FEATURED: SEASONS OF CELEBRATION by Thomas Merton. [Vol. 2, #36]

September 11, 2009

 

“Hope that fills
time with meaning”

A Review of
Seasons of Celebration:
Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts
.

by Thomas Merton.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Seasons of Celebration:
Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts
.

Thomas Merton.
Paperback: Ave Maria Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Thomas Merton - SEASONS OF CELEBRATION

Having grown up in an evangelical church that tended toward fundamentalism, located in an area that was predominantly Roman Catholic, I was taught that Catholics were not true Christians and thus I had no sense of the rich, historical tradition of Catholic worship.  In particular, I had no sense of the marking of time through the seasons of the Christian year or of the liturgy that accompanied these seasons.  Having eventually renounced my fundamentalist roots, I also grew to deeply appreciate the seasons of the Christian year as the backbone of a holistic Christian faith.  Over time, I also came into conversation with many Roman Catholic friends as well as the writings of many prominent Catholics, particularly within the Monastic tradition.  The most influential of these Catholic thinkers was undoubtedly Thomas Merton.  I was therefore very excited to see that Ave Maria Press has brought one of the Merton’s least known works Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts back into print.  Merton reflects here, with his typical contemplative depth, on the seasons of the Christian year.

Merton begins Seasons of Celebration by examining the meaning of liturgy, by returning to the roots of the word in Roman culture.  He says: “Liturgy is, in the original and classical sense of the word, a political activity.  Leitourgia was a ‘public work’ a contribution made by a free citizen of the polis to the celebration and manifestation of the visible life of the polis” (2-3).  Merton then brings this definition of liturgy into focus in the life of the Church.  Liturgy, as the work of the people, is not just “the performance of a group of specialists in the presence of passive spectators” (5).  Rather we are collaborators with Christ in the work of reconciling all creation. He also describes how in the liturgy we emerge out of the privacy of our brokenness and discover a rich Christian personalism in which we recognize both the uniqueness of our creation as persons and the mystery of our union with one another in Christ.


From this exploration of the significance of liturgy, Merton turns to a reflection of the mysteries of Christ’s work in the Church.  He does so through the lens of St. Ignatius’ proclamation given on the way to his martyrdom in Rome in 107 AD:

“I am privileged to bear a name radiant with divine
splendor,
and so in the chains which I carry about on me I sing
the praises
of the Churches,
and pray for union in their midst,
a union based on the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ,
our enduring life;
a union based on faith and love, the greatest blessing;
and most especially a union with Jesus and the
Father.
If in this union we patiently endure all the abuse of the
Prince of this world and escape unscathed,
we shall happily make our way to God.”

From the life and proclamation of St. Ignatius, Merton emphasizes that the Church enters into the mystery of Christ and that we are a holy and incorruptible people.  He concludes: “The key to [the experience of the Mystery of Christ in His Church] is Ignatius’ faith in the reality of the Body and Spirit of the Incarnate Word, the reality of the Passion and resurrection of Christ, and the reality of our sacramental communion in His body and Blood in those sublime liturgical mysteries where members of Christ are ‘consummated in unity’” (35).

The next essay “Time and the Liturgy” is perhaps the finest in the collection, providing a rich, yet concise reflection on the significance of time for the Church as the community of Christ’s followers.  We are no longer held captive by time, Merton observes but rather each new season bridges us one step (or perhaps a half-, or quarter-step) closer to maturity in Christ, as a continuing gift of “the spiritual and interior fruitfulness of grace” (42).  It is our hope in Christ’s ultimate redemption of all things, Merton says, that fills time with meaning, taking us out of the “spiritual prison” of the cycle of seasons in nature.

Merton offers two essays on the Advent season, the first on Advent and St. Bernard, the second specifically on the nativity.  From there, he progresses through the Christian year, through Ash Wednesday, Lent (via a superb essay on “Christian self-denial”) and Easter.  After several essays related to feasts celebrated through the remainder of the church year, he concludes with three essays that take a broader view of the cycle of liturgy in the Church.  The first two of these explain how we celebrate the liturgy – first, in the spirit of “silentio,” as exemplified in monastic prayer and then on our gathering as “a community of pardon” – another of the book’s finest essays.   The book’s final essay, on “Liturgial Renewal” explores complex questions about how renewal can blossom even within churches that have a liturgy that is rigidly defined outside the local congregation.  Oddly enough, Merton’s wisdom here rang true about our experience at Englewood, though our Sunday morning “liturgy” (and I do use that word loosely!) has been held constant by interior powers and not exterior ones like those exerted by the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Seasons of Celebration is an excellent and meaty book that – like most of Merton’s work – we must approach with patience in order to fully digest it.  Perhaps it could be read and reflected upon over the course of a year in step with the liturgical season.  This is a particularly valuable work for those of us who are not deeply rooted in the calendar of the Christian year, and will serve well to immerse us into the depths of that part of the Church’s tradition.