Merton Discovers the Breviary

“In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office.” (Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 101.1)

When Thomas Merton learned he would not be accepted into the Franciscan novitiate, he was devastated. From that day forward he resolved to live at least with the spirituality of a religious, even if (so he thought) he could never become one. He bought the breviary and prayed it faithfully. His prior training in Latin enabled him to navigate easily the Latin psalms. Here he describes his first experiences with the Breviarium Romanum:

Buying those books at Benziger’s that day was one of the best things I ever did in my life. The inspiration to do it was a very great grace. There are few things I can remember that give me more joy.

The first time I actually tried to say the Office was on the feast of the Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney. I was on the train, going back to Olean–to Olean because the cottage was, for the time being, the safest place I could think of, and because anyway my best prospect for a job was at St. Bonaventure’s.

As soon as the train was well started on its journey, and was climbing into the hills towards Suffern, I opened up the book and began right away with Matins, in the Common of a Confessor-non-pontiff. “Venite exultemus Domino, jubilemus Deo salutari nostro…” It was a happy experience, although its exultancy was subdued and lost under my hesitations and external confusion about how to find my way around in the jungle of the rubrics. To begin with, I did not know enough to look for the general rubrics at the beginning of the Pars Hiemalis and anyway, when I did eventually find them, there was too much information in small-print and obscure canonical Latin for me to make much out of them.

The train climbed slowly into the Catskills, and I went on from psalm to psalm, smoothly enough. By the time I got to the Lessons of the Second Nocturn, I had figured out whose feast it was that I was celebrating.

This business of saying the Office on the Erie train, going up through the Delaware valley, was to become a familiar experience in the year that was ahead. Of course, I soon found out the ordinary routine by which Matins and Lauds are anticipated the evening of the day before. Usually, then, on my way from New York to Olean, I would be saying the Little Hours around ten o’clock in the morning when the train had passed Port Jervis and was travelling at the base of the steep, wooded hills that hemmed in the river on either side. If I looked up from the pages of the book, I would see the sun blazing on the trees and moist rocks, and flashing on the surface of the shallow river and playing in the forest foliage along the line. And all this was very much like what the book was singing to me, so that everything lifted up my heart to God.

– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 329-331

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