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Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is Merton at his best–detached but not ...
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is Merton at his best–detached but not unpassionate, humorous yet sensitive, at all times alive and searching, with a gift for language which has made him one of the most widely read and influential spiritual writers of our time.
by thomas moore
The Silent Heron
Toward the beginning of this mind-bending collection of short pieces, we find a lovely Zen-like entry that positions the reader at a luminal place appropriate for someone contemplating monastic experience: “This morning, before Prime, in the early morning sky, three antiquated monoplanes flew over the monastery with much noise, followed by a great heron.” This little lyric captures the role of Thomas Merton in our world today: many antiquated machines have come and gone in the time since Merton wrote these lines, an explosion of technology giving the illusion of progress, while Merton himself continues to fly, pulling up the rear, a great silent heron reminding us that the noisy are not necessarily the knowledgeable.
At first Merton shocked us by speaking to the world so effectively under a vow of silence. Now he gives us another jolt by showing us that almost thirty years after his death his words are still vivid, valid, and challenging. The world of violence and bigotry that he complained about so passionately is still with us, more outrageously than ever. His broad imagination of religion, holiness, and monkhood, far beyond tolerance and even mere appreciation of many cultures and traditions, is still elusive and rare. And most of all, his insights into the paradoxes and subtleties of the religious vision still sting with the vigor he brings to matters of faith.
For example, he says, “We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to be.” Steeped in the great spiritual literature of holy ignorance, Merton can urge us away from information for its own sake or from the illusion that we can know everything, and should, if we want to flourish. For him, faith is a way toward being, not knowing. Today we seem more obsessed than ever with factual knowledge, to the extent that not knowing something appears to be a failure rather than a precondition for faith. We have gone so far as to define faith as intellectual conviction rather than living fully in a condition of limited knowledge. Merton’s faith-oriented understanding of the intellectual life, so familiar to the monk, is a stumbling block for modern education and even religious institutions. Again, Merton appears as the dumb heron in the exhaust of the noisy machine.
He also takes a strong poke at American innocence, saying that we live as though this land were paradise—before, beyond, and outside of history. Yet, our problems with bigotry and our tendency toward international aggression “disturb the peace of paradise.” Merton lived in a protected, secluded environment that some would consider at least marginally paradisiacal, but with one foot in Eden he stomped and kicked the other in this historical, real-time arena of the polis.
Merton’s stance shows that we can, and perhaps ought, to live at that infinitesimally narrow line where paradise and history meet. We need real innocence or we will be condemned to the cynicism we see all around us. We need real-world political savvy or we will be condemned to the innocent irrelevance of those who are caught up in their personal dreams and narcissistic ambitions. Merton’s solitude was precious to him and amazingly fertile. His communal life extended far beyond the walls of his abbey and the years of his personal lifetime.
Another central paradox Merton knew well is perhaps the most diffi cult of all: power and vulnerability. I won’t say “nonviolence,” because it shouldn’t be described negatively, this grossly misunderstood human capacity to be dependent, open, tolerant, forgiving, and compassionate. The words of Gandhi are strewn throughout these entries. Merton quotes John Chrysostom, as well from the lessons of St. Barnabas’ Day: “As long as we remain sheep, we overcome. Even though we may be surrounded by a thousand wolves, we overcome and are victorious. But as soon as we are wolves, we are beaten.”
People who profess religious faith can listen to words like these from pulpits week after week and still go on trying to avoid being victims and to flex their political and business muscles. All our political news and speeches sound like the howling of wolves, and never the bleat of sheep. Maybe we think about power too literally, and imagine that in being sheep we would be literal masochists, puny hearts in uncourageous bodies. But in all his writing Merton was onto this mystery that can be appreciated only through religious vision or through an extraordinarily subtle psychology: genuine strength arises only in a condition of vulnerability. Th e flagrant display and self-serving use of power are an admission of deep incapacity.
Hawk with Hands in His Pockets
Again and again Merton takes up yet another monkish paradox: contemptus mundi, contempt of the world, which he says needs to be reexamined and appreciated anew. He tells us that he doesn’t mean fulminating against lax sexual morals, divorce, and pornography—the usual easy targets of religious moralists. He means something more subtle: a giving up of the understanding of oneself that comes from identifying with society’s aims. Th e monk has contempt for the world in the sense that he refuses to participate in its values and assumptions. It makes no difference if you live like a prince or a hermit; the point is whether or not you live out in your own life the unconscious and unconsidered principles of the society at large.
I have come to think that care of the soul requires a high degree of resistance to the culture around us, simply because that culture is dedicated to values that have no concern for the soul. To preserve our precious hearts, we may have to live economically against the grain, perhaps so as not to be forced into soul-maiming work just to place bread on the table or put our children through college. We may not want to be plugged into electronic media and have our thoughts laundered daily with biased news, superfi cial commentary, and “lite” entertainment. We may not want to contribute to disastrous pollution of nature or participate in the current value-empty philosophy of education. Th is contemptus mundi is not a misanthropic, superior rejection of life’s pleasures but, rather, a compassionate attempt to find more grounded pleasure and communal fulfillment in deep appreciation for life relieved of ambition and control.
We need not seek happiness, says Merton, but, rather, discover that we are already happy. “To live well myself is my first and essential contribution to the well-being of all mankind.” But not to restrain our desire for happiness obscures our essential well- being. Merton often seems to be in the direct line of those spiritually minded Epicureans who give themselves wholly to life’s richness, both its pleasures and its pains, but who have the wit to fi nd a place for restraint on that road of excess—another paradox that unusually perceptive monks, East and West, love to entertain.
We have watched for several decades now as the Western world has engaged in orgies of spiritual development in mountain growth centers, island retreats, oceanside spas, and mid-city conference centers. I myself have participated in some of these eff orts to force well-being into a life and world stuffed with tragedy. Th ese thousands of people and hours upon hours of spiritual exercises have not addressed the world for which Merton had monastic contempt and which he loved. They have aimed at personal growth, development, and fulfillment—a dance of death in a world suff ering from a plague of soullessness. The goodwill, intelligence, and energy that have gone into such practices could be directed toward the world in which we live. A simple example: people complain of loneliness and join groups or put ads in personal columns to fi nd companionship in their solitary lives. I’ve met people who felt a pang of loneliness and then took in foster children or joined the Peace Corps or became educators in inner city schools. Th ese people quickly got over their loneliness without making it a New Age project, discovering an individual destiny that I suspect is oft en the telos of loneliness.
Merton would not have made a good workshop leader, I imagine. His contempt for this world, a contempt that took him to the strictest monastery he could find, was grounded in a passion for the world’s survival and a feeling for the individuals suff ering in our cities and in provinces around the world. He learned in his monasticism the paradox by which individual fulfi llment is to be found in community, and community in the presence of vivid individuality. Even as a monk, apparently, he was an individual with an edge and in no way a conformist. For many he redefi ned monasticism, even as he made its ancient traditions available to masses of readers.
The many criticisms, revisionings, and even complaints about life in the monastery we find in these pages help me trust Merton’s insights into politics and the religious life. He is an unsentimental monk writing from a basic optimism, but fully aware of the follies and unsophisticated thoughts surrounding him. Don’t demand that he be aware of his own follies; for, every passionate person has to break through the skein of self-reflection, and live and talk with abandon.
His allegiance to Catholicism and to his order comes through strong and constant in these passages, and yet the complexity of both enriches the texture of his loyalties and perhaps in a positive way complexifies the reader’s notions of both Catholicism and monastic life. For instance, he writes: “If I affi rm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” Certainly, today, still an age of ecumenism, this statement may not sound challenging, but voices of self-interest in the religions of the world are loud and threatening. Clergy of various faiths often get along well and work together on certain projects, but a more radical revisioning of religion, beyond social ecumenism, is nowhere to be seen.
We could all, professionals and ordinary folks, follow Merton’s example closely in his profound estimation of the world’s religious traditions. It seems to me unthinkable that in our day so many still automatically identify the field of theology with Christianity. Merton’s passages in this collection alone show how to think theologically and religiously without ever losing sight of the value of all sources of religious wisdom.
At the same time that he shows reverence for the world’s spiritual wisdom, he also teaches by example how to be a Christian, and indeed a Catholic, without becoming preoccupied and distracted by internal political matters of authority and ethical anxiety. He always delves deep into Christianity’s past, favoring the mystics and early theologians, who often presented the very heart of the Christian vision. And he considers Catholic doctrine profoundly and originally, resisting the common tendency in popular circles to translate all matters of theology into superficial moralism or unsophisticated thought. His Catholicism has deep roots, and is therefore unshakable and a model for anyone trying to maintain family or personal religious convictions in a time of rapid change.
A Ceremony of Birds
Merton’s spiritual instruction, quickened with ancient wisdom and modern sensibilities, is grounded in nature. “One has to be alone, under the sky, before everything falls into place and one finds his own place in the midst of it all.” One gets the impression reading these passages that Merton often had his head lift ed to the sky, an astrologer of a monkish sort, clothed with habit and boots, watching the auguries of the birds, the weather, and the seasons. He did not believe that Christianity was at fault for our rift with the cosmos, but, rather, “technocratic and self-centered worldliness.”
In his day, twentieth-century technology was adolescent— bragging, dangly, and uncertain—while today it has found middle age and is therefore more dangerous to the spirit. “Th e completely irreligious mind is,” he wrote, “the unreal mind, the tense, void, abstracted mind that does not even see the things that grow out of the earth or feel glad about them.” This point that neglect of nature is a religious problem—is often missing in current debates about the environment, which remain within a secular framework. Formal religion is not the root problem, but a loss of religious sensibility, a recognition of the absolute importance of a holy life in a sacred world. When we stop regarding nature as our guide, we are left with human reason and ingenuity, which are insuffi cient for embracing the whole of existence. We need, as Merton shows in the details of his own daily manner and attention, a constant dialogue with nature—to know the way, to nurture our spirituality, and to be happy in spite of human calamity. “A spring morning alone in the woods . . . the ceremonies of the birds feeding in the wet grass.”
We are dimly, sometimes achingly, aware of the downside of placing so much of our hope in technology—for survival, meaning, and pleasure. Today there is much excited talk about an “information superhighway,” but both words are abhorrent to the soul. Superhighways have sliced up our land, emptied town centers, obscured nature, polluted the air, dangerously speeded up the tempo of daily life, and allowed the automobile to become a fetish. Information has taken the place of wisdom and ruined education, and data collection has superseded refl ection.
Maybe the problem is that nature is so much bigger than we are—“How absolutely central,” Merton writes, “is the truth that we are first of all part of nature”—and asks the impossible from us: reverence. It asks us to be religious, dependent, respectful, cooperative. The nut of ecology, its deepest secret, is its invitation to us to lose control, to serve rather than to rule, and to allow our own nature its freedom and unfolding—the hawk Merton observes, fl ying in freedom—to be religious in the belief that there is a God that we can never fully know or understand. Merton quotes Th omas Aquinas: “The extreme of human knowledge of God is to know that we do not know God.”
Merton liked Bonhoeffer, who celebrated the fullness of life, but he didn’t like Bonhoeffer’s followers who professed a “religionless religion.” He disagreed with Bonhoeffer on the point that the holy life requires a Christian’s direct obedience to the voice of God. Merton didn’t want any rift between nature and religion, or theology and reason. He imagined neither a religion colluding with worldliness (where is contemptus mundi in that?) nor religion without reasonableness. Dialogue with the world on reasonable terms doesn’t force religion on anyone, he said.
Thomas Merton’s monasticism was, in a word I favor, convivial. It was full of joy amid the anxiety of modern life, and it teemed with appreciation for many philosophies, theologies, and literatures. It was at home in community and solitude, in happiness and melancholy.
Flamingos on the Standard Oil Calendar
I write these conclusions in response to the guilty bystander whose words we have in this volume. I have been told by those who knew him that he was not the person of his public persona, and that anything I think about him is probably wrong. I don’t pretend to know Thomas Merton or Father Louis or the writer of Th e Seven Storey Mountain. I’m sure they are all different personalities, and that the voices in this book diff er from the voice you would hear if you could take a walk with this monk who was so in tune with the birds.
But the myth generated by this book and the breadth of the author you feel as you move from Kentucky field to Th omistic philosophy are that of a real personality. As we read, we think with him, and we’re taken this way and that into unexpected conclusions, confusing criticisms, and disturbing frustrations. We feel the breadth of the monk who can make honest Zen parables out of slight showings of nature, and who can call upon Gandhi for peaceability and Bonhoeffer for religious vitality.
I hope that this book will teach us that monasticism is not an anachronism in our time, but that as monasticism finds its identity in the context of modern life, transformed and renewed sometimes along the line of Merton’s suggestions, it will have a new flowering in some form. This new form I expect to be even more congenial with the world’s religions than Merton’s, more at one with nature than that of this watcher of birds, and more angry at injustice and the failure of ethics. I hope we can understand in a new way the relevance of religion and deep, steadfast piety to our high-tech world, which is filled with so much promise and so much disaster. I hope we can learn from his words how important it is not to confuse psychological problems with theological issues, and to see the relevance to families and individuals of bona fi de spiritual teachers.
I feel renewed by this return of Thomas Merton to my thoughts, and I trust readers who are already familiar with his pugnacity and earthiness will enjoy revisiting him. I am most excited at the prospect of new readers discovering for the first time this man of ascendant thoughts and chthonic humors. Don’t be put off by his rough monk’s robes and contemplative mind. Here is a man able and willing to be a neighbor and a guide. His own nature imagery sums up his life and writing and advises us, above all, to bask in the beauty of his words: “A woodpecker with a cry as sharp as a dagger terrifies the lesser birds, while he is himself benevolent and harmless. The beautiful kingfisher in dazzling flight rattles like a bird of ill omen. So we fear beauty.”
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there.
My life is like the crane who cries a few times under the pine tree And like the silent light from the lamp in the bamboo grove —PO CHU-I
Excerpted from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton Copyright © 1968 by Thomas Merton. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc.
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