Rorate Caeli

Thomas Merton on post-Vatican II liturgy

Many of us know priests who love the traditional Latin Mass some days while celebrating a novus ordo liturgy with Vatican II novelties such as Gospel bands and altar girls other days. This liturgical schizophrenia -- truly nothing short of a bi-polar approach to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass -- was apparently exemplified by the prominent Trappist Father Louis, OCSO (born Thomas Merton).

For Father Louis (his religious name that appears on his tombstone, above), his liturgical sensibilities began in quite the traditional manner.  In his 1948 autobiography "The Seven Storey Mountain", he wrote of his love of "the warmth of Gregorian chant" and noted his first attendance at Mass (before converting) was an August 1938 Low Mass at Corpus Christi church in New York, where he was impressed by even a music-free liturgy.

In that famous book, he also described walking into "old Zion church", his parents' house of worship in Douglaston, Long Island, New York.  Note the implicit connection between congregational singing, Americanism and Protestantism:

"Then there was a lectern, shaped like an eagle with outspread wings, on which rested a huge Bible. Nearby was an American flag, and above that was one of those little boards they have in Protestant churches, on which the numbers of the hymns to be sung are indicated by black and white cards."

In the 1960s, Father Louis would get caught up in the spirit of Vatican II, but he also showed some misgiving.  A recent article by Gregory K. Hillis, an associate professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, highlighted some of these quotes in the context of embracing "really groovy" Mass insanity in 1967, while writing numerous letters in the same decade opposing the reforms that led to the novus ordo (which he did not live to see). From the article:

...Merton knew that liturgical reform was risky, and in a letter to Dom Denys Rackley, a Carthusian at La Grande Chartreuse written five days after the constitution's promulgation, he expresses his reservations about the liturgical doors opened up by the council: 

"Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand, and replace them with mediocre forms which seem to us to be more meaningful and which in fact are only trite. I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve, a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones."

Another part of the article states:

But Merton also frequently expresses frustration with the willingness with which progressives were willing to rid the liturgy of that which had timeless value. Merton's frustrations come through clearly in a 1965 letter to an Anglican:

"As I tell all my Anglican friends, 'I hope you will have the sense to maintain traditions that we are now eagerly throwing overboard'."

He is particularly concerned about the ease with which Latin and Gregorian chant were being abandoned, even in the monastery: 

"The monks cannot understand the treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art."

We highlight these statements, as one will likely not hear them from any Merton groupie. In fact, some (James Martin, S.J.) will clearly state the Catholic "arrogance" of Father Louis in 1948 would bear no resemblance to a modern Thomas Merton had he lived beyond the 1960s.

Nevertheless, someone of Merton's prominence who warned of the "great danger" of "eagerly throwing aboard" centuries of Roman Catholic tradition concerning Holy Mass in the midst of the rupture of the Second Vatican Council and its implementation should be noted.