Books Read: February 2004 Archives

Why Merton?

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I have been persisting, albeit irregularly, in returning to Thomas Merton and his book The Ascent to Truth as a topic for posts here over the last few months. I thought it might be useful both to you and to myself to explain why I think Merton, and this book, are important enough to keep me returning to them as the subject for some very inadequate reflections.

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Merton entered the Trappist monastery of The Abbey of Gethsemane, in Kentucky, in 1941, coincident with the entry of the United States into World War II. A few years before joining the Trappists he had tried to become a Franciscan, but because he had fathered a child out of wedlock while going to school in England, the Franciscans wouldn’t have him. For the first few years he was at Gethsemane he did not write, in fact, he had pretty much given up on his earlier hope of becoming a writer. However, in the late 1940’s his abbot encouraged him to begin writing, and in 1948 The Seven Story Mountain was published to great acclaim. With the publication of The Seven Story Mountain Merton became at once a best-selling author and an important literary figure in the United States.

Unlike many literary figures of his time, Merton stood out as not only a practicing Catholic but also a Trappist monk, living under vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and, lets not forget, silence, in a monastery in Kentucky. Merton was unique also in that he wrote seriously, for a popular audience, about “exotic” topics such as contemplative prayer and the works of great Catholic saints such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. He engaged a culture that was becoming increasingly secular, not only from the perspective of Catholic teaching and Tradition, but also out of the mystical traditions of the Church. In doing so, he became a living contradiction, which may explain the nervous breakdown he experienced sometime in 1952 or 1953.

However, as influential as Merton was during the last 20 years or so of his life, he was also greatly influenced by the “world” that he had left behind on entering the monastery. Merton’s response to the world, and the evil he saw in it, was God, approached from the point of view of the contemplative.

Merton was like many Americans who lived in the 1950’s and ’60’s: after World War II America and the Soviet Union seemed on the verge of a nuclear war that threatened to destroy everyone and everything. Merton viewed this simply as evil let loose in the world. He saw, correctly I think, the world at a crucial turning point in human history. As a Christian he saw the choice facing the world of his day as either total nuclear self-destruction or a mass turning to God and rejection of evil. The choice for Merton was black and white, good vs. evil. He saw Christianity as the only possible moral and religious choice, but a choice that would only prove fruitful if Christians chose to live out their vocations as Christians. Merton writes that the only way for Christians to really live out their vocations was not through greater activity, not even Apostolic activity, but rather through silence. Merton simply proposes the truth that Augustine wrote in his Confessions - our hearts are restless until they rest in God. There is no other source of grace. He saw contemplation as a vital element of interior growth, and he believed that as individuals grew closer to God they would change, and thus societies would change. Merton saw the Christian faith as vital to the redemption of the world, not only from sin and death, but from absolute self-annihilation. He wrote: “The only thing that can save the world from complete moral collapse is a spiritual revolution. Christianity, by its very nature demands such a revolution.”

Merton, however, did not end up rejecting the world entirely. He came into contact with an enormous array of people from all walks of life, from Jacques Maritain to Eveyln Waugh; the range of his correspondence is almost staggering. This contact with the world left him open to the other influences of the 1950’s and these affected his later books. Remember, during the 1950’s we had the “Beat” generation, the civil rights movement with it’s non-violence, Americans began to turn to the East and Zen as a possible source of spiritual strength, and there was the call for the Second Vatican Council. All these things had an impact on Merton and his later writing. But they are not so evident in The Ascent to Truth. In this book we have a simple choice presented to us, good vs. evil. And we have a very traditional Catholic presentation of what it means for an individual to choose good and base his life on that choice. “Repent, and turn to the Gospel.”

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.

Merton and the Saints

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Reading Merton's Ascent to the Truth, the first thing that struck me is found in the Author's Note. In this short introduction, Merton credits the work of various Carmelite writers "Regular and Tertiaries" and also acknowledges his debt to a work by Jacques Maritain - Degrees of Knowledge. Although this has little, if anything, to do with what Merton is saying in the book itself, I was struck by the fact that here we have an author, a Trappist, writing about the thought of two famous Carmelite saints, acknowledging the work of a famous, indeed distinguished, Thomist. Only in the Church could one find, under one roof, such a range of spiritualities.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books Read category from February 2004.

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