Recently in Books Read Category

The Permanent Things


As I have said before, I’ve been working on writing a mystery. One of my characters in the book (which I hope might become a series) is a historian who is working on “the definitive biography of John Quincy Adams, JQA, who may have been the most brilliant man ever to serve as President of the Republic.” I chose JQA as an ongoing topic in the book/series more or less as a joke, but as I’ve begun doing research on the man, I’m coming to a greater respect and almost awe of our sixth president.

For example, JQA wrote this letter to his son, Charles Francis Adams, a few months before his death. (The letter is, of course, hand written and the old man’s hand became more unsteady and he got to the end of this brief letter and, therefore, a bit harder to read.):

Jan 1 1848

My Dear Son;

On this commencement of a new year, my thoughts intensely turn to you, to the partner of your life, to your children, and to the Giver of all good, in thanksgiving for all the blessings which you have been, and still are to me, and in fervent supplication for the favors of divine Providence upon you – one and all –Especially that you may be sustained in your incorruptible integrity through all the tasks which may be reserved for you upon earth, and that whatever may be their outcome here, of which I abate not a jot of heart and hope, you will at least be [illegible] of the approbation of your maker.

A stout heart, and clear conscience, and never despair,

Your affectionate father,

John Quincy Adams

It’s hard to imagine one of our political leaders today writing such a letter. One point that comes out of this, though, and one I think I had anticipated, is that the fathers of our country had a very different view of the meaning of the idea of the state and of political life than we do today.

I think it is clear from the recent hearings to confirm Justice Alito, that politics today is mostly viewed as a contest for personal and party advantage. A couple of days after Judge Alito’s wife walked out of the Senate Chamber in tears, one of the Democratic senators commented to the press that “We would have won Wednesday if it hadn’t been for that . . .” It’s clear that to this man the hearings to determine the fitness of a man to serve of the supreme court were not about the constitutional duty of the Senate to “advise and consent,” but rather about how the hearings played out in the press. At least for this senator, service to the country is viewed in terms of personal gain or loss and not much more.

This clearly is not how JQA viewed his own life of public service. Russell Kirk explains how JQA might look upon public service in his book The Conservative Mind when he offers this definition of conservatism:

As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here, that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors . . . they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution; it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine.

He goes on to list some of the key traits of a conservative, the first of which reads in part:

Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems are, at bottom, religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called the Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs.”

“Political problems are, at bottom, religious and moral problems.” I think JQA would have agreed with that statement. Were he alive today, John Quincy would understand the root causes of the mess we find ourselves in right now, both in the US and in Europe. He would say our problems arise precisely because we are trying to exclude any belief in a transcendent order from our political conduct. He would say that the two realms cannot be separated so easily.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to change the current public understanding of such issues as “the separation of Church and State,” abortion “rights” and personal responsibility. One thing that I have changed my mind about is becoming active in the issues affecting my own city and state. I have thought for some time that the last thing I wanted to be involved in was politics; but I believe that idea is wrong. I am beginning to think it important to know who is running for office, Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian, and to support those who are committed to the same issues I am. Even local elections can have a huge impact on national issues.

I am posting this entry on another blog I have started called “The Permanent Things” and, as I do more research into the early history of the Republic, I may make further posts there rather than on “The 7 Habitus.” It seems, and perhaps I’m contradicting myself, that the topic of history and politics may not be quite suitable for a “Catholic” blog. For the time being, I’ll post on these topics in both places, but will try to keep them separate as time goes on.

Vanity of Vanities


Writing in the late 1940s, 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 ones 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

Why Merton?

| | Comments (5)

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.

Merton 1.jpg

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 wouldnt 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 1940s 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. Mertons 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 1950s and 60s: 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 1950s and these affected his later books. Remember, during the 1950s we had the Beat generation, the civil rights movement with its 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


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


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.

Yancy, Yet Again


While I was gone I garnered 2 comments to the posts I did on Phillip Yancy back in November. I believe my reply, especially to one of them may be a bit extended, thus another post rather than simply commenting in response.

To both commenters, I would like to restate two points that I had hoped to make clear in my earlier posts on Yancy. First, there is in his writing what I termed a sort of bitterness against things that apparently occurred to him while growing up in the South during the 1950's and '60's. I admit that "bitterness" may be too strong a term, perhaps unforgiveness is a better term, but whatever it is, I believe it detracts from the work of a Christian writer. Which brings me to my second point, my criticism of Yancy is not that he is Protestant, but that this element in his writing would detract from the work of any Christian writer, not just that of a Protestant. I would also like to emphasize that my comments on Yancy's book express more a sense of disappointment rather than outright criticism. I was prepared to like him but was put off by this negative tone in his work.

Now to a couple of points that Joy makes. First, I hope that I do not express a sense of personal superiority over any other believer, Catholic or Protestant. I agree that too often Catholics tend to become too wrapped up in dogma, to the extent that, as I have pointed out before, the religion takes the place of God. On the other hand, as a former Presbyterian and, I hope, faithful Catholic, I must point out that the reason I came home to Rome is the fact that it was only there that I could find any semblance of doctrinal purity still being professed.

The fallacy I found in Protestantism is precisely the point that Joy criticizes the Church and Catholics for in her comment, the impossibility of the Protestant claim that the Bible is the sole authority on matters of faith and morals. When both Presbyterians and Jehovah's Witnesses claim that their teachings are true and based solely on the teaching of the Bible, then it must be self-evident that something is wrong. The Bible, being the revealed Word of God, cannot possibly teach things that are so completely contradictory. There is a need for an authority, a divine arbiter if you will, to make clear what it is that the Bible teaches. Even Protestants themselves do not really live by the doctrine of sola scriptura, for example, by own former denomination, the Presbyterians, were forced early on to come up with the Westminster Catechism to clarify what they believed to be true. Jehovah's Witnesses do not, each one on their own, sit down in a locked room with nothing but a Bible, and independently come up with the things the Witnesses teach, they are taught these things. As a side note, I might point out that one has only to look at the chaos occurring in both the ECUSA and the Presbyterian Church USA to see the failure of sola scriptura.

I do think that it is a shame that there are many Catholics who may or may not attend Mass on a regular basis who know little or nothing about Scripture or the teachings of the Church. I believe this fact to be one source of the problems that both the Church and society are facing today. I think it is one of the greatest failures of the Church in the last 30 years. However, I must say, that the same thing can also be said of many Protestants. Catholics should be reminded that not all Protestants have their Bibles memorized, and are walking the earth as experts on questions of the faith. Yet, to the extent that it is true that any Christian is ignorant of the faith, we are all the weaker for it.

I have stated before, and I continue to believe, that as Christians Protestants and Catholics share much more than separates them. I also believe that it is crucial to society that there be a greater understanding between Protestants and Catholics and that we all work to find what unity we can. I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin's saying at the signing of the Declaration of Independence: if we don't all hang together we shall surely all hang separately. I believe that there is a fatal flaw in Protestantism, that is that there each man is his own pope, that there is no authority to make clear what is of the Christian faith and what is not. I will not, as Joy seems to suggest, ever say that Catholics cannot learn a few things from our separated brothers and sisters in Christ, as they can also learn a few things from us.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries in the Books Read category.

Blogs and Blogging is the previous category.

Communion of Saints is the next category.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.