Michael Casey and Thomas Merton

Fr. Michael Casey, O.C.S.O., was here in Heiligenkreuz yesterday, and I got to give him a little tour of the monastery. He is unassuming, down to earth sort of man, with a good sense of humor. I felt a bit like a chump giving the tour, though, as the things I usually say on on such tours are things that he knows far better than I. In monasteries of both Cistercian observances Fr. Michael Casey’s books are probably more read than those of any other living author of our tradition. I disagree with him on some theological points (he’s far less of a theological “traditionalist” than I), but I have found his writings quite helpful. His book on lectio divina (a German translation of which we read in the refectory), for example, is a truly helpful book, based on years of hard experience, free of cant, and addressing head-on the difficulties that modern habits pose to lectio.

The first thing of Fr. Michael’s that I read was the afterword to the correspondence of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq. Casey’s afterword was excellent. In his discussion of Merton’s desire for the eremitical life he put his finger right on something that I had felt when reading Merton myself— Merton’s tendency to rationalize his restlessness and temptations against stability. Casey writes:

As any reader of Merton’s journals is aware, the question of a possible calling to a more solitary life keeps coming back—so often that it becomes wearisome to the reader. Egged on by Leclercq, he continues to explore different possibilities, nearly all of them tinged with some degree of unreality. The energy thus expended means that he is reluctant to work at finding space for prayer in the context of communal living, or even of investing much in making a contribution to social harmony. “I do not waste time seeking consolation in the community or avoiding its opposite. There is too little time for these accidentals” (p. 19). Leclercq was not personally interested in following a solitary lifestyle though the question intrigued him intellectually. Perhaps influenced by the ideas of Anselm Stolz, he seems also to have regarded it as a higher instance of the monastic charism than cenobitic living. “I quite understand your aspiration to a solitary life. I think there has always been an eremitical tradition in the Cistercian and Benedictine Orders” (p. 13). “Whenever coenobia are what they ought to be, they produce inevitably some eremitical vocations. The eremitical vocations disappear in times and countries where monasticism has ceased to be monastic” (p. 14). Reading their correspondence today a reader may be inclined to wonder whether Leclercq’s responses would not have been more pastorally effective if he had challenged some of Merton’s propositions instead of encouraging them. But, of course, it was not that sort of correspondence. Nor, it seems, was Merton too eager to ask or receive any form of direction or supervision that might raise unwelcome questions. […] It may also be that interest in the solitary life was a “spiritual” form of the kind of individualism that is rampant in many Western cultures, a search to legitimate the abandonment of the normal demands of social living by an appeal to saintly precedents. In many cases this was accompanied by a heightened sense of entitlement which made would-be hermits expect their communities or others to provide land and a dwelling, an income or a means of livelihood and a general readiness to service their needs, pay their taxes and provide a safety-net in case of emergency. It is surely relevant that the eremitical impulse seems to have been much stronger in developed and affluent countries than in those areas where monasticism was being newly implanted (to use the language of the time). [pp. 136-138]

One could say that Casey has to some degree assumed the mantel of Merton for our time. Comparing the two of them, I would say that Casey’s prose lacks the power that made The Seven Storey Mountain a classic of American literature, but that his writings are less afflicted with self-deception.

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