conversion was beautiful and inspiring, as was much of his other writing from the 1940's and 1950's.
     Sadly, he didn't stay that way.  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 is the bird.  He flew out of the darkness of his early, unbelieving,  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?”) written for This Rock by Anthony E. Clark that Olsen had  illustrated.  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.

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