Thomas Merton, on Gregorian Chant

“This is what I think about the Latin and the chant: They are masterpieces, which offer us an irreplaceable monastic and Christian experience. They have a force, an energy, a depth without equal. All the proposed English offices are very much impoverished in comparison — besides, it is not at all impossible to make such things understood and appreciated. Generally I succeed quite well in this, in the novitiate, with some exceptions, naturally, who did not understand well. But I must add something more serious. As you know, I have many friends in the world who are artists, poets, authors, editors, etc. Now they are well able to appreciate our chant and even our Latin. But they are all, without exception, scandalized and grieved when I tell them that probably this Office, this Mass will no longer be here in ten years. And that is the worst. The monks cannot understand this treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art.”

— Thomas Merton, in a letter to Dom Ignace Gillet, Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (1964)

“But the cold stones of the Abbey church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with a clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature can get at you with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God.”
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, Part 3, ch. 4, page 379

5 Replies to “Thomas Merton, on Gregorian Chant”

  1. Thomas Merton's letter was written over fifty years ago and although you may not hear this form of music in your local parish church this website and others with many varied recordings available ensures that chant is still very much alive.

  2. Holy Father Francis mentioned Thomas Merton specifically in his address to the special Joint Session of Congress as a man of peace and dialogue. Interesting that this posting on Merton and Gregorian Chant appears today.

    But, then, maybe not so unusual. Chant does bring one into peaceful meditation, lifts us out of the mundane, and
    into the transcendent and perhaps gives impetus to more fruitful and godly love of neighbor.

  3. The sad fact is, a few short years after he wrote that, American Trappists replaced all that beautiful Gregorian chant with English-ized equivalents, mostly by Chrysogonus Waddell.

  4. This past weekend I heard an elderly Trappist describe a conversation he had with Merton concerning vernacular and chant. He said that on his return trip to his own abbey from Notre Dame, where he had been studying liturgy, he stopped at Gethsemani and spoke with "Fr. Louis." He said that Merton, knowing where he had been, said right away, "first off: I know you've been studying liturgy, but I don't want to talk about that." And then Merton then went on to talk about the liturgy. He said Merton told him that he loved Gregorian chant and Latin but that, with the recent changes within their order concerning the status and role of lay brothers, and with the decreased understanding of Latin [I'm not sure if here he meant just with the lay brothers, or all Trappists] he now understood the value of using the vernacular.

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