Thomas Merton on ambition

Thomas Merton was a Protestant before he became a Catholic, a very worldly writer and critic before he became a monk, an intellectual before he began to try to become something more profound than an intellectual.

His language does not speak to us, perhaps, couched as it is in words like God and sin. This is too bad, because he has profoundly important things to say to us in these final days of an old civilization and (one hopes!) the dawning days of a new one. The old civilization was rooted in individual ambition and competition; the new one will perhaps become rooted in a larger, higher kind of ambition of which, in this still benighted time, it is nearly useless to speak.

From The Seven Story Mountain, page 227.

But the conversion of the intellect is not enough. And as long as the will, the domina voluntas, did not belong completely to God, even the intellectual conversion was bound to remain precarious and indefinite. For although the will cannot force the intellect to see an object other than it is, it can turn it away from the object altogether, and prevent it from considering that thing at all.

Where was my will? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” and I had not laid up any treasures for myself in heaven. They were all on earth. I wanted to be a writer, a poet, critic, a professor. I wanted to enjoy all kinds of pleasures of the intellect and of the senses and in order to have these pleasures I did not hesitate to place myself in situations which I knew would end in spiritual disaster-although generally I was so blinded by my own appetites that I never even clearly considered this fact until it was too late, and the damage was done.

Of course, as far as my ambitions went, they are objects were all right in themselves. There is nothing wrong in being a writer or a poet-at least I hope there is not: but the harm lies in wanting to be one for the gratification of one’s own ambitions, and merely in order to bring oneself up to the level demanded by his own internal self-idolatry. Because I was writing for myself and for the world, the things I wrote were rank with the passions and selfishness and sin from which they sprang. An evil tree brings forth evil fruit when it brings forth fruit at all.

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