Thomas Merton: Seeing the Salvation of God

For several months I have been feeling diffuse, totally out of control of my life. Tension and anxiety can rule during such periods, and it’s no fun. I sleep with the television on to block out the runaway train of my ruminations. Sometimes it works; sometimes it makes things worse.

I had been seeking some good wholesome, even spiritual, reading to put myself back together, to get rid of that feeling of being a disassembled jigsaw puzzle. But what should I read? Nothing I found in my own library or on Amazon seemed to be what I needed right now. Then a friend of mine gave me this book, The Intimate Merton—a selection of his journal writings from just before he entered the monastery in 1941 until his untimely death in 1968.

Merton was a monk of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance at the Abbey of Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he went by his religious name, Fr. Louis. He was born into a cultured family and spent a great deal of his childhood in Europe. He was a student at Oxford and Columbia and a gifted writer.

Merton is perhaps most famous for his confessions, The Seven-Storey Mountain, his story of conversion to Catholicism, which was published early in his life. This is how I first made my acquaintance with his work in college, but since then I’ve been unable to dig in too much to his other books, until this volume of journals came along.

He was no stranger to controversy. Even in the “anything goes” Sixties a monk was playing with fire by dabbling in Eastern religions. In about 1965 the Abbot gave Merton permission to live by himself in a hermitage separate from the rest of the monastery, which occasioned some murmuring amongst the more traditionally-minded. Documentation of irregular behavior—he did in fact fall in love with a nurse who cared for him after an operation and stayed in touch with her for some time—has almost certainly derailed any possibility of his ever becoming a canonized saint in the Catholic Church, though the Episcopalians celebrate a feast in his honor on December 10, the date of his death.

Merton was an honest soul, which is to say that he was a tortured one. His private journals illustrate constant agonizing over whether or not he was doing the right thing. This only seemed to get worse with age. Some people can’t stand indecision, but I think this is what makes Merton so readable. There is an intellectual humility that appeals to anyone who is not a self-assured jackass. Bertrand Russell seems to be his agnostic or atheist counterpart. It certainly isn’t Richard Dawkins. “Humility is more important than zeal,” Merton wrote on December 11, 1961.

Like many great figures of history, Merton’s work is needlessly circumscribed by the human tendency to shoehorn everyone into a category, to decide if he’s a This or a That—and then to embrace or oppose him accordingly. This does great violence to thinkers, even to many of the people we admire the most. Merton is often considered a darling of the Catholic Left, and certainly he was liberal about many things. But I wonder how many people who fixate on these things know, for instance, that Merton carved out his own path with respect to the reforms and upheavals that were taking place in the Catholic Church in the wake of the II Vatican Council. The point, I guess, is that he deserves to be taken on his own terms, like everyone else does. Off with the tyranny of intellectual collectivization!

As a musician, I found a number of journal entries that could be set to music. His recounting of the fire watch on July 4, 1952 is particularly stirring, in which he intertwines a description of the rounds of the monastery’s night watchman with a love song to God that serves as a precious mirror image of the work of St. Francis:

The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me.

As an owl, this appeals to me very much. “The night,” says Merton, “was never made to hide sin but only to open infinite distances to charity and send our souls to play among the stars.”

Young Fr. Louis winds his way through the monastery, and eventually up to its peak, the steeple, from which he can seeing the rolling hills of the countryside, where he meditates on the beauty of creation and what he calls God’s unanswered question—hints of Leonard Bernstein?

Lord God of this Great night: do you see the woods? Do You hear the rumor of their loneliness? Do You behold their secrecy? Do You remember their solitudes? Do You see that my soul is beginning to dissolve like wax within me?

“It must be nice to sit around and think all the time,” some of you must be saying. Merton clears this up: solitude will force you to face all your faults, all the ugly stuff of life, in a very real way. I have heard as much from other monks. And look at all the distraction people indulge just to avoid having to think about anything. That’s what television is for, after all. In a very real sense, Merton, in all his solitude was more alive than many of us will ever be. This kind of life is not meant for everyone, but it’s the only way to live for those who are destined for it.

This is one of those books that changes the tempo of the reader’s life. It’s impossible to spend much time with Merton before he rubs off on you. I found myself cultivating little shelters of silence, slowing down my pace in general, stopping to enjoy little beauties that we’re usually tempted to dismiss as insignificant. And then I stopped needing the television to put me to sleep at night, and I’m even considering cutting back on the caffeine. Well, maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

More significantly, though, I have developed more of an aptitude for patience while reading this book. Most thoughtful people grant Merton a certain measure of respect, and yet his whole life seems unresolved. One of the debates which is had about him is whether or not he was ceasing to be Christian in favor of Buddhism toward the end of his life. (His journal entries do not bear this out, in my opinion.) His life is one big, aimless journey through the desert. In fact, Merton spends a great deal of time in his journals talking about Bl. Conrad, a Cistercian monk who was quite literally a wanderer. Conrad did not appeal to him early in life, but as he grew older he started to see the value of his story, and he ceased to expect his life to be a microcosm of the Whig Theory of History—a constant ascent uninterrupted by setbacks, detours, and even deliberate changes.

I have this same frustration. We all do, I suppose, and experience teaches us to chill out about it. “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans,” John Lennon said. And that’s okay. We are meant to live life as human beings, and not as online dating profiles where everyone has a master plan to be well fed and happy into eternity, working in the amazing career that they envisioned for themselves at the ripe old age of nineteen while living in an eight bedroom house in West Chester.

The same concept applies to all of God’s unanswered questions. There are puzzles which we will never be able to solve, and other puzzles that we will assemble and put back together a hundred times in the course of our life. These are not failures; these attempts are some of the greatest joys of human existence. Certainty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it is hard to find someone who is certain who is not also an insufferable jerk. (Mea culpa.) So I am content with the questions and enough space to contemplate them all. As Merton himself said, “There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”

Maybe this makes the most sense when we consider one final thing. Merton offers a meditation on the sentence, “Be vigilant, and you will see the salvation of God.” He makes an important distinction here: This does not be mean to be patient while you wait for the salvation of God to arrive. Rather, be vigilant, so that you can see the salvation of God which is already here and which we often miss because we aren’t looking.  How often do we waste energy actively looking for something when what we need is right under our noses, but we don’t see it because we aren’t looking in the right place? I suppose that an important part of humility is being willing to sit tight and allow the unanswered questions to answer themselves.

Happy Holidays

Blogging has been slow lately, but I seriously doubt that at this time of year too many people are glued to the computer screen.  At any rate, I just wanted to wish all of you happy holidays—Christmas, Hanukkah, etc.

Much fuss has been made about the supposed “War on Christmas,” but on my visit home to see my family, I overheard something once or twice that jogged my memory and got me to thinking.  I heard people–real people exercising their own discretion–say to one another, “Have a nice holiday.”  What is more, I can remember hearing this phrase throughout my entire life in the area in which I was raised.   So if real people use this phrase, why can’t store employees?  What then makes it an assault on Christmas?

Of course, I think sometimes that people can be too p.c. about the appropriate holiday greeting.  A few years ago, I slipped up and accidentally wished a friend of mine “Merry Christmas.”  I immediately realized my mistake, given that he is Muslim, and the look on my face surely showed this.  His response?  “Merry Christmas to you, too.”  That kind of graciousness is instructive.

Jeff Tucker has made quick work of all this nonsense on Inside Catholic.

And remember, Christmas has twelve days, culminating in the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, so let the celebration continue.  I leave my decorations up until February 2, the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple.

Traditional Roman Liturgy and Christmas Pudding

Here is a nice, short article on the so-called Stir-up Sunday. I would only argue that this tradition is not only Anglican but is also Roman.  I always thought this was sometime in Advent, but, alas, it is the last Sunday before Advent, which this year was November 30—as I jokingly called it, the “Sunday within the Octave of Thanksgiving.”

Incidentally, from the last Sunday before Advent through the Fourth Sunday of Advent, all but one of the Collects begins with excita, the Latin word which is translated “stir up.” Consequently, I was never sure which one was Stir-Up Sunday; I always figured it to be closer to Christmas.

In any case, the age-old tradition is that people would go to church and hear “excita” and know that it was time to stir up the Christmas pudding. It is, in truth, a quaint and innocuous custom—hardly the red meat that built the Medieval cathedrals or wrote the polyphony of Leonin and Perotin–but it is nonetheless an example of the mutual discourse between religion and culture which is presently absent. In this subject area, contemporary Christianity of all types (well, maybe not Eastern Orthodoxy…) has chosen various swords of stupidity on which to fall. Some insist on a “dialogue” with culture which ultimately co-opts the most vapid aspects of peasant taste. Others pride themselves on not being of the world and therefore eschew anything that is less than a century old. Both approaches are suicidal.

A solution for this? I’ll have to think about that.

Global warming is my friend

I have just returned from a trip of eating lunch, reading Pat Buchanan’s book on World War II, and going to the bank. My core temperature must be down to about 42 degrees Fahrenheit by now. It’s cold here. Is it just me, or is this weather, which includes some snow flurries, a bit colder than usual for mid-November?

The worst part about all this is that I have to figure out how to survive a four and a half mile run in this sheissdreck. Yeah, I could skip the run, but that sets a bad precedent early in the cold months of the year, and I’m not about to stop a mere 7.5 pounds from my goal weight. I’m presently tearing my closet apart, looking for clothes that stand some chance of keeping me warm but which are old enough that it doesn’t matter if they get all nasty from sweat.

All this reminds me of various environmentalist hysterics I’ve witnessed over the years. The world is warming up. It’s going to burst into flames at any minute. Al Gore makes a guest appearance on South Park, searching for ManBearPig. There’s the paranoia about auto emissions, not to mention the serioso fretting over the effects of bovine farts on the atmosphere. Blah, blah, blah, etc.

Well, get this, friends. This could all be proven wrong in short order. In fact, members of the Environmentalist Church have already ceased to talk about “global warming” and instead have begun using the term “climate change.” It is their great Reformation. They have gone from transubstantiation to consubstantiation. A short while ago, I saw a news story that August was in many places the coldest one on record. And earlier this week, Drudge featured a story that NASA, in previously claiming October 2008 as one of the warmest on record, got it wrong. Oops. I wonder if that has anything to do with placing thermometers near exhaust vents, as has been known to happen?

I am quite glad to see prescient signs of global warming’s impending collapse, but the dirty truth is that I will actually miss it. You see, we love to romanticize memories of Thanksgivings which are so snowy that you can’t leave the house, but we forget what it’s actually like to live through that.

“Yuck, 55 degrees on Thanksgiving! Too hot.” Rubbish, I say. Bring on the heat. Then I won’t have to worry about freezing off certain body parts which I deem to be essential.

Illustrating Liberty: “The Apotheosis of Washington”

[Illustrating Liberty is a new, irregular feature on this blog featuring the occasional “Political Photoshoppery” of Aristotle A. Esguerra.]

Anonymous, iThe Apotheosis of Washington./i Watercolor on glass (reverse painting), 62.9 × 85.1 cm. Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey.

Anonymous, The Apotheosis of Washington. Watercolor on glass (reverse painting), 62.9 × 85.1 cm. Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey.

This post isn’t about an original work at all; in fact, I did very little to come up with the image that accompanied Lew Rockwell’s Monday article for, “The Myth of Good Government.” It was the initial shock that such an image existed — and was quite popular for a while — that prompted me to write this post.

BK Marcus, editor extraordinaire and blogger at lowercase liberty, sent me an image similar to this one last weekend suggesting that it run as the image to the Rockwell piece. Stunned at the existence of such a work, and thinking it was just another Internet mashup, I performed a Google image search on “apotheosis washington” — what else could it be called? — and sure enough, a version of this picture popped up. (I chose the version pictured here because the frame added a certain regal absurdity to the entire piece.)

Poking around to find out more about this painting led me to the website of the New York Public Library’s C.W. McAlpin Collection. Apparently the original engraving and etching by John James Barallet spawned many knockoffs, of which this is one.

I thought that the Barallet engraving was absurd, but I wasn’t prepared for this one. However, I burst out laughing in response to viewing it. I would hope that George himself would too.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t be shocked that such an image was produced. Most every ‘great’ nation — self-proclaimed or otherwise — in every time and place have monuments and statues that seemingly attempt to raise mere mortals to the status of demigods; Lenin, Mao, Lincoln, and FDR to name a few. The only difference between Washington and the others I mention is that, given the choice between attempting to retain power and relinquishing it, Washington chose the latter, and in doing so set a presidential precedent that has mostly survived to this day — unitary executive or not.

Upon further thought, that’s worth celebrating. A bit, anyway.

The modern social acceptability of rudeness

I work as a church organist, and this is in fact an interesting perch from which to view the doings of modern man.  I can tell stories that you wouldn’t believe.  Some clergymen could tell you even better ones.

I have two jobs, and at one of them this morning, we had some guests present who are not normally with us.  Evidently they don’t know how to behave at a religious service.  They talked, and they talked, and they talked.  They talked during the prelude, they talked during the opening hymn, they talked whenever they felt like it.  I hope they didn’t mind our tendency to interrupt their conversation with readings, music, and other suchlike.

Some might be tempted to chalk this up to the decline of Christianity, but I think this issue goes beyond Church decorum.  In fact, it seems to me that this behavior would have been offensive almost anywhere, except at sports events, which are arguably the real religion of modern man.  It is bad enough when children talk out of turn and are not corrected, but when adults are doing it, one wants to despair.

The gauche behavior does not encapsulate this entire social disease, however.  The second part of the problem is perhaps the worst, and that is the unwillingness or fear of others to correct those who are not living up to expectations.  There were once men who did this.  They were called fathers.  Alas, manliness is no longer in vogue, and when some do try to correct others, even discreetly, they risk having the riot act read to them by some illiterate libertine.   There is no longer any sense of shared values, and this amounts to rudeness being socially acceptable.

What will it take to fix this?  It seems to me that, at the very least, and beyond the re-establishment of a basis for standards, it will require a certain amount of a “let them walk away” mentality.  We are so stupidly worried these days about what everyone else thinks.  I do not mean to condemn those who have lost their nerve; I too have lost mine in many situations when I should have stepped up and made certain situations right.  This is only a natural human tendency, especially when our contemporary “devil words,” as Richard Weaver called them, include adjectives such as “antisocial,” where antisocial indicates a simple refusal to go along with the crowd.

Ultimately, however, putting the rude right will only be a band-aid.  The bigger problem is making the impression that there are in fact times to be serious and times when we share in an activity larger than ourselves, and therefore we have not the right to do whatever we want.  There is more to life than mindless chatter and entertaining ourselves to death, more to life than acquiring job skills and making good money.  There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, a time to talk and a time to listen.

Now, where do we begin with a society that does not even believe in philosophical transcendentals?

ICEL, bishops decide not to charge royalties to those offering music for free download

I hereby take back my remarks earlier this month in which I called ICEL and the bishops “tyrannical.” The big publishers may be, but ICEL and the bishops have hammered out a very liberal policy concerning musical settings of the liturgical texts which are made available for free download: They will not be charging any royalties or flat fees for such services. This is a great victory, and it shows that ICEL and the bishops have a far more reasonable view of Intellectual Property than I had thus far given them credit for.

This decision effectively emancipates the creativity of composers everywhere who wish to make musical settings of the new translation of the liturgy. Anyone can now compose and publish; no one need gain the favor of one of the big publishers in order for his work to see the light of day. This ends a monopoly, and I hope it also begins an era of artistic renaissance.