Contemplative or Not at All
Occasionally, I hit upon something that feels precious and meant for me. This happened to me when I opened an online journal that I routinely read. My eyes first hit upon the title: “Take and Read: the Seven Storey Mountain.” Of course, I knew this was a reference to my favorite monk, Thomas Merton. The Seven Storey Mountain is the title of Merton’s most famous work---an autobiography detailing his life through his entrance into the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in the middle of Kentucky. The book appeared in 1948 and became a best seller. It continues to be read by hundreds of people every year.
I received an added bonus when I saw the author was a friend of mine, Donald Cozzens. He is a writer-in-residence and theology professor at a local Jesuit university, John Carroll. Cozzens is a priest and was long-time rector of the diocesan seminary. I rushed to begin reading the article.
It is an interesting saga of the role Merton’s book and, indeed, Merton’s life played in the spiritual formation of Cozzens. Cozzens tells about his desire to be a diocesan priest, a desire he knew for certain at age seventeen. And yet with Merton’s wit, Cozzens confesses, “I wanted to be a priest and I was in love with JoAnn Mahoney.” As a Quaker, I could get away with both. As one in the Catholic tradition, one of the two would have to go. He could still love JoAnn Mahoney, but there would not be a marriage and an ordination. He became a priest.
But he did not have to give up his love for Merton. I like how Cozzens decides that he wants to be a priest and a contemplative at the same time. Cozzens shares a touching story of being befriended by a young Carmelite nun from Baltimore. Sister Colette of the Trinity had taken on the duty of writing and encouraging a young seminarian. Cozzens was her new spiritual buddy. Her letters and Merton’s book led Cozzens to conclude it “confirmed my budding passion for contemplative spirituality. I would be a diocesan priest, but a diocesan priest with a monastic, contemplative spirituality.”
I understand this so much better now than I would have at Cozzens age when he realizes it. He and I are nearly the same age, but I am also aware that two guys growing up in the pre-Vatican II era would have different experiences. But thanks to the history since Merton’s death in 1968, Cozzens’ world and my world have become much more similar. I also can say that I want to minister and teach with a monastic, contemplative spirituality. Merton has been my mentor, too.
I appreciate that Cozzens recognizes the spiritual elitism characteristic of The Seven Storey Mountain. How could it be otherwise? Merton was a bright, lost scamp of a guy when he began to search and find some answers in religion. Ultimately, he converted to Catholicism, entered one of the strictest religious orders available and became spokesperson for a robust, pre-Vatican II Catholicism. He found a home and it was the “right” place. The funny part is his mom had been a Quaker. He had dabbled with Quakerism, but moved on to discover the “right” place.
From 1968 till the present much has happened. The Catholic Church opened its doors and people like me walked in. We did not become Catholics, but we became catholics. People like Cozzens welcomed us. We began reading Merton and many of the other Catholic saints. I learned about contemplative spirituality and recognized much of Quakerism is contemplative. We just did not have that specific language. Cozzens says Merton’s book became his “spiritual director.” I would not say that book became my spiritual director, but Merton has and continues to be my spiritual director.
I really appreciate the ending of Cozzens’ reflection and want to make it my ending as well. Cozzens says, “Merton and others, but especially Merton, have convinced me that the path to ecumenical and inter-religious communion -- and to peace and justice -- is found in the contemplative centers of our world and in the hearts of those of us trying to lead contemplative lives.” That is profoundly true.
I want to live the rest of my life with the heart of a contemplative working for peace and justice. I want to be in league with my ecumenical brothers and sisters in the Christian tradition. But I want to widen that circle to my interfaith friends from the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish communities. I value my Sikh friends. To use the old Christian language, we are all working for the kingdom to come.
Cozzens nails it when he asserts, “Thomas Merton, I believe, like the great Karl Rahner, understood that the Christian of the twenty-first century will be a contemplative or not at all.” We are in the twenty-first century. We need to be contemplative to be kingdom-builders. Or we will be nothing at all.