As I have mentioned before on this blog, the post-World War II, pre-Vatican II world that conservative American Catholics tend to idealize was not experienced as a golden time by Catholics who lived through it and were old enough to understand the terrors that had taken place between 1914 and 1945.
The bloodbath of World War I had overlapped with the October revolution in Russia which was ferociously athiestic. In fact, Pope Pius XI spoke of the "Terrible Triangle" - referring to persecution of Christians in the new Soviet Union and the civil wars in Mexico and Spain in which Catholics and the Church suffered horribly. Simultaneously, Hitler rose to Power in Germany. It all ended in another global catastrophe - World War II, the Holocaust, the bombing of HIroshima, and the beginning of the long anxiety of the nuclear era and the cold war.
Their literature, which I read a great deal of while preparing to teach the graduate course in the Theology of the Laity at Sacred Heart Seminary in June, is filled with anxiety and cataclysmic language. They talked as though all of life hung by a thread while we look back and think of them as inhabiting a serene, sunlit pastoral valley flowing with ecclesial milk and honey. i think we have to let the pre-Vatican II generation speak for itself in these matters. By comparison, we are the ones living in the sunlit valley.
I mention this as backdrop to an excerpt from a very interesting Australian Radio Broadcasting 2001 interview about Thomas Merton.
The question: Why was Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain such a publishing phenomena, selling 600,000 copies?
Robert Elwood: Certainly that immense success of the book caught the publishers and everybody else by surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have, if one really looked at the undercurrents of life in those immediate post-war years.
A series of books on mysticism – Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, Alan Watts’ Behold the Spirit and so on, were appearing around that time, and also doing quite well. What they suggest is that people were desperately looking for something different from the contemporary world, and understandably so, when you consider the terrible Great Depression, the horrors of World War II, the anxiety that people felt over the apparent triumph of Communism in much of Europe, the fact that although the war had ended, the world hardly seemed secure with the atomic bomb as a new player on the world scene, all of this created a kind of feeling that the modern world as we had understood it, had somehow really gotten out of control.
Opinion polls of young people around that time show that often the majority of young people did not expect to live a normal, full life, they were convinced that they would die in war, atomic holocaust or something like that.
So it was a time when the modern world seemed to have little appeal. In the midst of this I think the appeal was not so much to some future vision, because the future seemed pretty bleak indeed to those who thought about it, but rather looking back at the past. Was there a civilisation in the past that seemed to work better? And were there institutions in the world that preserved the values of that past, despite everything the world had been through. And in this context I think the Roman Catholic church and its vision, however idealised it may have been, of the Middle Ages, came out very well.
In this context somebody like Thomas Merton who is presented in the autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been to Columbia University in the late ‘30s, where it seemed like practically everybody was on a soapbox proclaiming some absolute dogma or other: communism, socialism, Catholicism, technocracy, all of the isms of the late ‘30s period, and in the midst of it all had finally decided on Catholicism, but not only that, but taking it to the point of becoming a monk in one of the most austere orders of the church, this caught people’s imagination. You know, this is a person who was willing to repudiate all of that modernity that it was giving us so much anxiety.
"young people around that time show that often the majority of young people did not expect to live a normal, full life, they were convinced that they would die in war, atomic holocaust or something like that."
In many ways, it is impossible to understand the enormous rise in religious and priestly vocations between 1945 and 1965 (20,000+, a 53% increase in 20 years!) without grasping what that generation of young adults had seen and lived through. In a sense, It was very like the reaction of the generation that lived through the wars of religion in France in late 16th century. They too entered (and founded) religious communities in large numbers and began the Catholic revival that transformed the nation.
But that sort of generational motivation is something that, by its very nature, is one generation deep and can not be sustained forever, especially if the times get better. In 17th century France, the war generation's intense focus on a heroic monastic asceticism and contemplation became, in their children, an intense focus on personal, pro-active charity in the world toward the poor, the illiterate, the sick, and the abandoned. Both were of God but there was a distinct generational shift.
Every generation has its own terrors and struggles of course. It is not Nazism or Communism but Islamic terrorism that tends to dominate our thoughts these days. But despite 9/11, most of us in the US do not expect to die in a terrorist attack and do expect to live a normal life span and to live a pretty comfortable life - which is why economic recession hits us so hard. It threatens our expectations of a middle class life. We don't live in fear of the annihilation of the humanity as Americans in the 50's and early 60's did. Our children don't routinely practice hiding under tables and in bomb shelters in case of a nuclear attack. Which gives us the leisure to spend our energies on other issues like "building a culture of life" and the liturgy.
And that distinguishes post-Vatican II Catholics from the pre-Vatican II generation as dramatically as the experience of celebrating the Mass in the vernacular.