Somewhat surprisingly, this work—a collection of weekly conferences given by Thomas Merton to help prepare Benedictine novices for the religious life—could serve a prophetic function in our contemporary context. Although these teachings were originally intended for religious brothers, Merton’s ranging intellect and profound mystical orientation imbues them with a spiritual power that has the potential to reach a broad audience. Even his material on living the celibate life will likely resonate with many lay readers, as Merton grounds this topic in a larger discussion of fostering purity of heart. Moreover, he demonstrates throughout a deep comprehension of human experience, both of the various struggles that we all face and also of what it takes to achieve true holiness.
Merton begins his talks with a detailed discussion of the structure of the moral life before proceeding to an overview of states of life (i.e., the religious life and its observances, the active versus the contemplative life, and the selection of vocations). With this foundation in place, Merton dedicates the rest of the addresses specifically to the Benedictine vows: obedience, chastity, poverty, and stability. In Merton’s view, obedience constitutes the first and most important vow: “Obedience is the ‘professional virtue of the religious’—it is what makes him a religious more than anything else. Hence perfection in obedience is more vital and more important than perfection in other religious virtues… because by it we renounce what is more perfectly and intimately our own” (238). Here, already, one can begin to see the potentially prophetic character of Merton’s vision. Living in a culture that idolizes autonomy and self-determination, Merton challenges us to embrace an alternative way of life, one that exemplifies abnegation through humble obedience to the direction of another. Obviously, conformity to this vow will take on different forms depending on one’s state in life, but the key here is the relinquishment of one’s own desires in imitation of the example of Christ (cf. Phil. 2:3ff.).
The majority of what Merton has to say about the other vows also cuts against the grain of our contemporary cultural sensibilities. In regard to chastity, Merton reminds us: “Sex is a mystery implanted in human nature by the Creator. Respect for this mystery implies respect for the Creator. Neglect of this mystery means neglect of the Creator” (369). How easily we forget or set aside this truth. On poverty, Merton counsels, “Exterior poverty is essential before we can advance into the realm of interior poverty. Do not kid yourself that you are practicing poverty of spirit if exteriorly you are accumulating useless objects and permissions, and protecting yourself against the hardships of life by all kinds of shock absorbers” (446). Once one is able to cultivate a life of true simplicity, Merton writes, then the final vow—stability—becomes a more attainable goal. Renouncing acquisitiveness liberates us from the temptation to constantly be seeking what is bigger and better, while poverty freely chosen keeps at bay the kind of allurements that might distract us from union with God.
In these conferences, Merton’s erudition is on display (he draws liberally from a variety of writers, both ancient and modern), but also his refreshing sense of humor and realistic assessment of human foibles. Those readers who are more familiar with Merton’s later writings will likely be surprised by his mastery of Thomistic moral theology, while for the uninitiated Patrick F. O’Connell provides an immensely helpful introduction. In this introduction, O’Connell highlights a remark by the former Cistercian Abbot General Bernardo Olivera, who described Merton’s addresses as “obviously pre-conciliar in their tone and content” (xiv). While Olivera’s description is accurate, readers who patiently work through this book will discover that it has a great deal to speak to our post-conciliar context, particularly regarding the pursuit of holiness in a frenetic society.