MERTON'S FREEDOM: CELIBATE SOLITUDE



William H.Shannon has selected and edited a collection of letters of Thomas Merton and entitled it "Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis" (published in New York by Harper Collins in 1994). In this book, Merton does not join
the on-going debates about priestly celibacy. But its 31 pages (200-230) constitute a chapter about a vocation crisis that included celibacy. Shannon has good reasons for thematizing the collection as a witnessing to freedom, for such indeed was Merton's constant desire. But Merton knew that he was freely choosing a vocation that would relativize his freedom with a vow of obedience. And of celibacy. Whenever religious vows and relativized freedom clash at certain points, crisis will necessarily arise. There were many times of crisis in the period covered, 1946-68, of which the vocation crisis was one.

Besides his vocation to contemplative solitude, Merton also had a secular vocation as a writer. He was obviously attached to this activity but he was not always sure whether his attachment was inordinate or not. Much of his correspondence was with individuals requesting advice about spiritual matters and this was perfectly harmless and often inspiring. Others involved politics, whether national, global or ecclesiastical. In these matters, he did not always see eye to eye with his Cistercian censors, and he judged, rightly or wrongly, that they were excessively influenced by partisan concerns or personal bias. He even wrote a letter to his friend Archbishop Paul Philippe, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Religious, to use his influence to obtain permission for him to live in Cuernavaca in a primitive monastic group under the direction of Fr. Lemercier. He had a great admiration for Lemercier. But later he saw a newspaper photograph of Lemercier with his new young bride.

Merton must have grown in spiritual discernment by this time. A reader may or may not read between Shannon's editorial lines on page 226 that Merton valued celibacy as necessary for a contemplative hermit, even though there was a time when this was imperiled by a heart problem when he was confined in a Louisville hospital. This painful problem was honestly faced and prayerfully solved. (Page 238.)

The highest freedom to which Merton's life has given witness is the freedom to grow in communal discernment. Celibacy is communally discerned in many centuries of contemplative spirituality, whether Christian or non-Christian, as the more solid (if not the only) foundation for the lives of consecrated contemplatives. In this tradition, priesthood is optional but celibacy is not.


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