Driven to Distraction

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Merton begins Ascent to the Truth with a chapter explaining his insistence on the importance of "contemplation" in the lives of not only religious but also laymen. His approach to the question is, I think, a bit novel, although valid.

Merton uses the terms "contemplation" and "interior life" almost interchangeably. For this reason, and because contemplative prayer is something so few of us are likely to ever experience, I am tempted to say that many of the benefits Merton claims for deepening one's interior life apply also to the ordinary experience of prayer. I think this point is important because it tends to validate what Merton was saying 50 years ago.

Merton begins the chapter with this statement: "The only thing that can save the world from complete moral collapse is a spiritual revolution." He saw, 50 years ago, that people were becoming much busier and spending much less time in solitude and in quiet. He saw also that this lack of solitude and pursuit of distraction would lead to moral difficulties for the individual and that, in turn, this would lead to the moral collapse of society at large. I think he has been proved correct in his assumption -- there is precious little peace and quiet today and, at the same time, it seems there is an ever-growing moral crisis in society at large.

What are the symptoms? One that I see played out repeatedly in my travels is the behavior of many young people (those under 40) on airplanes. It seems almost an instinctive reaction for many people that, as soon as they are settled in their seats, out come the headphones and CD players. The idea seems to be to seek distraction at all costs. Teenagers seem unable to sit quietly without some external stimulation to keep them distracted. The problem is, these children will never develop the interior resources to think for himself (or herself) nor the ability to spend time alone with himself, much less with God. If the pattern goes unchecked that child will have great difficulty with what Merton calls "the interior life."

Merton goes on:

"If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity. It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have order without saints."

Merton recognizes also that Christianity is about personal salvation, not social or political action. Again, I think he has been proved prophetic by events over the last 50 years or so. Society is breaking down, and Merton would say that it is because Christians are not living as Christians. He wrote:

"The big problem that confronts Christians is not Christ's enemies. Persecution has never done much harm to the inner life of the Church as such. The real religious problem exists in the souls of those of us who in their hearts believe in God, and who recognize their obligation to love Him and serve Him -- and yet do not."

We don't serve God because we are not open to the grace available to us through prayer, our spiritual lives are a barren desert. As a result we suffer and society crumbles.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on February 20, 2004 8:46 PM.

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