I have read Thomas Merton off and on since I was thirteen, and over those sixty years have gone through stages of admiration, emulation, disenchantment, and rediscovery. Like many other readers, I have been impressed by the importance of mercy in his writings. Where did this emphasis come from? I think some part must have been played by Merton’s experience as a monk living under the Rule of Benedict. Merton’s emphasis on the practice of mercy had important roots in his monastic formation. The Rule of Benedict created a Scripture-shaped world suffused with reminders of God’s mercy, and the experience of life together made monks aware of their need for mercy, even as it gave them the means of exercising it toward each other.
The School of the Lord’s Service
When Benedict declared in the prologue to the Rule that he was establishing a “school of the Lord’s service,” he was tapping into an already ancient tradition with roots in Greco-Roman culture, in Scripture, and in the Gospel portrayal of Jesus as a teacher with disciples. In this tradition, a school was not a place for the transmission of abstract information, but rather for the cultivation of personal transformation. Such transformation took place when disciples who were committed to the common life engaged in practices—Benedict calls them the “tools of good works”—that embodied the monastic ideal of humility and obedience.
The “strictness of discipline” in monastic life was no mere matter of regulations and punishments. It was above all a matter of progressively actualizing the character of Christ through bodily practice. In his simple “rule for beginners,” Benedict provided the framework within which such transformation could take place. All ancient education took for granted that character derived from habitual virtuous action, and the formation of habits was basic to all philosophical training. Benedict spends the bulk of the Rule talking about what monks should do with their bodies, the where, when, and how of life together. Readers who find pedestrian the prescriptions concerning the measure of food and drink, clothing, sleeping arrangements, modes of procession, service at table, and the special concern for the young, elderly, and guests, miss the point: namely, that habits of virtue are formed by all these bodily practices.
Repetition is the key mechanism of habit formation, and the distinctive Benedictine vow of stability ensured that monks would stay long enough to gain the full benefit of such repetition. As Benedicta Ward has observed, the Benedictine practice of reading Scripture was less a search for answers than a savoring of the divine word; the same passage could be read again and again. The Rule also was read aloud, not only when someone entered the community, but also daily at meals through the year. The round of the liturgical year and the pattern of the monastic life alike provided the structure for learning through embodied repetition.
The supreme instrument shaping the disposition of monks was the Opus Dei, the “work of God.” The importance Benedict attached to the Opus Dei is indicated by the amount of legislation he devotes to it. All of chapters 8–20 are given to the Opus Dei, and fourteen other chapters touch on it. The monastic day was punctuated by times of prayer in common: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. Benedict justified the eight times of prayer using Psalm 118:164, “Seven times a day have I given praise to you,” and Psalm 119:62, “At midnight I rose to give praise to thee.” The complete psalter was chanted together each week.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the formative role played by the repetitive chanting of the psalms. This practice, above all, enabled the monks to imagine the world that Scripture envisions, and to live within that imagined world as though it was real—and then, by their practices, to make it real. In the Opus Dei the psalms were not studied at a distance, as the prayers of ancient people. They were actualized, appropriated, performed, and personalized. The psalms enabled first-person, first-order speech to the Living God in praise, thanksgiving, complaint, and petition. And bit by bit, the world of the psalms, a world created at every moment by God, a world in which God hears the prayers of the faithful and comes to their assistance, became their world as well. As Merton noted in his conferences to the novices at Gethsemane, “The office is not the whole prayer life of the monk. It is only a part of that prayer life. But it is the great school of monastic prayer.”
Mercy in Scripture