After the trials and tortures they saw their crucified Master suffer as a result of his public ministry, you can imagine Christ’s disciples yearning for a more cloistered life of solitary prayer. Such a life could have sheltered them from the evil forces Jesus bravely confronted out in the open.
Centuries later, Catholic theologian Thomas Merton confronted that temptation to divorce himself from the world. In his “autobiography of faith,” ‘The Seven Storey Mountain,’ Merton describes a critical time in his faith journey when he first considered a cloistered monastic life:
“Already my selfishness was asserting itself, and claiming this vocation for itself, by investing the future with all kinds of natural pleasures and satisfactions which would fortify and defend my ego against the troubles and worries of life in the world. … Since I was so strongly attached to material goods and so immersed in my own self, and so far from God, and so independent of Him, and so dependent on myself and my own imaginary powers, it was necessary that I should not enter a monastery feeling the way I did.”
But rather than seek cloistered protection, Jesus’s disciples—filled with their Master’s Holy Spirit—chose to continue his public ministry, using the power of their faith to fulfill the prediction Jesus made at their last supper (Jn 14:12):
“Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”
The challenge their success would pose was the same as Merton’s: to be a channel of the Almighty’s works without egotistically identifying as the power source. As Peter says after effecting a miracle cure in Sunday’s first reading (Acts 4:8-12),
If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed.
The disciples found wisdom, strength and courage in their status as children of God, and encouraged the world to share the gifts of their inheritance. To this day, as John seems to imply in our second reading (1 Jn 3:1-2,), this requires a constant reintroduction to the family resemblance:
The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
We Christians would all benefit from having a Merton moment—stepping out of our cloisters to share God’s light with others who lost themselves in the dark shadows of earth’s wilderness. After all, prayer without outreach to other branches of humanity’s family trees won’t yield much fruit.
Tom, I’ve often thought the reason people choose the monastic or ascetical life is to protect themselves from the temptations of the world, and i’m sure it did in some ways.
On the other hand, we must confront our weakness in order to let our light shine to brighten a dark world. Jesus doesn’t want us to put our lamp under a basket, he wants it to shine for all to see.
That’s exactly the temptation Thomas Merton was battling as he considered the monastic life. It would be too easy to enter a monastery to cater to your own selfish needs for peace and solitude and to protect yourself from the world’s evils. Instead, he stayed in the world until he was ready to enter the cloister and battle those evils from there. As with most evils, they start in the human head and radiate out–like a virus seeking other hosts. When he was ready, Merton used monastic life to become a prayer soldier instead of evil’s prisoner. If the world’s experience with Covid lockdowns has taught us anything, it’s that cloistering can be a tool for human control or for Godly healing. The choice is ours.