Books Read: March 2004 Archives

Vanity of Vanities


Writing in the late 1940’s, Merton seems to have thought that a widespread spiritual awakening was imminent. He also seems to have thought that this reawakening was vitally important to the future of the West, that it would prevent a “complete moral collapse.”

Merton saw the possibility that this anticipated reawakening would be very wide but not very deep. He thought, rightly I believe, that unless Christians rejected the attractions of the world and grounded their lives in contemplation, time spent in silence with God, they would end up being overcome by the world, rather than being the leaven that would turn the world to God. The revolution would come only if Christians took the bold step of being Christian.

Christian Tradition has taught that turning to God is simply to orient one’s life to the reality of our human existence. Merton wrote that our human nature imposes a fundamental structure to the way we must live our lives. “We must know the truth, and we must love the truth we know, and we must act according to the measure of our love.” The truth is that God created us for Himself, our “chief end” as the Shorter Catechism puts it, “is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” The Teacher wrote thousands of years ago that “. . .there is nothing new under the sun.” This is the conundrum of the atheist -- for him there is nothing outside of time on this earth. The Christian knows that to live according to reality one must always be aware of the immense and gracious gift of eternal life that is ours through Christ. The first stepin this awareness is rejection of the world, what St. Francis knew as Lady Poverty.

Those who have embraced the world may view this as childish dreaming or wishful thinking. But drawing on the writings of Pascal and St. Gregory of Nyssa Merton shows that it is the world that presents us with the illusion. Not that the world is not objectively real, it is and we know this by our senses, as well as common sense. The illusion comes when we do not see the world as it is, something that we can easily spend our lives chasing but that will never give us satisfaction. We see power, wealth, things as the highest good that we can achieve, but this is only self-delusion, we give it value that it does not inherently possess. It is like holding a discount coupon for our favorite restaurant and believing it is worth a million dollars. The coupon is objectively real but it is only “worth” the amount of the discount printed on it, our self-deception gives it a value it does not really have. We chase the goods of the world because they distract us from our own sinfulness, from ourselves, not for the value we receive from it.

This is what we try to remind ourselves of each Lenten season. Our fasts are not to torture ourselves with the temporal suffering or inconvenience of something we “give up”, but rather to help us come to know the truly important things in our lives. It is a time for “discernment and detachment” and gives us a chance to use our reason in order to grow in faith. As Merton says, “Reason is in fact the path to faith, and faith takes over when reason can say no more.”

Nathan and St. Thomas

| | Comments (1)

Nathan posted a comment to my last post on Merton, which I greatly appreciate, as I do all comments.

However, I must clarify that Thomas Merton is definitely NOT a saint, at least, not one officially recognized by the Church. I'm not sure if Nathan misunderstands this, or if he is suggesting that I am treating Merton as if he were a saint, unjustifiably so.

So, a second clarification -- that is not my intent. My intent is to show how one 20th century author, who was unique in that he was both a Catholic priest and a Trappist monk, was drawing on the solid Tradition of the Church to present Traditional solutions to the problems he saw facing the world in which he lived. The further point being that the Church today still has the Answer to the problems facing the world in which we live. I hope, not to canonize Thomas Merton, but to point up the Truth of the Church.

Nathan, sorry if I misunderstand your comment.

Paz y bien

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