Thursday, April 22, 2010

Merton on Change

I've been on a Thomas Merton binge of late. The biggest reason for this is that he lays bare his soul and says what he is actually going through, not just what he is "supposed" to say. More specifically, he really speaks to me because he always struggled with how his vocation as a writer and a priest could be an adequate expression of his calling as a child of God. He also struggled to live faithfully within a hierarchical institution that was very slow to change, even when those changes would enable them to more effectively minister to the world.

This one passage from The Sign of Jonas (a collection of his journals from 1946-1952, essentially the sequel to The Seven Storey Mountain) keeps coming back to me. Even though he was a Cistercian monk in the mid-twentieth century, and I'm a Methodist minister in the early twenty-first, I think at the core I'm struggling with the same issue he was in December of 1947.

"We cannot reproduce what they (twelfth-century Cistercian architects) did because we approach the problem in a way that makes it impossible for us to find a solution. We ask ourselves a question that they never considered. How shall we build a beautiful monastery according to the rules of a dead tradition? This we make the problem not only infinitely complicated but the reason why it is dead is that the motives and the circumstances that once gave it life have ceased to exist. They have given place to a situation that demands another style. If we were intent on loving God rather than upon getting a Gothic church out of a small budget we would soon put up something that would give glory to God and would be very simple and would also be in the tradition of our fathers. That is why the best looking buildings around Gethsemani are the barns. Nobody stopped to plan a Gothic barn, so they turned out all right. If they had build the gatehouse on the same principles as the hog-house it would have been beautiful. Actually it is hideous. 
... One of the big problems for an architect in our time is that for a hundred and fifty years men have been building churches as if a church could not belong to our time. A church has to look as if it were left over from some other age. I think that such an assumption is based on an implicit confession of atheism- as if God did not belong to all ages and as if religion were really only a pleasant, necessary social formality, preserved from past times in order to give our society an air of respectability."*

In that last paragraph Merton really convicts the American mainline Protestant church of our day, even though he was talking about his own Catholic order. Do we simply build memorials to some idealized earlier era and call it a church? Or should we instead try to ask the questions people in those earlier eras asked about how to most effectively communicate the love of God to the people of their own time and place?

I'm worried that we're focused on the former because it's easy, rather than taking the risk that God might actually be working in our own time. We can control how a memorial to the past will look, but if God is really in charge, we don't get to control it. That's a scary proposition, but as Merton shows us, it's not a new problem.

*This passage is found on pgs. 86-87 of the Harcourt paperback edition, right at the end of the "Solemn Profession" chapter.


Jessica Miller Kelley said...

Amen, amen, a thousand times amen!

This is why I think contemporary worship is a good thing. Stylistically, someone may prefer traditional hymnody, and that's fine, but ecclesiologically, contemporary churches have the guiding principle that God is for every age, not stuck in a certain era or lagging 50-100 years behind.

Matt Kelley said...

but if someone is spoken to by traditional hymnody, then the style is not "dead". we have to have a plurality of expressions because god has created us with a plurality of needs and gifts