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Filtering by Tag: Thomas Merton

Selfish Solitude

Joy and Matthew Steem

Harrowing of Hades, an icon by Dionisius, from the Ferapontov Monastery. The label “heretic” has such an interesting draw to it doesn't it. It holds a special charm for a variety of reasons I think: it’s generally anti-conformist, anti-populist, and anti-status-quo. That makes it unique, and unique can be quite attractive. Since everybody wants to be unique – especially in a culture of conformity – what’s not to like about heresy. Plus, it’s not all bad either. T. S Eliot spoke of it more than once and in some cases of it as a good. Anyway, all that to say that a label of something being potentially heretical makes it ... could I use the word “hot”?

So when I heard that one of the popular Inklings other than Lewis and Tolkien had it suggested of him that it would be understandable to have him burned at the stake, I was quite taken. “Cool,” I thought to myself. But then, because I was young I had a difficult time in reading Charles Williams. However, some years ago I came back to him and was most heartily surprised. And sure enough, the heresy claim isn't too far off. So of course I read him all the more. Now it’s not all that un-orthodox, but there are some interesting thoughts he brings up.

Just recently I was re-reading his second last novel, Descent into Hell, and found something interesting concerning his thoughts on Sodom and Gomorrah. Nope, it’s probably not what many others might be thinking (we here at Relief are a clever bunch). These two cities are connected for Williams with un-neighbourliness (which for Williams was a form of sterility in that it doesn't contribute to generating life) and solitude, and their direct association with hell.

Now, since I have tendencies towards introversion, I was not just a little annoyed at the strong connection with solitude and damnation. Plus, have you ever read what early psychological theory – Jung was a little kinder – said about those who were essentially introverted? It was basically pathological narcissism. However, as I continued to read Williams I was quite taken with his ideas and began to have self-to-self conversation/conversion. (Ever have a conversation with yourself and afterwards noticed that your view changed – it’s cool right? It might be difficult, but I think we actually can change our own bias.) I was persuaded that Williams had made a great point about solitude being the pathway to damnation when it is mixed with selfishness. Thomas Merton, who spoke a great deal of the importance of solitude, went to great lengths to clarify that while solitude is exceedingly important, it cannot be practiced for the sake of the self. If self is the primary concern, then this solitude is actually wicked. And the reader is lead to seeing selfish solitude as the ultimate undoing for anybody when practiced fully as William’s work depicts. I won't spoil the ending of Decent into Hell, but I think the suspense factor would have Stephen King green with envy.

Back to solitude as selfishness though. I once remember hearing a respected minister say something to a largish crowd that s/he just didn't have much time to spend chatting with friends and others when invited out because the time would be better spent with God. You know how Jesus was known to be meek? Yah, I wasn't at that moment. I didn't know how to voice it, but it felt, well, selfish. I mean I get separating yourself from the hordes from time to time – Jesus did that too, after all – but Jesus also spent lots of time with people. I think there should be a balance. Holiness that excludes itself from public life – from being human – might not be as holy as it thinks.  We were made to live in communion with each other: which means both, sharing and imparting life with each other. So, of course we need alone time – I demand it regularly – but I was gently warned by Williams cautionary tale that solitude can't be mixed with selfishness. Because that is real heresy – and it’s not cool.

Power of Meditation

Joy and Matthew Steem

9 merton Is it possible that William Fisk, the arch-villain in Marvel’s Daredevil TV series, admired Thomas Merton? That was the thought that came to my mind after hearing him look down at the nearly dead hero, Matthew Murdoch, and calmly state, “I find it difficult to meditate. My mind won't quiet. It’s a character flaw, I suppose.”

Touché Mr. Fisk, touché.

I also took much pleasure from the fact that it was the bad guy who was saying that. Now I know for certain that the writers didn't put that line there for no good reason. They, like so many of the TV shows of the day, are also trying to educate their audience in some way. But while in many cases it’s a bit cheap— take for example the continual mawkish jabs which the TV series Elementary takes at tobacco and car idling—I was quite moved at such a nicely delivered snub to a more rooted problem in our culture: the near aversion to silence and its sibling solitude.

So you probably can see how Merton (contemplative extraordinaire) might have come to mind. And indeed, Merton would have probably had even harsher words about the near whole of our society being little able to quiet our minds than simply calling it a “character flaw.” Perhaps because while a character flaw is something that is individual, the near entirety of our society is antagonistic to a quieted mind. Yet at the same time, I believe Merton would have softly suggested that this perpetuation to an un-quieted mind is something that is remediable too, both in an individual and a society—though it might require more time and patient effort on the latter front.

So, first for the individual. It’s important to note that Merton believed that when it came to both solitude and silence, and the important role they play in our contemplative lives, people shouldn’t assume that it’s a topic only for monks or hermits. Rather, Merton made the strong case that a developed contemplative life is needed for all of us to live meaningfully and joyously.

Important to keep in mind is that solitude is assuredly not individualistic or rooted in desires for individualism. Merton says, “the true solitary is not one who simply withdraws from society. Mere withdrawal, regression, leads to a sick solitude.” That is to say, the person who simply seeks solitude to avoid the company of others will find a solitude that lacks both meaning and fruit. Indeed, for Merton, “false solitude separates a man from his brothers in such a way that he can no longer effectively give them anything or receive anything from them in his own spirit. It establishes him in a state of indigence, misery, blindness, torment, and despair.” The desire for true solitude will be best represented by “those who live for God, live with other people and live in the activities of their community.” Thus, “the true solitary does not renounce anything that is basic and human about his relationship to other men. He is deeply united to them.” In fact, in a later writing, Merton cautioned that “in prolonged separation from other men[,] there is a real danger of delusion and mental derangement.”

And just where best are we to find this solitude? Again, it doesn't lie in individualism. Merton clarifies that one certainly doesn't have to go out into the desert either: for “the desert does not necessarily have to be physical – it can be found even in the midst of men.” In fact, our contemplative guide assures us that “as soon as a man is fully disposed to be alone with God, he is alone with God no matter where he may be—in the country, the monastery, the woods or the city.” And so, back to Mr. Fisk, perhaps he is an apt reminder that without cultivating our capacity for the true solitude of inner stillness, we indeed risk endangering ourselves from experiencing the fullness of our humanity.

The Interior Geography of Merton's Mountain

Tom Sturch

thomas-merton-il-sentiero-contemplativo1-800x280 I had intended to finish Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain before I wrote this piece, but alas, he makes me think too much, and when I think it yields writing, and writing works on me from the inside out. I think Fr. Merton would be happy with that. In his preface to the Japanese edition published twenty years after its initial release, he says, "I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know, but if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both."

I read as a Protestant with Catholic sympathies, as one who lives in and too often of the world, and as one in a continuing search of the One who speaks. So, when I learned that the title derives from an allusion to Dante's Purgatory and the notion of working one's way through the seven deadly sins into Paradise, my Presbyterian skin bristled. The whole five solae thing, I suppose... But it also compares with L.R. Rambo's seven-step theory of conversion including content, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, and transformation.

Whatever it is, there is a self-conscious reversal of geography of his story-telling that demonstrates the delusion of intellectual ascendance and the humiliation of spiritual discovery. After the deaths of his father and close family members, he is sick with what might be compared to Hume's “melancholy of the philosopher.” He moves on to Columbia to study and while happy, becomes suspicious of education. After an illness, he visits monasteries, reads The Divine Comedy and The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy and experiences a growing spiritual crisis. At this point, Merton returns to Queens and the Episcopal Church where his father had been the organist. “I think the reason for this was that God wanted me to climb back the way I had fallen down... He wanted me to do away with what there was of pride and self-complacency... He would not let me become a Catholic, having behind me a rejection of another church... [which is an act] sinful in itself, rooted in pride, and expressed in contumely.”

Even in the monastery, Merton matures further into his decision to enter. “The fact that I was hurrying and ran into people only indicates that I was much less of a contemplative than I thought I was.” It comes when his beloved younger brother visits him at The Abbey of Gethsemani that Merton affirms, “Once you have grace, you are free.” He shares Communion with him in this—it would turn out to be their last meeting, as his brother dies in WWII.

In his 1953 The Sign of Jonas, Merton admits he barely recognizes himself in The Seven Storey Mountain, saying, “[It] is the work of a man I have never even heard of.” But I recognize my story in his as it unfolds, though it is in many ways an opposite one. How much of your story is authored by you? How much do you recognize of yours in others? How much in Christ?

Bright and Shining

Bryan Bliss

MICHIGAN BAND I finished revising my debut novel and graduated from an MFA program in the same month. I am tired. I don’t want to read. I don’t want to write. Of course, one of the first apocryphal rules you learn when you start writing is do it every day. Put that butt in the chair and fashion yourself after the Postal Service. Snow? Sleet? Debilitating fatigue? Doesn’t matter. Put those words down, son.

So when my friend Sara asked me what I was doing for Lent, I laughed. This was the first year in over ten where I wouldn’t be a church worker and I was sleeping in on Sundays like it was my job. While I appreciate the discipline of Lent – I’d taught it how many times? – I was on sabbatical from anything that wasn’t Mad Men or Game of Thrones. And that included God.

Thomas Merton went to Gethsemane to remove himself from the world, to seek God with integrity. As everyone knows, the world came knocking on the doors of his monastery in the way of literary fame. Merton was stuck between his desires for solitude and – this is my assumption – a calling to write. But then, on a routine trip to the doctor in Louisville, he had a vision. Him, being held up by (and inextricably connected to) the world he once hoped to spurn. He described the experience as inevitable, saying, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

I eventually texted Sara back and said, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll say the Lord’s Prayer every night.” It was something I’d never done. And if I’m being honest – it was a discipline I had no real interest in keeping. But much like the pull I feel every time I walk past my laptop – like there is something I should be doing – once I was lying in bed I couldn’t escape words. Our Father… I don’t claim a Merton-like moment of transformation. Everything I learned was a lesson I already knew. Yet, sometimes it is good to be reminded that the work will always be there when you’re ready. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that we are bright and shining.

(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)