Chapter 1: Reflection 16 – The School of Charity

On the second day in Dharamsala, TM was truly experiencing a sense of connection, as he writes in his journal: “I do feel very much at home with the Tibetans…” 1 In another entry from the same day, TM allows himself to imagine the ways in which such a rich spiritual culture might inform his ability to re-experience and re-discover the treasures of his own:

I am curious about re-exploring the Romanesque artistic tradition and the 12th-century writers in Christian monasticism in relation to the Eastern traditions … i.e., in the light thrown on them by the East. 2   

The Christian monastic writers to which TM was referring most certainly included those of his own religious order, the Cistercians, founded in 1098. 3 In the earliest years of his monastic journey, the then “Frater Louis” was asked by the Abbot to research and translate materials that would make available to English-speaking readers a sense of what TM described as “the true Cistercian character of all our saints – their spirituality, their prayers, etc.” 4 One can sense something of the feeling of awe, legend, and longing toward the period in TM’s own words: “The Cistercian life of the twelfth century was a seamless garment, a perfect unity, whole and complete. It lacked nothing, and it was a single piece. It was simple and it was total …” 5 And the wealth of writings generated by the Cistercians of this period, the towering figure of Bernard of Clairvaux himself (1090-1153), as well as William of St. Thierry (c. 1085–1148) and Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 1167), would have an enormous and generative impact on Western Christian spirituality and mysticism for centuries. TM identifies the writings of these early monks as conveying – like early Cistercian monastic architecture – “the same mixture of solidity and luminous order and supernatural joy …” 6 The texts of these early Cistercian authors reflected their intense liturgical life which was itself completely saturated by the reading and the hearing of Holy Scripture. To engage them, and to begin to realize the extent to which the language of “the sacred page” is effortlessly, seamlessly, and inextricably woven into the fabric of their writings, is to be awestruck by the depth to which they absorbed it into their hearts and minds. 7 TM spent an enormous amount of his religious life studying, meditating on, and writing and teaching about the texts of these foundational authors. And he clearly and repeatedly identifies the distinct center point of these religious texts: “Cistercian theology is primarily a theology of love.” 8 This focus can be seen in the titles of their writings: Bernard of Clairvaux’s De Diligendo Deo (On Loving God), William of St. Thierry’s De Natura et Dignitate Amoris (On the Nature and Dignity of Love); and Aelred of Rievaulx’s Speculum Caritatis (The Mirror of Charity). Ultimately, for these Cistercians, the whole of monastic life becomes a “Schola Caritatis” (School of Charity), to “restore” the nature of the human person, “created in the image and likeness of God – that is to say, for love and for self-surrender.” 9

In the first words of her first chapter, Julian makes a simple statement, whose depth, specificity, and directness may at first not be felt by the reader, but which is well worth our attentive mindfulness: “This is a revelation of love …” As such, A Revelation is a re-telling of the teaching which those earlier monastics never tired of contemplating and preaching – and struggling to manifest in their lives. And Julian’s rootedness in the tradition of those Cistercian troubadours of love has not escaped the notice of scholars. 10 


  1. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Books, 1975, page 82.
  2. Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Books, 1975, page 85. In a journal entry marked “October 31 / Virgil of All Saints / Delhi,” TM describes having dinner at the Canadian Embassy the night before with the Commissioner and his wife at which he and the other quests “compared illustrations from books on Romanesque art with Tibetan mandalas…” (Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Books, 1975, page 70.) TM’s engagement with “the East” expressed itself in a number of ways, including his dialogue with Zen scholar, D. T. Suzuki, and his extensive reading in Russian Orthodox theology, both of which manifested in the latter half of the 1950’s. One also wonders if his curiosity about “re-exploring” might have had present within it the unformed hope of one on the threshold of a new day, a beginning anew: “Meadowlawk sitting quietly on a fence post in the dawn sun, his gold vest – bright with the light of the east, his black bib tidy, turning his head this way, that way. This is a Zen quietness without comment.” (Emphasis mine. Journal entry of July 2, 1964. In Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage. The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Five 1963-1965. Edited by Robert E. Daggy. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997. page 123.) I am grateful to Professor Christopher Pramuk for contextualizing TM’s engagement with both the Russian Orthodox theology and Professor Suzuki. See Christopher Pramuk, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009. 
  3. There would appear to have been something about his encounters with Tibetan Buddhists, particularly during his days in Dharamsala, that brought to TM’s mind and heart the figures of the early history of his own Cistercian Order, the figures of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and the monks of the community’s “Golden Age.” In a letter dated, November 7, 1968, TM writes the following to the Trappist Abbess, Mother Myriam Dardenne: “I am finishing what is more or less a week’s retreat in the Himalayas – in a cottage down the mountain from the Dalai lama’s residence. It has been a marvelous week. I have seen the Dalai Lama in two long audiences, and am to see him again tomorrow before I leave. He is a most impressive and likeable person and we have got on very well – talking about Tibetan methods of meditation, etc. Also I have met six or seven other Lamas who are reputed to be very great mystics and who are in fact very impressive. With all of them I have had really delightful and fruitful conversations (with a good interpreter) and it has been an amazing experience – like meeting monks of the time of St. Bernard …. [T]he quality of these [Tibetan] monks cannot be disputed. They are humble and profound human beings.” (Emphasis mine.) (Thomas Merton, The School of Charity: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction. Selected and edited by Brother Patrick Hart. New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1990, pages 408-409.) Internet Archive:  
  4. Upon entering the novitiate at Gethsemani, TM was given the name “Frater [Brother] Louis” with its full Latin expression being “Frater Maria Ludovicus” [Brother Mary Louis]. See Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain. Boston, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1948/1998, page 422-423. The words quoted in the reflection are those of TM, documented in a very helpful article written by one of TM’s Cistercian brothers, Chrysogonus Waddell (1930–2008), who was himself a significant scholar. See “Merton of Gethsemani and Bernard of Clairvaux.” The Merton Annual 5 (1992), page 107. Father Waddell also writes: “A rather important development in Frater Louis’ reading of Bernard and the Cistercians took place the year after his reception of the novice’s habit. He had been allowed to pass his first year of his novitiate following the outdoor workschedule of most of the novices, breaking rocks on the back road or splitting logs in the woodshed. But now, referring to his Lent of 1943, [TM] writes, ‘I had some indoor work for part of the time, since Reverend Father had already put me to translating books and articles from French. And so … I would get out book and pencil and papers and go to work at one of the long tables in the novitiate scriptorium, filling the yellow sheets as fast as I could, while another novice took them and typed them as soon as they were finished. In those days I even had a secretary …’” (Ibid, page 107). Available Online:
  5. Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1949, page 300. Internet Archive:
  6. Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1949, page 27. The quoted words are taken from the first chapter of the same book, in which TM sings of “the Cistercian life” as manifested in architecture and writing. Beginning with the former, he explains: “Cistercian architecture is famous for its energy and simplicity and purity, for its originality and technical brilliance … The typical Cistercian church, with its low elevation, its plain, bare walls, lighted by a few windows and without stained glass, achieved its effect by the balance of masses and austere, powerful, round or pointed arches and mighty vaulting. These buildings filled anyone who entered them with peace and restfulness and disposed the soul to contemplation in an atmosphere of simplicity and poverty. St. Benedict’s doctrine on humility, the basis of his teaching, was written out before them in stone.” (Ibid., page 14). Later in the same book, TM elaborates on the distinct character of these sacred structures: “Not till you got inside did you realize, suddenly, that the whole monastery was lighted from within. That is to say, it was centered upon a quiet pool of pure sunlight and warmth, the cloister garth. All around the central court, invisible to anyone outside, the wide bays and handsome open arches of the cloister allowed the light to pour in upon the flag-stones of the flour, where monks walked quietly in their hours of meditation or sat in corners with vellum manuscripts of St. Augustine or the Old Testament prophets.” (Ibid., page 275). In his praise of the early Cistercians, also called “The White Monks” because of their habits of undyed wool, TM links their architecture with their writing: “The Cistercian life, in the order’s Golden Age – which lasted until the middle of the thirteenth century – was a life of marvelous simplicity and joy … We have already spoken of the White Monks’ architecture. The same mixture of solidity and luminous order and supernatural joy is found in the magnificent theological prose of St. Bernard’s school.” (Ibid., page 27). Image One below is a photo of the Romanesque cloister of the Abbey of Fontenay founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard. Wiki Commons:
  7. About these “twelfth-century Cistercians,” TM writes: “They searched the Scriptures for light on the great doctrines of the Incarnation and Redemption which lie at the very heart of revelation and which are the key to all the vital problems of human and moral existence. They commented on the sacred text, and indeed they made Scripture so much their own that half of what they wrote was quoted from the bible and applied to their own context. The Cistercians, like all other monks of the early days, had absorbed Scripture to the point where they actually did their thinking in the very terms of the Prophets and the Evangelists.” (Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences. Edited with Introduction by Patrick F. O’Connell. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2018, pages 267-268.) To provide some sense of this phenomenon, the following passage – with thirteen scriptural references identified by editors inserted – is taken from Chapter 10, Section 27 of Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God: “Happy is the man who has attained the fourth degree of love, he no longer even loves himself except for God. ‘O God, your justice is like the mountains of God.’ [Psalm 35.7] This love is a mountain, God’s towering peak. Truly, indeed, it is the fat, fertile mountain. [Psalm 67.16] ‘Who will climb the mountain of the Lord?’ [Psalm 23.3] ‘Who will give me the wings of a dove, that I may fly to find rest?’ [Psalm 54.7] This place is made peaceful, a dwelling-place in Sion.’ [Psalm 75.3] ‘Alas for me, my exile has been lengthened.’ [Psalm 119.5] When will flesh and blood, [Matthew 16.17] this vessel of clay, [2 Corinthians 4.7] this earthly dwelling, [Wisdom 9:15] understand the fact? When will this sort of affection be felt that, inebriated with divine love, the mind may forget itself and become in its own eyes like a broken dish, [Psalm 30.13] hastening towards God and clinging to him, becoming one with him in spirit, [Corinthians 6.17] saying, ‘My flesh and my heart have wasted away; O God of my heart, O God, my share of eternity.’ [Psalm 72.26] I would say that man is blessed and holy to whom it is given to experience something of this sort, so rare in life, even if it be but once and for the space of a moment. To lose yourself, as if you no longer existed, to cease completely to experience yourself, to reduce yourself to nothing is not a human sentiment but a divine experience. [Cf. Philippians 2.7]” (Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God. With an Analytical Commentary by Emero Stiegman. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1995, page 29.) Internet Archive:
  8. Thomas Merton, The Cistercian Fathers and Their Monastic Theology: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 8. Ed. Patrick F. O’Connell. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016, page 1.
  9. Quoted in Thomas Merton, The School of Charity: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction, page, ix. A fuller quotation from the same text and page: “St. Bernard of Clairvaux expanded and implemented the thought of St. Benedict when he called the monastery a school of charity. The main object of monastic discipline, according to St. Bernard, was to restore man’s nature created in the image and likeness of God – that is to say, created for love and for self-surrender.” In a book of enormous importance in TM’s early spiritual formation, The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard, historian Etienne Gilson (1884–1978) dedicates a chapter to “Schola Caritatis.” (Etienne Gilson, The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard, Translated by A.H.C. Downes. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1990, pages 60-84.) Scholar Patrick O’Connell explains that the actual phrase can be found in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux’s friend and fellow-Cistercian, William of St. Thierry. Offering both the English translation and the original Latin, Professor O’Connell quotes William’s On the Nature and Dignity of Love: “This is a special school of love; here its studies are perfected, its disputations carried on, its conclusions reached not so much through abstract reasoning as through an intuitive grasp and direct experience of the truth of reality.” [Haec est specialis caritas schola, hic ejus studia excoluntur, disputationes agitantur, solutiones non ratiocinationibus tantum, quantum ratione et ipsa rerum veritate et experientia terminantur.] “Appendix V” in Thomas Merton, The Cistercian Fathers and Their Monastic Theology. Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 8. Edited by Patrick F. O’Connell. Collegeville, Minnesota: Cistercian Publications, Liturgical Press, 2016, note # 126, page 338.
  10. Noted medievalist Wolfgang Riehl writes, “Without question, Julian is rooted in tradition through Cistercian-Bernardine themes that still have power for her.” (Wolfgang Riehl, The Secret Within: Hermits, Recluses, and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England. Translated by Charity Scott-Stokes. Ithaca: Cormell University Press, 2014, page 212.)  Professor Riehl also footnotes this quotation of Grace M. Jantzen: “The influence of Bernard and the Cistercians was of course ubiquitous in fourteenth-century England.” (Ibid., Note #75, page 360.) The originating quotation is taken from: Grace M. Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian. New York: Paulist Press, 1988, page 63. Available at Internet Archive:

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