Merton and Yancy

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My wife picked up my copy of The Ascent to Truth and has taken possession of it. In self defense and taking a hint from Steven Bogners, I began to read Merton's Contemplative Prayer, his last book, which was published a year or so after he died. It has been an eye opener. The Ascent to Truth is one of Merton's earliest books and seems to me to be the writing of a thoroughly orthodox, faithful, Catholic monk. To my surprise, so does Contemplative Prayer.

I had it in my mind, after four or five years of reading nothing by Merton, that towards the end of his life he had lost his way and gotten lost in eastern meditation techniques. I have to say this idea was almost subconscious with me but present in my mind, nonetheless. It was a bit of an eye-opener when both Steven Riddle and Steven Bogners suggested that this was the case. Two things have become apparent to me in my reading in both The Ascent to Truth and Contemplative Prayer -- Merton did not lose his faith and he did not understand contemplative prayer as something brought on by technique. He clearly views contemplative prayer as something infused by God, a gift of His grace. To quote just one short passage from Contemplative Prayer:

"From these texts we see that in meditation we should not look for a "method" or "system," but cultivate an "attitude," and "outlook": faith, openness, attention, reverence, expectation, supplication, trust, joy. All these finally permeate our being with love in so far as our living faith tells us we are in the presence of God, that we live in Christ, that in the Spirit of God we "see" God as our Father without "seeing." We know him in "unknowing." Faith is the bond that unites us to him in the Spirit who gives us light and love."

Something in the way of corroboration of this is provided in an article which T. S. O’Rama referred me to in his comment on my last Merton post. The article was published in Touchstone Magazine and compares three books, all published around 1950, one by J. d. Salinger, one by Jack Kerouac and one by Thomas Merton, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, and The Seven Storey Mountain, respectively. The article examines the fact that with a few years of each other 3 American writers published books with a religious perspective dealing with the subject of detachment. The author points out that while all three wrote on the same subject, each came from a different religious perspective, Salinger from the Hindu, Kerouac from the Buddhist, and Merton, of course, from the Catholic tradition. He also points out that each was a flawed human being in his own way.

The thing that comes out clearly from my reading of this article is that, while all three wrote on the idea of detachment, Merton was the one who got it right, his orthodox Catholicism lead him to take the proper approach to both his life and his topic. While Merton may have been a flawed individual – rebellious, contemptuous of his abbot and fellow monks, prone to drinking in his later years, he was not nearly as flawed as were the other two; they turned out to be kooks. For all his difficulties, Merton was still able, at the end of his life, to write a book on contemplative prayer like one he wrote 15 years earlier, a book that remained as true as he could make it to Church teaching and Tradition. As for Salinger, his is still (I think) holed up somewhere in New England as completely cut off from the world as he can get. Kerouac died at the age of 47 of hemorrhaging of the esophagus, his mind most likely burned out from continuous drug usage. Merton's faith, however, seems to be the one constant in his life, the one thing he got right.

The lesson from the article is that faith, Christian faith, does matter. For Merton, it allowed him to have a far better perspective on reality, on life, than either Salinger or Kerouac ended up having. Merton's faith allowed him to understand that detachment is not withdrawal from the world, it is an opening out to God and this understanding makes a world of difference in our lives. One path leads to nothing but denial, and ultimately to nothing, the other leads to eternal joy, a sharing in God's eternal life.

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Steven R has pointed out that my last comment on Yancy was harsh and perhaps unjustified. I agree and would like to clarify what I was trying to say. I will return to my original evaluation that the problem with Yancy, and it is a fundamental problem not only with him but most Protestant writers, is that he does not have a proper understanding of the Church. I don't mean that he is anti-Catholic necessarily. I mean he does not clearly understand the nature of what the Church is.

However, more on Yancy in another post.

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One Housekeeping item:

I have been giving some thought to either inviting two or three other bloggers to join me here at the 7 Habitus or else starting a new blog with two or three others. It is clear to me that I am unable to maintain a volume of doing posts every day, or even every other day, and that it might be more efficient for a couple of us to combine forces.

The guidelines I would propose for, say, a new blog, would be as follows:

1. Authors would have to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church.

2. Topics would be of a practical and spiritual nature, dealing with the role of an orthodox Catholic in todays society and also looking a the Tradition of the Church through the ages.

3. No posts of a partisan political nature; there's enough of that on the web already.

I'm not sure if I will follow through on this or not, however, if it strikes your fancy, please send me an email.


Dear Ron,

I hope I am misreading you. I do not believe I ever suggested that Merton was anything other than orthodox. I did suggest that "he lost his way," but not into heterodoxy, rather into a kind of confusion about where his vocation lay and how best to achieve the end. I have always defended Merton against those who attacked his work because of the later writings, some of which can be read as quite syncretistic. (Take a look at The Asian Journal or Zen and the Birds of Appetite, for example.) But while I acknowledged the possible reading, I have remained steadfast, or at least have intended to remain steadfast in my defense of these writings as exploration for a method out of personal confusion--I don't think Merton was ever confused about the Church and its essential validity and truthfulness.

If I did say these things, or rather seem to, I think it may have been the result to trying to tread very carefully around sensibilities associated with Merton and his later life. My apologies. I honestly believe that there are definitely problems with Merton's later works and with some aspects of his own personal life that could lead unsuspecting Catholics astray; however, I do not think I've read anything that suggested other than a fundamental Catholic outlook on all issues of importance.

Once again, my apologies if I misspoke. Sometimes I'm not quite sure how I feel or think about an issue--but in this case, I think it very wise to warn "newly formed" or "uncertain Catholics" away from the later works, not because they are flawed, but because the people reading them may not be informed enough to distinguish between subtle shades of meaning and thought.

Merton himself wrote that he "talked" (and wrote) so much about contemplative prayer that he had little time to experience it--this was one of the major sources of his late-in-life temporary derailment--and it could be a source of worry to others as well.




I think I may have misspoken. I ask everyone to bear with when I write on the subject of Merton and/or contemplative prayer; I am not at all an expert, or even a beginning novice, when it comes to these topics and I feeling my way.

I did not mean to imply that you said Merton was unorthodox in his Catholic belief, in fact, I understood you to say that you believed him to be orthodox. I think I understood you to say in your comment that he was mistaken or took the wrong approach to contemplative prayer, not mistaken as to his core beliefs. I think you are right, too, when you say that he did not experience contemplative prayer to a great extent. I think if he had he would not be so open to misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

I for one, despite having read, admittedly some years ago, most of everything he published still do not clearly understand it, or him.

Pax et bonum

Dear Ron,
I am new reader of your blog and am indeed new to blogging in general. I have been looking for this sort of forum to converse with other orthodox Catholics and have had this desire most blessedly fulfilled since discovering St. Blog's webring. I write to you in response to your invitation for other "bloggers" and would be interested in contributing posts to your site. You can find an example of my writing on my own fledgling blog or can email any questions you may have to
Thank you for your faithfulness as a Catholic and contributions as an intellectual and I look forward to hearing from you. God bless!


I looked at your blog and would be delighted to have you join me, I sent you an email so we can discuss details.


Dear Ron,

Thanks. That was the message I hoped I was conveying. And I probably did say he was "wrong" about his approach, and in that I overstated the matter. Later in life, I think he lost track of the path and attempted to get back on through Zen methods (not necessarily a bad thing). But I will continue to insist on Merton's essential loyalty to the Church regardless of "technique" and I want to be sure to continue to toe this line. So I deeply appreciate the clarification.



I'm reading SSM and falling in love the everything. I've never read a book written with such style and grace, and unperfected yet perfect love of our Lord.


SSM was crucial in my coming into the Church and I'm glad you are enjoying it. That's a good phrase "unperfected yet perfect love." That says a lot about Merton.


I'm also reading selections of it to my children. My older two were visibly moved by the story of how Merton used to toss rocks at his younger brother to keep him away, denying him that love he needed so deeply. I think they got the hint...

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on October 9, 2003 7:45 PM.

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