Friday, May 7, 2010

A Life in Letters: Thomas Merton

Edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen, 402 pages, Harper One.

Both traditionalists and renewalists love Merton so this thick book offers something to everyone. It reflects in depth the peacenik Merton who wrote against the Vietnam war, seeing it through a spiritual rather than geopolitical lens. This war, as well as the arms race, was for Merton really about deeper issues related to what he saw as the ugliness of modern, industrial living.

Merton the traditionalist opposed the commodification and commercialization of life. His letters reflect his love of deep, real relationships with people. He saw technology and industrialization as dehumanizing forces. His conception of Catholic freedom opposes the liberty of capitalism and consumerism:

"Our souls cannot be free if we believe only in money and power and comfort and having a good time. I do not think that our present line of action is doing anything to keep us free."

These prophetic words were written when these economic and political changes were happening, and not from decades later after the fact. Though a convert to Catholicism, Merton was able to be so prophetic because of he was so deeply immersed in the Catholic worldview:

"I do not aim at the heights, I aim at the depths. Not at what is exalted and spectacular but what is humble and unenviable and unattractive and blank. I aspire to become a nonentity and to be forgotten."

Merton's openness to the world came through a Catholic view of diversity rather than the current, post-modern one. He loved the variety of paths to God that the monastic life offered religious. Because of this high esteem for monastic and contemplative living, he had high standards for the religious orders. Echoing other mid-twentieth-century Catholics, he saw them and the Church as a whole, as having become too institutionalized.

Being so immersed in the roots of Catholicism, he took obedience to mean more than simply an institutional obedience that makes each religious a cog in an institutional wheel. Repeatedly, Merton called for the spirit of things to overshadow the institutionalization of things. Heavy institutionalization killed the spirit of individual monks, he noted: "[O]ur problem is not to be solved so much by rules as by men who are alive with the Spirit of the Risen Saviour and are not afraid to seek new paths guided by the light of perennial tradition and the wisdom of Mother Church."

Merton was keenly aware of his place as a monk in American society. He strongly believed in the value of his vocation for his fellow, secular Americans; the monastic vocation went against the capitalist-technological utilitarianism of modern living. The usefulness of a man of prayer was precisely the fact that he didn't fit into the paradigm of what was useful.

Since society was off the right tracks, a contemplative calling could bear prophetic witness. This view tied together Merton's social concerns with his contemplative life. He was qualified to speak out against war, nuclear build-up, prejudice, and industrialization only because he was a monk rooted in a way of living that was quite different from the rest of us.

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