December 10, 1941. Thomas Merton entered a monastery, putting an end to his previous life and beginning another that was to prove more fulfilling in many ways.
December 10, 1968. Thomas Merton was accidentally electrocuted. See previous sentence.
That makes today a double anniversary for one of the more interesting and creative men of the 20th century. He was an Englishmen who became an American, a hedonist atheist who became a monk, an intellectual who became a mystic, a Catholic who met the Dalai Lama as one monk to another.
My reactions to Thomas Merton are complex. I recognize that this world is but a shadow of the underlying reality that may be felt but cannot be touched. On the other hand, much Christian theology seems to me to be merely the result of logic pasted on someone else’s experience. There’s value in it, but it is not a path I can follow. That’s why I am an ex-Catholic rather than a Catholic — and why I am an ex-Catholic who doesn’t go around bashing Catholicism. But Merton did not have this complicated reaction to the Catholicism he embraced as a grown man.
A few quotations from this remarkable writer, gleaned over the years and squirreled away in my journal, show something of the range and nature of his thought. Although expressed in theological terms we do not necessarily find comfortable, the underlying reality he describes should be familiar enough.
“… ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fitly for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person. The better answer he has the more of a person he is.”
[I kept the quote, but neglected to note what I quoted from]
“The spiritual life is to be earnestly pursued as though no spiritual life existed. This is the only safe and sane way to travel in the deep waters of the Spirit. Indeed, such childlike simplicity in the face of God expresses our realization that there is, in fact, no spiritual life as such separate from life itself. There is only one life, and that is God’s life which he gives us from moment to moment, drawing us in to himself with every holy breath we take.”
Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, page 21
“Keeping a journal has taught me that there is not so much new in your life as you sometimes think. When you re-read your journal you find out that your latest discovery is something you already found out five years ago. Still, it is true that one penetrates deeper and deeper into the same ideas and the same experiences.”
The Sign of Jonas, p 204
“Whenever you have somebody capable of giving some kind of direction and instruction to a small group attempting … to love and serve God and reach union with him, you are bound to have some kind of monasticism. This kind of monasticism cannot be extinguished. It is imperishable. It represents an instinct of the human heart, and it represents a charism given by God to man. It cannot be rooted out, because it does not depend on man.”
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 342
“But always and everywhere the Dalai Lama kept insisting on the fact that one could not attain anything in the spiritual life without total dedication, continued effort, experienced guidance, real discipline, and the combination of wisdom and method.”
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 322
“Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.”
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, page 296
“I am not rich. I just sit in my little pawn shop of second-rate emotions and ideas, and most of the time they make me slightly sick.”
The Sign of Jonas, page 68
“One of the greatest obstacles to your growing is the fear of making a fool of yourself. Any real step forward implies the risk of failure. And the really important steps imply the risk of complete failure…. In a situation like that we need a shot of Buddhist mentality. Then we see, down what drain? so what? … We have to have the courage to make fools of ourselves, and at the same time be awfully careful not to make fools of ourselves.”
Thomas Merton, Monk, page 82
“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.”
The Seven Story Mountain, page 227.
“It seems to me that we have little genuine interest in human liberty and in the human person. What we are interested in, on the contrary, is the unlimited freedom of the corporation. When we call ourselves the “free world” we mean first of all the world in which business is free. And the freedom of the person comes only after that, because, in our eyes, the freedom of the person is dependent on money. That is to say, without money, freedom has no meaning. And therefore the most basic freedom of all is the freedom to make money. If you have nothing to buy or sell, freedom is, in your case, irrelevant. In other words, what we are really interested in is not persons, but profits. Our society is organized first and foremost with a view to business, and wherever we run into a choice between the rights of the human person and the advantages of a profit-making organization, the rights of the person will have difficulty getting a hearing. Profits first, people afterward.”
Seeds of Destruction, pages 22-23.