"They have not come to the monastery to escape from the realities of life but to find those realities: they have felt the terrible insufficiency of life in a civilization that is entirely dedicated to the pursuit of shadows."1
The 20th century, despite its frantic pace and rapidly advancing technologies, has not seen a shortage of great monastic figures in the least. If one takes the time to look, one will find a whole smorgasbord of holy monastics throughout all of Christendom, both Catholic and non-Catholic. For my own part, I find the journey through understanding their lives and reading their writings to be a fascinating one. Here I wish to speak of the three monks that I think every Christian should know about.
I should say at the outset that I wilfully omit two that are also quite famous in their own right - Bede Griffiths and the founder of Taize, Frere Roger Schutz. Bede Griffiths rarely, in my view, espouses anything remotely close to orthodox Christian belief at all - to me, he is a kind of poster boy for monasticism as the National Catholic Reporter might envision it. As for Frere Roger, I find him extremely interesting, if only for the fact that historically, Protestantism was quite against the monastic life. For me, the jury is out on Frere Roger, but I do find his life quite intriguing nonetheless.
But here I wish to speak of three monks who, I think, rise far above the rest: Seraphim Rose, Matthew the Poor, and Thomas Merton. All three, to me, encapsulate so much of the "tradition", if you will, to which they belong; paradoxically, all three are viewed as a little unorthodox by some within their own churches. But I do believe that all three can teach us and help deepen our faith.
In some ways, his appearance alone seems to spark an interest in those who come across him, partially thanks to the devotion that such ministries as Death to the World seem to have for him - his ornate and long robes, overgrown beard, fierce and yet kindly gaze all make him look the very model of a Church Father coming out of time from ancient Byzantium and plunging straight into the modern world's morass of confusion and relativism.
Seraphim Rose, to be sure, suffers from the same reputation as Merton, though in a different way. Where Merton's flirting with Eastern religions seems to some to have gone a step too far, Rose taught some fairly bizarre doctrines amidst his otherwise brilliant writings; to be sure, the toll-house theory of the after-life has to be one of the most bizarre and unorthodox things I have ever heard - it is still (from what I have observed) a source of tremendous controversy in the Eastern Orthodox churches.
Regardless of this, Seraphim Rose is a man worth reading (selectively of course). Though Catholic readers should be extremely cautious with him, as at times, he heavily criticizes (and unfairly so) the Catholic Church, Rose still has much to say about our times and the need for authentic Christianity in a relativistic and watered-down spiritual world. Once a ferocious atheist and a student of Eastern religions, Rose's surrender to Christ caused him also to defend Christianity as fiercely as he once attacked it. Though this can descend at times into harsh criticisms of the Catholic Church as I said (a common element that I find, naturally I would think, in most Eastern Orthodox writings), his critiques of relativism, nihilism, communism, fascism, and modernism are absolutely essential reading - be sure to check out Nihilism and God's Revelation to the Human Heart.
For my part, what I love about the man was that his message was one that called Christians to deeper conversion, authenticity, and seriousness in their lives of faith. As he himself puts it, "Anyone who studies religion seriously comes up against this question: it is a question literally of life and death."2 In my mind, this sums up his thought completely.
Being a monk of the Coptic Orthodox Church almost isolates this figure from the rest of the Christian world, as the Coptic Orthodox (along with a few other churches such as the Syrian Orthodox) are part of a group known as the Oriental Orthodox, neither in communion with the Catholic Church, nor the Eastern Orthodox churches. Their Christology, due to their having rejected the Council of Chalcedon, is decidedly different than the orthodox view - some call it monophysite (after the manner of the heretic Eutyches), but the proper explanation and view of it, both from without and within, is termed miaphysite, which, according to both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views, seems to be workable in terms of reunion. But of this I know very little.
Instead, I pass to the writings of this monastic reformer who almost singlehandedly resurrected the great monastery of Deir el Makarios. In many respects, he is the living embodiment of how the Coptic Orthodox Church has managed to preserve the monastic spirituality of the great Desert Fathers so intact. His writings are at once both incredibly modern and yet absolutely ancient in their content. He attacks no one, neither Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, but instead gets right to heart of the matter on whatever he is talking about. I think one would be hard-pressed to find more profound writings on the cross and on suffering in the 20th century than within the pages of this monk's writings, especially in his work entitled The Communion of Love - "Blessed are the crucified, for they shall be transfigured."3
Confessions of St. Augustine for the modern world.
So why should someone read Merton at all? After all, he was accused of many unorthodox elements in his thought, and his later flirtations with Buddhism and other Eastern religions have caused many Catholics to approach him cautiously. My answer to this is simple - many, even the greatest saints, have sometimes espoused an unorthodox opinion or two.
For myself, there are times when I have simply opened up my copy of A Thomas Merton Reader, and come across something so impacting that it is usually indelibly etched on my soul. He has a way of cutting through the dross and putting truths very simply. Not only this, but he often makes for a good unwitting apologist - when he speaks of the crucial importance of the Mass in his biography, it is uncertain to me how even the most hardened Protestant could remain unaffected.
Whenever I look upon pictures of him, I see a man living on the edge of two worlds - the ancient and the modern. When I think of monks, technology almost never comes into the picture, much less anything else even remotely concerned with the frantic modern world. But in pictures of Merton, he is sitting next to typewriters, holding cameras, and the like. Here is a man seemingly caught in two worlds. In my view, it is so very odd that Merton wished to join a strict, enclosed, and contemplative order such as the Cistercian Trappists when he seems to have had such a desire to travel the world - but then again, I think of St. Therese of Lisieux who wished to travel in missions all over the world to win souls for Christ, and yet remained behind the grille of a cold and humble little Carmelite convent.
In Thomas Merton, we see the most varied and multi-faceted writer of these three modern monks. Whereas Seraphim Rose acted like a spearhead for Eastern Orthodoxy in the most hyper sense, and in some ways became singularly focused in one style of writing, Thomas Merton explored all kinds of avenues of style and thought. His actual amount of writings are massive, far outweighing those of Rose or Matthew the Poor combined; they include not only autobiography, but meditations, poetry, prose, and a whole host of other styles. Given his enormous output, I recommend as a starting point A Thomas Merton Reader.
To me, Thomas Merton is the archetype of the modern Catholic monk - caught between the old world and the new, his humanity and failings left open to see and unhidden behind patristic posturing. One would do well to ponder what he has to say to us now.
1 - The Waters of Siloe, qtd. in A Thomas Merton Reader, pg. 182
2 - God's Revelation to the Human Heart, pg. 20
3 - The Communion of Love, pg. 138