Thomas Merton’s Advice to American Sisters: Then and Now
In December 1967 Thomas Merton hosted a series of conferences for a number of American religious sisters, following his invitation to many superiors of women’s religious communities to come to the Abbey of Gethsemani for a conference about religious life, contemplation, prayer and ministry in light of and in response to the recently held Second Vatican Council. These conferences were informal, offering an opportunity for the sisters to ask Merton questions and a space provided for his response to their inquires. It was, as those who lived through the late 1960s know far better than I, a tumultuous time for the Church. Lots of changes were occurring, while much uncertainly paralleled questions for religious women and men about what to do, who they were and what was going to happen.
The recorded conferences, which were transcribed and edited by some of the Sisters of Loretto, a community of women religious founded not far from the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY, reveal incredible wisdom and inspired discussion. The sisters, both those from the community of Loretto as well as others such as the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany and other communities, were open and direct about their questions and concerns. Merton’s responses were relevant, timely and noticeably prophetic. Several of his comments sound as though he is speaking to the sisters today, especially in light of the discussions about the CDF’s critique of the LCWR and the creative initiatives like the Nuns on the Bus tour. Here are a few excerpts from the conferences, Merton’s advice to American women religious then and his prophetic insight still relevant now!
Question. After our discussion yesterday I was thinking about how so much of our training taught us to “go ask the priest.” We were not making a decision or judgment on our own. We just didn’t think in those terms.
Response. Now’s the time. There are plenty of sisters smart enough to do that, who certainly have better judgment about their own situations than someone outside. Priests you consult may often have no concept of what your life is about, what your order means, what your needs are. All they can do is look in a book and dig up a canon, and they may not know too much about that, either.
Q. What about nuns who are fearful and inhibited that they cannot make independent judgements? They can really hold a community back.
R. I think they have to be encouraged to go ahead and make judgements. They need to be put in situations where they have to. The old system, of course, did not provide for this. It was fixed so that an individual never had to make judgements but would just sit in line and ask the superior, “May I have a toothbrush?” This is absurd. We built things this way and called it the Cross or obedience. This may have been all right if you were living in Austria in 1772 under an absolute emperor, and all you had to do was to keep the institution going, because it had been endowed. But we’re not doing that anymore.
Q. Whenever we ask permission, it seems the issue gets all bungled up.
R. Exactly, so don’t ask. I mean, unless you absolutely have to. The whole bent of the Church at this moment is for change. And therefore change has the benefit of the doubt. Obviously, the spirit of the Council is that we’re supposed to experiment, take risks, change and develop. This has the stamp of the Holy Spirit on it. Just as obviously, there are people on top who are scared, who want to stop it. They take second place right now. A prudential Christian decision now is in favor of courageously following what the Council clearly wants, and the Council clearly wants development. People who do not want development have to prove their point very hard before one can follow them in conscience. If everybody obeyed all the curial officials in everything in every moment, there would be no progress possible. There would be no point in having had a Council, no point in John XXIII having been Pope.
At the same time, there has to be caution and respect. We don’t act rebelliously or out of contempt, but just quietly go along with what the Council wants. Experiment is the order of the day, so make experiments. Just be careful not to do crazy things. Trouble comes when people want to make an issue of everything, when they want not just to change but also to win. Wanting to chalk up a score is bad. This is not a game of besting the Curia or the authorities. We have to be clear on that. We’re not trying to get points for our side. We just want to do what God wants. If we can once get this distinction clear, that’s all the authorities care about. Much of this other side business is face-saving. If people are obviously needling and insulting authorities, of course the latter will try to save face. But if you’re considerate and in good faith, you won’t be bothered much. People in authority have sense enough to see the difference. I go my way quietly, saying all kinds of things that are very unpopular and that many people don’t like at all. But they’re not going to fool with me, because I’m not fighting them. I’m sampling saying what I think I ought to say. I am not challenging anyone.
[From The Springs of Contemplation (1992), 38-41]
The one additional note I might add to this excerpt is that Merton is speaking in the 1960s long before what we are experiencing today. I have little doubt that if Merton were still alive, in his late 90s now, he would be in solidarity with the American sisters, just as he was then. I wonder what his reaction to the CDF document would have been in light of the fact that, as he advised, the sisters have not been on the attack or causing trouble, but simply living their lives as the Holy Spirit guides them, following the Council’s directive to return to their charismatic roots.
Photo: Merton Legacy Trust