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!


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QuestionAfter 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

15 Responses to “Thomas Merton’s Advice to American Sisters: Then and Now”

  1. YES! Which reminds me that I have to get the book about Sr. Mary Luke Tobin’s thoughts on Merton and prayer …

  2. Sr. Jean Rupertus Says:

    Sounds as if thomas was speaking today. Also, confirms my thoughts that for the years since Vatican II there has been an undercover movement to “go back to how things were before Vatican II.” Thank you for sharing Martin’s widom.

  3. Queen Mary Says:

    I hope you are well, it’s a scorcher here in DC (again, finally, I hope people don’t complain since we’ve had unseasonably gorgeous weather all June); waiting for the buses to arrive; home from my Lake Champlain retreat, may make it annual and do the opening work for my friend.

  4. […] Thomas Merton’s Advice to American Sisters Then and Now by Daniel P. Horan OFM on Dating God: Franciscan […]

  5. Sr. Hildegard Pleva, OSsR Says:

    Currently in process of preparing a paper for presentation to a conference on the history of women religious. The topic is the effort of contemplatives to come together to support on another in the renewal effort and to obtain the education neccessary to consider the path of renewal. Among the sisters who met with Merton in 1967 were 5 from my community of Redemptoristine Nuns. Have been trying to find a list of all those who attended. Merton Center could not help me.

  6. Matthew M. Says:

    Hence the reason I will never be a Merton scholar nor enthusiast. Vehemently disagree! And as for the Nuns on the Bus, cannot support a nun who has to wear her pearls and on national TV. So much for those vows of poverty and obedience.

    • Matthew–I respect your opinion very much and often agree with you. That being said, your comment above struck me as something a pharisee would direct towards Jesus. Who cares if a nun is wearing pearls or a whipple? The other thing that bugs me about such comments is that it makes it seem as if the Vatican’s beef with the sisters is over their religious garb. Although I know very little about this investigation, wearing peals is not part of this “crack down,” right?

      • Matthew M. Says:

        You are correct that it is not about garb. It is about adherence to the Magisterium and the Doctrine of the Faith. Others will pine that is about scholarly pursuits and interpretations of theology, etc. I believe it has more to do with the former, and an attack on the perceived misogynist oppressors of the Vatican. (I find that laughable).

        My jab was directed at perhaps the perceived lack of humility (IMHO), both outward and personal by a declared member of a religious order. And, the hypocrisy of these sisters who do turn a blind-eye to other pro-life issues, and supported the “O’s” plan for socialized medical, knowing full-well that it would have challenged conscience laws, and forced abortion/contraceptive coverage at Catholic Institutions. It is only recently, http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/sister-keehan-cha-push-dangerous-compromise-on-hhs-mandate-again Keehan has rescinded her support, but only after numerous dioceses, with support of the USCCB have actually filed suit against the USG and the administration. But that is a different topic for another day.

      • Matthew M. Says:

        Food for thought. “Certainly the results of Vatican II seem cruelly opposed to the expectations of everyone, beginning with those of Pope John XXIII and then of Pope Paul VI: expected was a new Catholic unity and instead we have been exposed to dissension which, to use the words of Pope Paul VI, seems to have gone from self-criticism to self-destruction. Expected was a new enthusiasm, and many wound up discouraged and bored. Expected was a great step forward, instead we find ourselves faced with a progressive process of decadence which has developed for the most part under the sign of a calling back to the Council, and has therefore contributed to discrediting it for many. The net result therefore seems negative. I am repeating here what I said ten years after the conclusion of the work: it is incontrovertible that this period has definitely been unfavorable for the Catholic Church.”
        -Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Now Pope Benedict XVI), L’Osservatore Romano, 24 December 1984

      • Matthew–Thanks for clearing that up for me. Again, I am not informed enough about this investigation to offer anything other than prayers for all involved.

    • Barbara Says:

      Matthew I think you are missing the point and focusing on things that do not matter one bit .Peace

  7. Actually, Matthew, I have more to add (lol). Early this year, I was very outspoken on this blog and critical of Dan’s reflection on the March for Life. He did not find the March worth supporting because it did not, in his opinion, go far enough. I disagreed, but I enjoyed the very rich discussion that followed. Now we have some nuns on a bus who are advocating for the poor. Good for them, I say! Even if they are wrong about other issues, they are still on the side of the bishops in disagreeing with the current budget, right? If we wait around for some perfect group of people to initiate various movements, we’ll be left with nothing.

    • Matthew M. Says:

      Too true, and I remember the postings this past January.

      As for the budget as suggested by both sides of the aisle has a lot to be desired. There are way too many special interest groups and lobbyist with their hand in pockets. Not sure exactly the amount the government has allocated to PP, but I am sure it could be redirected to a more noble cause, say education or feeding the poor. (Just as an example) .

      I am also certain that many would like defense cut and money put to “better” use, as well as much of the foreign aid staying in our own borders, or how about cutting bennies to illegal immigrants who don’t pay anything into the system, yet seem to keep the system running as many “Americans” won’t do such menial labor. The quid pro quo arguments are endless!

      Perhaps instead of the government taxing and forcing people to give to underpriviledged, perhaps we should bring morals and ethics back into the education systems, to teach charity and develop more altruistic philosophies of being. Oh, but that might “infringe” on someone’s “right” not to believe, or give the impression that the State is “sponsoring” a certain religion or fatih tradition.

      On this Jared, you poked the badger, but again it is a topic for future discussion. I do agree that if we wait around for the “perfect” storm, we could very well be left with nothing, hence the current situation. Too many good people have done nothing for fear of “offending” or “infringing” upon someone’s “rights”. What I believe people fail to realize is there is strong difference between the liberty (freedom has given by the Creator with responsibilities) and being a libertine society!

  8. To get back to Merton, his advice then is worth hearing now. Those of us who want to remain faithful to the Universal Church, not just to the hierachy, welcome hiis wisdon.

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