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Thomas Merton and Liturgical Renewal: Forty Years on


Fr Thomas Crean O.P.

Naturally I have no clear idea how it might be done.
(Thomas Merton on liturgical renewal)

   In 1964, the American Trappist Fr Louis Merton, better known worldwide as Thomas Merton, published an essay entitled ‘Liturgical Renewal: the Open Approach.’ (The essay was first published in England in 1976 in a collection called Meditations on Liturgy, with a foreword by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume.) In this essay Merton expresses his hopes for the renewal of the liturgy, in particular of the Mass. What Merton hoped for was a radical transformation of the liturgy, so that it might better manifest its true nature, which he characterizes as ‘a full, deep, open-hearted sharing in personal warmth and love’. This article will argue that Merton’s ideas are confused, and that his words have little more than rhetorical value.

   The contemporary reader is likely to be struck first of all by Merton’s remark that the ‘New Mass’ has already been in place for a year. The Novus Ordo Missae of Paul VI, after all, was not promulgated until 1969. Highly significant changes, however, had already been introduced into the Mass by 1964; the vernacular was already being used for a part of it, and the priest was now facing the people when offering the Sacrifice, and speaking the Canon aloud. Merton takes it for granted that similar changes will follow. Thus he says that ‘the logic of liturgical renewal certainly requires that the entire Mass be said in the language of the people.’ However, as has already been said, what Merton most desires is a more radical renewal:

   No matter what changes are made, if they are only new gestures performed in the old spirit, they will not constitute liturgical renewal. It is not the old forms that must go so much as the old spirit.

   What does our author mean by ‘the old spirit’? Admitting that he runs the risk of caricature, he describes it as something ‘inarticulate, cramped, official and antiquated.’ Whilst acknowledging that some pre-Vatican II celebrations of Mass did take place in an ‘atmosphere of joy, light, and at least relative openness and spontaneity’, the ‘old spirit’ carried with it the tendency to ‘validism’, i.e. to an exclusive concern with the validity of the rite celebrated, and to a forgetfulness that ‘the order and comeliness of worship should help to manifest the splendour of God’s love and of His presence in the midst of His people.

   So much for the old spirit. What is the new spirit for whose advent Merton hopes? He characterises it first of all as openness. The priest, Merton says, must be open to his people. They in turn must be open to him. They must also, finally, be open to each other. What does this mean in practice? The only definite answer Merton gives is that ‘the words of the liturgy should be spoken by a person, to persons, and not just uttered abstractly in a sacred void.’ This seems to mean that the participants at Mass must make sure that they look at each other when they speak. But notice the presupposition: if this is not done, then the words will be uttered in a void. This is surely a remarkable conviction for a priest who must have offered Mass hundreds of times versus orientem. Is the priest speaking into a void when he recites the Canon facing East? Is he not rather addressing God the Father through His Son, the Oriens? Similarly, if the priest greets the people with his eyes cast down, is his Dominus vobiscum therefore uttered ‘abstractly’ in a void?  It seems better to say that the ‘custody of the eyes’ here is a sign that the priest is an instrument through whom Christ Himself greets His People.

   However, Merton does seek to explain further what he means by ‘openness.’ It is not, he warns, the same thing as ‘colloquial togetherness’.

   It means discovering a new sense of sacred space, of community, of oneness in the Spirit, as a result of a communication on a deep level, with which we have long ceased to be familiar: it means learning to experience the mystery of oneness in grace.

It is not unfair to remark that it is hard to decide what this passage means. What is this communication on a deep level which the new liturgy will require? Does it mean that we must share our deepest hopes or strongest desires with all those who come to Mass? But if we are all Christians, we presumably all have the same hope. Or is this communication on a deep level something non-verbal? If so, is it simply the unspoken awareness that we are all sharing in the mystery of Christ’s redemptive Sacrifice? But how was this not present in the old Mass? And what is it to experience the mystery of oneness in grace? It sounds as if Merton here makes mystical experience a pre-condition for participation in the new liturgy – yet he immediately draws back from this conclusion, affirming that this ‘experience’ is ‘not mystical and esoteric’. It is, he says, ‘based on our natural human affinities as beings with the same needs, the same joys, the same hopes, fears and loves’. Again one must ask: were these natural affinities then unknown to the men and women who participated in Mass before Vatican II? If not, why did they miss the experience which Merton says is based on these affinities? And why should kneeling together at the altar-rails to receive the Bread of Life not be a good way to experience the mystery of oneness in grace – even if this was a practice brought about by the ‘old spirit’? All these questions, obvious as they are, remain unanswered, leading to the suspicion that the author himself did not really know what he meant.

   The other word which Merton uses to characterize the coming liturgy is unconstraint. This term, however, receives even less definition than the term openness. He tells us that it does not mean the same as disorder; but instead of describing what it does mean, he refers us to the early Church:

   The first Christians were people who abounded in irrepressible joy and trust because they realized they were now free and no longer had to worship under constraint [1]…Christian worship in its beginnings is marked by a general, explicit, uncompromising refusal of constraint.

It might be a little unfair to remark that Merton’s characterization of early Christian worship puts one more in mind of the Corinthians rebuked by St Paul than of anything which the Apostles are known to have done or said; yet there is no mistaking the vagueness of his remarks, insofar as they are supposed to describe the coming liturgy. Does our author mean that in the future Catholics must regard the Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae of the 1962 Missal as their fathers in the faith regarded the food and hygiene laws of the Pentateuch? Presumably not, since the Mosaic law was abrogated by the final divine revelation, and no new public revelation will now be given to the human race. Or does he mean that the Missal should retain these rubrics, but that Catholics should only follow them when doing so gives them no sense of constraint? But then how would this not lead to the ‘disorder’ which he reprobates? Or does he mean that these rubrics should be simplified? But how could such a simplification – for example, removing most of the priest’s genuflections from the Mass – lead to the liturgy ‘full of disciplined and expressive movements’ which Merton says at the end of his essay that the world needs? The truth seems to be that Merton in this essay is not developing a rational argument at all, but is oscillating between two moodsthe desire to be free from the various demands of the traditional liturgy (he says at one point that the new liturgy is or will be ‘a relief’) and the desire for a liturgy in which decorum and beauty will be achieved quite spontaneously (which, surely, will only be the case in Heaven).

   Having affirmed that the renewed liturgy will manifest openness and unconstraint, the author goes on to ask by what means this liturgy will come into existence. The same vagueness remains in his answer to this new question. He first of all observes that it will demand a great deal of experimentation  - but he gives no indication of what sort of experiments will be made, what criteria will be used for assessing them, or who is to judge of their success. (Interestingly, he adds that such experiments in worship would have to be made during informal services such as ‘prayer vigils’, since experiment would be ‘out of the question in formal liturgical service.’ This was, after all, still only 1964.)  

   The second half of Thomas Merton’s answer to the question of how to reform the liturgy may be given in his own words:

   The open approach in liturgy is perhaps forever beyond the capacity of those of us who have grown old in “closed” and rigid forms. But there are children. They will be in any case the ones to benefit from the liturgical reform. Why not let them, in the simplicity and inspired spontaneity which are their special gift, and guided by sensitive and alert adults, begin to sketch out the creative and original forms of the future liturgy for which we are waiting?

Thomas Merton seriously proposed that the immemorial Roman Rite, whose origins, as Fr Adrian Fortescue says, are lost in the mists of antiquity, should be rewritten by children. Dabo pueros principes eorum: that was a threat which God made to Judah through the prophet Isaiah. But to some liturgical reformers in 1964 it sounded like a benediction.



   Why write this article on a little known essay that is now forty years old, and whose author’s earlier works have brought benefit to many people (the present writer included)? It is an attempt to understand the thinking – or perhaps better, the feeling – which brought the Roman liturgy to its current state. In Thomas Merton’s essay, one finds very clearly a dissatisfaction with the demands of the traditional liturgy; yet his suggestions on how to renew it seem vague, self-contradictory and misguided. In other words, writers such as Merton created a vacuum by taking away an existing liturgy and putting nothing in its place. The space was filled by the sort of liturgy that we now find in many of our parishes – and which a man of the aesthetic and mystical sensibilities of Thomas Merton would surely have deplored.


[1] That is, they were no longer bound by the ritual prescribed by the Old Testament.

This article originally appeared in The Brandsma Review and is reproduced with permission.

Version: 13th April 2009

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