Books Read: October 2003 Archives

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.

New Blogs and Merton

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There are a couple of new blogs that have caught my attention recently. One, The Lowly Pilgrim, I have already done a brief post about. The other Catholicism, holiness, and spirituality is a new blog that also shows promise. The thing that caught my attention, even caught me by surprise, with both of these blogs is that they each prominently feature references to Thomas Merton. You might be asking why I find this surprising.

As I previously posted, Merton played a big role in my conversion. While I was in RCIA I read many of his books, especially The Seven Story Mountain, and continued such reading for a year or two after coming into the Church. Merton was one of the few Catholic authors I was familiar with; since I wanted to learn all I could about being Catholic he was the guy I turned to. However, as I came to better understand Church teaching, I became increasingly uncomfortable with Merton. The problem, of course, was his later writing dealing with Eastern spirituality. This fascination of his seemed impossible to me to reconcile with the idea that he was, after all, a Catholic priest. He seemed, toward the end of his life, to have been cut loose from his spiritual moorings. It also thought that, as a guy trying to be an orthodox Catholic, I should no longer bother with Fr. Louis Merton.

I had pretty much adhered to this resolution until just in the last couple of months when, browsing through my bookshelves, I came up my Merton books and I happened to pick up The Ascent to Truth. As I began to read the book I found that it was really a very good book and I also received an added bonus: I began for the first time, to gain some slight insight into the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

Then, low and behold, I stumbled across two blogs in the same week that unashamedly feature, as I said, references to Thomas Merton. Could I possibly have been wrong about Merton? Maybe yes, maybe no.

The problem is, I'm not sure I understand Merton very well. What drove his enthusiasm with Zen and other Eastern spirituality? Was he somehow just caught up in the spirit of the '60s and being of an artistic bent couldn't help it? Did he ever renounce his Catholic faith (perhaps a better way to put it is, did he, in effect, abandon it?} In any case, what in the world got into him? Merton is a huge enigma to me, how can a man be a Catholic priest, a Trappist, and at the same time, seem to be so into the culture of his time? Did he really go wrong? I have not found a satisfactory biography of Merton and have never read much criticism about him that would provide an explanation. Perhaps some of you have greater insight into him than I do, any thoughts would be appreciated.

Re reading The Ascent to Truth, I am reminded that, a one time early in his life, Merton was surely a faithful Catholic. I was also reminded reading this book, what a really good writer he was, and there can be no doubt about that.

So, with the, I'm sure, unintended encouragement of my two new fellow bloggers I first am going to go back and re read The Ascent to Truth right through and then, perhaps read a few other of his books. This may be one time when I have been wrong to avoid an author.

P.S. A further note on Phillip Yancy. I do not recommend that any Catholic read any of his books. I believe that my initial impression of the trouble with his work was somewhat mistaken. I was under the impression that the difficulty is that his writing reflects a highly deficient understanding of the meaning of the Church. After reading the first few pages of Soul Survivor my wife pointed out that he seems to harbor some bitterness toward something that happened in his early church experience; this has also turned him into a bit of a PC type Christian -- the worse part is that the bitterness is what shows through in his writing.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books Read category from October 2003.

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