In August 1945, just weeks before the official end of World War II, Winston Churchill stood on the floor of Parliament and declared, “The United States stand at this moment at the summit of the world.” In the coming decades, Churchill’s pronouncement proved prescient—a momentous victory on the battlefield was followed by an unparalleled resurgence on the home front, as the golden age of American capitalism ushered in an era of unparalleled economic growth and prosperity.
At the height of these Happy Days, however, a strange trend emerged: Amid rising prosperity and the allure of social mobility, an increasing number of Americans were forsaking ice cream parlors and tail-fin Cadillacs in exchange for a life of poverty, manual labour, and silence in the cloistered walls of Cistercian monastic life.
Thomas Merton was a pioneer of this movement. In 1941, at the age of twenty-six, Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a monastery just outside Louisville, Kentucky, and left the world behind. Reflecting on his decision, Merton wrote,
What I needed was the solitude to expand in breadth and depth and to be simplified out under the gaze of God more or less the way a plant spreads out its leaves in the sun. That meant that I needed a Rule that was almost entirely aimed at detaching me from the world and uniting me with God, not a Rule made to fit me to fight for God in the world.
Merton was not alone.