December 5, 2020

How Clear and Solid the Doctrine

Corpus Christi Church, NYC

Monday Merton Musings, Nov. 21, 2011
How Clear and Solid the Doctrine

All quotes are from The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton

• • •

In the days when Thomas Merton began his graduate studies, he also began to feel the desire to go to a church for worship on Sundays. After some deliberation (and procrastination), he decided to attend his first Mass.

He chose a little brick church on 121st St. in New York — Church of Corpus Christi.

“How bright the little building seemed. Indeed, it was quite new. The sun shone on the clean bricks. People were going in the wide open door, into the cool darkness and, all at once, all the churches of Italy and France came back to me. The richness and fulness of the atmosphere of Catholicism that I had not been able to avoid apprehending and loving as a child, came back to me with a rush; but now I was to enter into it full for the first time. So far, I had known nothing but the outward surface.”

Merton’s description of the congregants in attendance that day reflects his pre-Vatican II Catholic views of a primary difference between Catholics and Protestants:

“What a revelation it was, to discover so many ordinary people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another; not there to show off their hats or their clothes, but to pray, or at least to fulfil a religious obligation, not a human one. For even those who might have been there for no better motive than that they were obliged to be, were at least free from any of the self-conscious and human constraint, which is never absent from a Protestant church where people are definitely gathered together as people, as neighbors, and always have at least half an eye for one another, if not all of both eyes.”

Corpus Christi Church, interior

After the Gospel reading, a young priest stood up to preach, and this was the part of Thomas Merton’s first experience at Mass that was to prove most revelatory for him. He found the sermon quite impressive.

“It was not long: but to me it was very interesting to hear this young man quietly telling the people in language that was plain, yet tinged with scholastic terminology, about a point in Catholic doctrine. How clear and solid the doctrine was: for behind those words you felt the full force not only of Scripture but of centuries of a unified and continuing and consistent tradition. And above all, it was a vital tradition: there was nothing studied or antique about it. These words, this terminology, this doctrine, and these convictions fell from the lips of the young priest as something that were most intimately part of his own life. What was more, I sensed that the people were familiar with it all, and that it was also, in due proportion, part of their life also: it was just as much integrated into their spiritual organism as the air they breathed or the food they ate worked in to their blood and flesh.”

It was a message on the Person of Christ, his divinity, and incarnation. “And His works were the works of God: His acts were the acts of God. He loved us: God, and walked among us: God, and died for us on the Cross, God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God.”

Merton testifies that this sermon was the part of the Mass that he most needed to hear that day.

When it came time for celebrating the eucharist, he became uncomfortable and left the sanctuary. But another ray of light had pierced his heart.

Even though the streets he walked were familiar, something had changed: “All I know is that I walked in a new world.”


  1. Richard Hershberger says

    “Merton testifies that this sermon was the part of the Mass that he most needed to hear that day.”

    Interesting. When I attend Catholic Mass the sermon is far more often than not painfully bad. Homiletics is far from the Catholic church’s forte. I’m not saying that I never encounter a good sermon well delivered, but it is rare enough that I am always startled.

    • In my only Catholic Church experiences the sermons were not the part I remembered. For that much they couldn’t have been terrible. But man alive, I’ve heard some really bad preaching at an array of Protestant churches. As a Protestant Evangelical pastor, it really makes me self-conscious about my own preaching.

    • How sad and how true this often is. In my experience it is mostly diocesan priests, priests who are not part of a religious order but are directly under the Bishop and his authority. I also have found it is mostly older priests who were ordained either prior to Vat II or within the first 10-15 +/- years after. This is not all inclusive, meaning all priests within this time, but what I observed to often be the case. I have often wondered if the fact diocesan priests don’t have any real structure to their lives – meaning they are on their own for personal growth and faithfulness to their prayer lives in comparison to priests who are part of a religious community where the daily structure and community help to maintain their prayer life and ongoing personal study. When life’s inevitable trials come diocesan priests, who most often live alone, don’t even have the support of wife. This is isn’t to justify bad homilies, it is something I encountered after leaving the religious life that truly pained me and was often difficult to sit through.

      On the same note, I have found that priests who have been ordained within the past 20-25 years or so are much more skilled at at presenting who Jesus is and explaining the Scriptures and Faith.

      • Are you also suggesting that Priests from the monastic communities were better preachers?

        • Priests of any religious order (fransican, dominican, carmelite, benedictine etc. etc.), whether of an active apostolate or monastic, in my experience are much better preachers. Granted, this doesn’t mean absolutely no diocesan priests have good skills in this area nor does it mean all those of religious orders do.

          Those in religious communities have the influence of their order’s own spirituality which also aids in their own spiritual formation and as priests. Many are also trained in spiritual direction and spiritual formation as well as trained to give retreats which would aid in their preaching skills.

          • I enjoy your insights very much. Other than the fierce but fleeting desire of every good Catholic girl to be a nun at age 10 or so, I have limited insight into the monastic life. I was glad as a teen to know that Marriage was also a vocation! So your comments and experience are not only helpful to those who don’t know the Faith, but even to us cradle Cat-licks!

    • The homilies are hit and miss, in my experience. But I think that’s mainly because the liturgy and the Eucharist are more important in the Mass. The music, on the other hand…I don’t think I’ve heard a single good hymn in a Catholic Mass (good meaning theological depth and solid music) that I didn’t originally hear as a Protestant.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        One sometimes sees a Catholic mass with good music, but this generally means one that ignores the last half century (at least) of Catholic music. When I was in college I had a professor who was also the director of music at Mission Santa Barbara (one of the original Spanish missions that ran up the coast of California). He would sometimes tip me off when they were doing, say, a Mozart mass. And even their routine stuff was quite good, in a self-consciously traditional way. But yeah, a run of the mill diocesan parish mass has absolutely dreadful music.

        • For those of us who came of age in the 70’s, “Glory and Praise” songs are as set in our hearts as John Denver and the Carpenters. (I think we all “imprint” on the music of our teenage years……..)

          • ….yes, despite how awful it may sound to the rest of the world!

          • Curious to know if you remember “Table of the Lord” , big on the catholic folk scene in early seventees New York… still can see those girls with the iron pressed hair banging on acoustics at the folk Mass….

    • I don’t know, it’s been mixed on the whole in my experience. The Bishop delivered a homily that was jaw dropping good while we where converting, but I’ve seen young priests miss the mark, and hit it out of the park in the next homily.

      Sometimes the homily wonders too and fro, and other times it’s on point and the age of the priest seems not to matter much. The key is that for Catholics the homily can suck and you still get a great Mass, because the homily is just a small part of a much larger picture.

      But it’s the same in the evangelical world, I’ve heard some great sermons in the most unlikely of places. And some that made me cringe (and a couple that made me get up and leave), in places that should have it all locked down. I don’t miss the sermons built on guilt and the incessant altar calls after the sermon in my fundie days, but I still enjoy a well thought out sermon or story, mix a little humor in there and you’ve got a winner 🙂

      Our first Mass was on August 15th, the day of the Celebration of the Assumption. So I walk in a skeptical protestant worried about these Catholics worshiping a statue of Mary, and they preached on Mary, Yikes!!!.

      It’s funny now…

      But I about crawled out of my skin when I realized what was happening, however the Fr. did a good job in showing how she points us to Christ, and I guess it worked because we came back and eventually joined.

      I just ordered Seven Story Mountain, I wish you could get it on a kindle, but no go. So I have to go old fashioned on it!! Oh the Horror 🙂


      • The difference being that, in most non-sacramental churches, the “preaching of the sermon” is the major focus of time and attention.

        As RC, when I get a great homily (our Pastor is a young baby-boomer who was ordained the year we were married, and his ROCK 85% of the time) I can enjoy and learn, and if it is awful we still had the Word and the Table is coming right up in less than 20 minutes!

  2. “And His works were the works of God: His acts were the acts of God. He loved us: God, and walked among us: God, and died for us on the Cross, God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God.”

    The gospel (what he heard) has the power to grab a hold of us. This true whether it’s in a Methodist church, a Catholic church, or one of those non-denominational/Baptist churches that looks a warehouse on the corner.

  3. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    Thinking of converting Mike?

  4. Too often churches that do give you the gospel once in a while, are like the cow who gives a nice bucket of milk…and then kicks it over. (by telling you what you should, ought, and must be doing IN ADDITION to that gospel.

    No thanks. Luther had it right. Christ alone saves, and nothing else is required. Nothing.

  5. One of the best sermons that I have heard in a long while was while visiting a Catholics church. I couldn’t not have been more than 10 minutes long, gave some background/cultural info, and also gave some POSSIBLE applications for us as christians. The priest was quite old. I got the impression that time had tempered him.

    • David Cornwell says

      Father George was one of the most loved pastors in a small town where I served for a few years. He lived out the gospel every single day, served his church and community, loved his people, and his people loved him. There was also a small Catholic school in the town. The churches in the community had several ecumenical services each year in which he always served an important role. He was older and eventually was permitted to retire. When I was around him, our differences always seemed so small and unimportant.

  6. Sadly, we DO have people checking each other out at Mass, but it tends not to be a check from the fashion and prosperity police, but a check for appropriate modesty…..based on the standards of 1959 and so as to not cause “an occaison of sin” to some relentlessly sex-obsessed 15 year old boy in the fourth row.

    • Sorry, I have to go with the best Catholic joke ever:

      A newlywed wife goes to her preist, concerned because her young husband is quite adamant about having relations on Sunday morning, before they head out to the 10:45 Mass. She ask, blushing, if it is okay to have sex before Mass on Sunday.

      Her pastor replied, in all sincerity…..

      “As long as you’re married and don’t block the aisles.”

  7. Jonathanblake says

    Some of the best preaching I’ve heard in a long time was at a small, local Orthodox church. That priest could say more in a 10-15 minute homily than most preachers (I think I’ll add myself in here though I’m working on my precision in preaching) can say in 40 minutes. Maybe this is so because the main event there isn’t preaching but Eucharist and the liturgy so the preaching doesn’t have to be an half hour spectacle but a concise message with theological depth on the Scripture readings of the day (again this is my experience at this church). I look forward to hearing Father Andrew preach this Advent and Christmastime