The Waters Of Siloe Paperback – 15 Oct 2018
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At the time Merton was writing this book in 1949, he had already been in the Trappist order for eight years. "The Waters of Siloe" is a charming and sometimes humorous history of his order, but it is also a polemic on what he feels is the critical role of the contemplative orders in the Catholic religion.
Merton believed that the prayers and penances of the contemplative orders were more fundamental and valuable to the Church than the work of the orders that were more active in the world.
Here, he is discussing the suppression of the Cistercian Order in Communist China: "The sufferings and sacrifices of the Chinese Cistercians have added to the great increment of merit that has accumulated in the Order in these last fifteen years of anguish and persecution and has contributed to the intense spiritual and material vitality that is filling the whole organism of the Order and the Church."
This was "the true reason the White Monks escaped to wild places, and built their monasteries in mountains...They were looking for freedom: freedom from all the cares and burdens of worldly business and ambition. They desired this freedom not for its own sake but for the sake of union with God by contemplation."
I'm not Catholic, nor was I raised in the Catholic Church, so I don't know whether Merton's explanation of the value of prayer and penance is accepted doctrine. I struggle with the concept that prayer can do anything more than comfort the prayer-giver. It may be that others feel as I do:
According to the NYTimes, "the number of Catholic brothers in the United States has declined by more than two-thirds since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. But Trappist communities may be particularly vulnerable, since their traditions are more isolating and, in many ways, more resistant to modernization."
Nevertheless, this is a book that will draw you in to the serenity of the contemplative life, whether or not you believe as the author does in the value of penance and prayer.
In this early Merton book we encounter his idealistic understanding of the Cistercian monastic order. He does a wonderful job of following the development of the order through the challenges of the centuries including its journey through ascetic legalism and wars and persecutions.
I gained a great deal of understanding through reading this work and recommend it for all who admire Merton and the contributions he made to the spirituality of our times.