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.

Religion and violence

From Don Emmerich.  

On Christianity:

“The source of Christian belief, the New Testament, in no way promotes the belligerent nationalism that characterizes so many modern Evangelicals. Far from laying down the stipulations for ‘just war,’ Jesus preached non-resistance. And although the Apostle Paul seemed to believe that “the governing authorities” were justified in using force against wrongdoers, his ethical teachings echoed Jesus’ message of self-giving love. 

“The problem with modern Christians, it seems to me, is not that they have too much faith but that they have too little. The average churchgoer is guilty of serving two gods: God and Country. If such idolatry ended, if Christians started loving the Lord their God, and Him alone, then it’s hard to imagine how they could continue down the path that so much of the world finds deplorable.”

And on Islam:

“So what then motivates suicide terrorism? Pape summarized the answer in a 2008 interview: ‘What over 95% of suicide terrorist attacks around the world have in common since 1980 is not religion but a specific strategic objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists consider to be their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon to Chechnya to the West Bank to Sri Lanka to Kashmir and to Iraq and Afghanistan today, suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign military occupation.’”

Catholic organization sues IRS for intimidation

Catholic Answers, an apologetics organization which elucidates the various teachings of the Catholic Church, is suing the IRS for intimidation.  It seems that the IRS came after Catholic Answers and its 501c3 status over the fact that this organization was spelling out matters of Catholic doctrine that touch on political life, but without (and this is important) endorsing any particular candidate or political party.  Tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from involvement in political life.  

Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, a famous blogger in Catholic circles, particularly on liturgical subjects, has a post up about this mess.  

Thomas Jefferson said that the line between taxation and tyranny is very thin, and here we have yet another example of that, though I would go so far as to say that the mere existence of taxation is tyranny.  The whole idea of 501c3’s, that tax-exemptions are a privilege, is a laugh.  Taxation is theft, pure and simple.  

It seems that the State is using its complicated tax code to try to shut people up.  This seems to me, however, to be taking place on a selective basis.  How come I haven’t heard of any tax-exempt arts organizations being slapped for lobbying for public funding of the arts?  That would seem to be more properly considered political speech than a religious organization’s assertion that abortion or embryonic stem cell research is immoral.  Perhaps there is a method to this madness.  It does not take a religious person to see that one of the most potent checks on the State’s power is religion.  Murray Rothbard, who as far as I know was an atheist, asserted this constantly.  Jesus and Gandhi lived it.  So did Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Thomas More. 

So the pertinent question is this:  Is the IRS doing the State’s bidding, making the crooked places straight and the rough places plain on behalf of tyranny by intimidating those who exercise legitimate religious expression?

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.

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?

Is Barack Obama a Muslim?

Apparently Obama slipped recently and made reference to his “Muslim faith.” Indeed it looks to be less a slip and more a case of Christianists ripping the phrase out of context. Drudge, with his inimitable sense for the irrelevant news story, still has it near the top of the page.

For a moment, let’s leave aside the fact that Obama clearly mis-spoke. Let’s entertain the possibility that he is indeed a Muslim–not a prospect which I take seriously, but we’ll treat it with more respect than it deserves for the purpose of an argument. My question would then be: What’s the big deal? Many people who are utterly opposed to Obama have insisted these past eight years that Islam is a religion of peace, that terrorism is a product of distorted Islam, not authentic Islam. Their fear, then, is inconsistent with everything else they say.

Interestingly, however, what these Republicans people don’t realize is that, while there are indeed moderate Muslims, indeed many, many of them, militant Islam stems from a loophole that runs through much or maybe even all of Islamic theology. This loophole is called voluntarism–the belief that God himself is not bound by reason. In other words, God’s will is willy-nilly: He can do whatever he wants, even if it contradicts His own first principles. Before you think that I’m about to engage in Muslim-hating, note this: voluntarism got its start with Christian theologians such as Duns Scotus, who lived in the 13th-14th centuries. (It should be noted in passing that some subscribers to voluntarism, including Duns Scotus, did put limits on it, which is something of a source of comfort, however convoluted it may be.)

One of the more sinister results of a voluntarist outlook is that it makes it difficult to dispute someone who says that this or that despicable act is in accord with God’s law; all the transgressor need do is claim that God “told him” to do it–kind of like the way George W. Bush claims that he was called by God to be president. So, if this voluntarism runs through Islam as much as the material I’ve read on this subject claims, the moderate cleric is taking a great risk in calling people out, and not just in terms of risking his life.

Let me hasten to add this: I know Muslims, and the ones I know are wonderful people. Indeed, they still know how to carry on a real conversation, a skill which many Westerners lost long ago. This post is NOT about Muslim-bashing.

A far more relevant question for Barack Obama would be this: Do you agree with the tenets of voluntarism? Do you think that God is not bound by the laws of “right and wrong,” for lack of a better term? THAT is the answer I would be interested in, and it is the matter that I would find to be an important starting point in dialogue with Muslims. Building a democracy at gunpoint in a faraway land will not get rid of the problem of voluntarism, just as building a democracy here, sadly, did not rid us of the problems of Calvinism and Puritanism. Only religious dialogue can take care of a strictly religious problem. Pope Benedict XVI was getting after this in his controversial Regensburg lecture, the outcome of which, by the way, was that a goodly number of Islamic clerics petitioned him to begin a conversation. How about that?

Situations such as we’ve seen this weekend with the Obamahaters show forth the utter illogic in neoconservative thinking. They will insist that there are no problems in “real” Islam (ha! like there are no problems in “real” Christianity!), and therefore that Islamic societies can best be improved at gunpoint. In a word: cultural and religious egalitarianism got us into the Iraq mess. And yet, even after they insist that there are no problems in “real” Islam, they react with utter horror that a reasonable person might actually be a member of that religion.

I prefer a better approach: treating Muslims like the good, intelligent people that they are, and confronting them point blank with the problems in their religion which must be addressed (and allowing them to confront us with ours). It’s uncomfortable, yes, but so is all productive dialogue, right down to one-on-one relationships. It would, however, lead to more understanding, mutual improvement and respect, and, ultimately, fewer dead people.

For more on this subject, see James V. Schall’s book, The Regensburg Lecture.