The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: October 10, 2003
By PETER FEUERHERD
The cult of Thomas Merton continues to grow, even now, 35 years after his death from a bathtub accident during a monastic conference in Thailand.
I was just 11 when Merton died. Still, at 19, I visited the monastery at Gethsemane in search of the man I felt I knew through his writings. Im sure Merton visitors are still going there, to be greeted by monks with the kind of rolled eyes that residents of the Dakota Apartments likely display when asked by Beatles fans about John Lennon.
Just this year, Paul Elies The Life You Save May Be Your Own (NCR, Sept. 5), includes Merton among a quartet with Dorothy Day, Flannery OConnor and Walker Percy as cultural and literary luminaries among mid-20th century American Catholics. And now, beckoning Merton lovers as if the odd and tragic death never happened, comes the monks final book titled The Inner Experience, edited by [William] Shannon from a nearly completed manuscript Merton left behind.
The cult continues perhaps because there were so many Mertons. Theres an aspect of a multifaceted mystic to appeal to just about anyone who has ever had an interest in the deeper recesses of Catholicism or in the deeper meaning of life itself.
Theres Merton the convert, chronicled in The Seven Storey Mountain, the man who, despite a lively bohemian intellect nurtured at Columbia University, yearns for more and finds it, in of all things, the Catholic church, the very symbol of the institutional backwardness his chic friends disdained.
Theres Merton the mystic, describing the Christian interior life; Merton the Man of the East, extolling the virtues of Zen and other Asian contemplative philosophies; and theres Merton the social activist, decrying racism and war from his contemplative life in the Kentucky hills, in words so powerful it was as if he had spent the 60s with the activists in the streets. And theres also Merton the human being, a man so much in touch with the divine yet more than occasionally ornery to his fellow monks and abbots and the possessor of what could only be described as a complex personal life.
Shannon notes in his introduction that this was a book Merton struggled with. He began it in 1959. And like almost all writers, Merton complained about all the factors causing him not to finish it, including the noise from novices making it impossible to think. Eleven years later, it had not reached final form, but the Merton estate has decided that it can stand on its own. And, while it has its choppiness and could even use an editor -- Shannon notes that Merton makes mistakes, such as placing a European mystic in the wrong century -- the manuscript remains as close to the original as possible.
Merton is at his best here explaining how everyone is to some extent a contemplative. He is at his worst -- yet perhaps his most human -- when he complains about the sometimes-petty nature of monastic life.
Its been said that all writing is in some ways autobiographical. So anyone who knows anything about Merton is tempted to assume that when he writes about the frustrations of the contemplative life, including boring spiritual exercises, sermons containing words without meaning, the coercion to sing Alleluias that somebody else wants him to feel and the command to smack his lips on a sweetness which seems to be unutterably coarse and foul, he is talking about his own sometimes cantankerous life at Gethsemane.
In some points he is more direct. About his fellow monastics, he notes, if the world is depending on us to carry the torch of culture through a new dark age, it is due for a disappointment.
Yet this book is more important than such personal glimpses. It is about the interior life. And like the interior life, it can sometimes be opaque and difficult to discern. There are passages here that require rereading. This is a work of only 154 pages, yet it might take a long time to get through.
But the gems here are worth it.
Some who do not understand him see Merton as a mere syncretist, a dabbler in things of the East, a kind of precursor to Hollywood dilettantes now enamored of Asian religions. Yet Merton is strongly rooted in Christian mysticism, seeing the insights of the East as a validation of humanitys desire for contemplation. He is clear here in describing what is at the heart of the difference between Christian mysticism and Zen. In Zen there seems to be no effort to go beyond the inner self. In Christianity the inner self is simply a stepping stone to an awareness of God. Not even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would have a problem with this very orthodox description.
And while this manuscript is unearthed from the 60s, much of it -- except for the jarring pre-feminist use of male pronouns throughout -- could have been written in 2003.
Merton makes an argument for multiculturalism, noting that the religious literature of the East should be part of the Western literary canon. He speaks the language one hears in the New Age movement but with a Christ-focused dimension. And he decries religious faith without a contemplative sense, saying it becomes simply the externalizing of pious practices. One is reminded here of the sometimes overzealous push for what passes for orthodoxy in some church circles these days.
One is also sure from reading Merton that contemplation is as difficult as it has ever been. Citing Auschwitz and Dachau -- today one is reminded of the World Trade Center and the war in Iraq -- Merton says that a dark night of the soul has descended on the whole world.
And to note how little actually changes, Merton is particularly tough on the monastic novices of his day, who he says are saturated with television and unprepared for a monastic calling. Those novices are now likely near retirement age. Those were the days of Ozzie and Harriet and Walter Cronkite. What would he think of a generation weaned on Ozzy Osbourne and Fox News? Would he just throw in his habit?
If there is any disappointment in this work, it is a sense that Merton is still in many respects stuck in a monastic framework, understandably so since that is where he spent most of his life. There is one section devoted to contemplative life in the world, and he has some good advice.
Wake up early, he says, thats when the world is at its quietest. Honor the Sabbath. Recognize that the spirituality of a married person will be different than that of a celibate.
Yet there are moments when he seems positively backwards. For example, he suggests that those seeking contemplation move to small towns and farms. Cities are nearly impossible places to nurture a contemplative dimension, he says, an assertion he makes even before the dawn of car alarms. But anyone who has ridden New Yorks subways, for example, can spot commuters who are quietly reading their Bibles and prayer books. They are obviously contemplating something. Three decades after Merton, there is more work to be done in articulating the contemplative dimension of urban life.
These are minor quibbles, however. Like the journey into the interior life itself, this is a work that needs to be digested slowly. Some passages are sure not to make much sense, particularly to most of us not imbued with a strong sense of the history and culture of monasticism. Yet some time or other, everyone on the Christian journey can use this book, because it is a continual reminder, as Merton says, about how the inarticulate longing for Him in the night of suffering will be your most eloquent prayer.
Peter Feuerherd is a New York-based freelance writer recently named editor of The American Catholic, an independent monthly based in Connecticut.
National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2003 [corrected 10/31/2003]
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