In March of 1950, about a year after he was ordained, Thomas Merton took to the pages of Commonweal to write about Christian asceticism. Even after nearly a decade in the monastery, Merton wrote with the shaky confidence of a novice, conveying an attractive (if paradoxical) mix of pride and humility. But on the subject of self-denial he was adamant: “Asceticism is the arch enemy of all worry because it roots out every plant from which the fruits of anxiety grow.” When someone writes with such assuredness, it is difficult not to be persuaded of the rightness of their position. It’s also easy to become convinced that they have special insight into overcoming life’s terrible angst and suffering.
For the Merton of the early 1950s, asceticism meant purging ourselves of “all reliance on our own will” and learning instead to choose God’s will in every conceivable situation. Merton wasn’t concerned so much with self-flagellations, or mortifications, as much as he was with learning to balance our “inordinate” desires (enticing as those desires may be). The high cost of surrendering completely to God’s will brings even greater returns: nothing less than “perfect union with God,” where we find “supreme joy in everything, because God is all in all.” “The ascetic,” Merton guaranteed, “will be a tranquil and happy man.”
As an anxious and impressionable eighteen-year-old, I was drawn to the serenity promised by Merton’s notion of asceticism. I’d discovered his New Seeds of Contemplation, finding (like so many readers before me) a sense of accompaniment in his familiar style. His words triggered a spiritual awakening—my first real experience of conversion, or metanoia, that shocked me out of the untested ambition and selfishness typical of privileged high-schoolers. One of Merton’s lines struck me with particular force, and remained with me: “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.” The idea became my spiritual benchmark: as long as I was avoiding hopelessness and despair, I reasoned that I must also be avoiding the sin of pride. Despair became the tell-tale sign of my spiritual laxity, and indicated the need for more and greater austerities.
If only I’d known then how naïve that was. After a few years, new sadnesses and worries posed serious challenges to my spiritual life; I habitually responded by doubling down on my discipline and resolve. My reading of Merton made me translate every instance of despair into a failure of self-denial, the result of being too lax: “You need to meditate more.” “You’ve never really tried fasting.” “How about going to Mass for once?” And so on. Although I considered myself a careful student of Merton, I had unwittingly rendered asceticism an end in itself.
My approach worked for a time, as more meditation and prayer helped me recover some of the wonder and joy I felt when I first embarked on the contemplative path in high school. Yet as my college years progressed, the anxieties became more persistent, resulting in a genuine depression. The relief I’d once found in asceticism and self-denial had become a pernicious source of self-blame and doubt. I gave up on my meditation and spiritual reading, also abandoning my passion for Merton. They’d become a painful reminder of the lifestyle I’d lost, the path of holiness I’d given up on.
For a long time I avoided going to therapy because I always considered my problems more theological than psychological. Merton himself seemed to think that many issues, today treatable under the banner of psychology, could be addressed with the right combination of prayerful humility and ascetic practice. On the other hand, the church’s spiritualizing responses—“go to confession” or “talk to a priest”—also seemed insufficient for grappling with complex interior problems. The rust-belt Catholicism I grew up with appeared more concerned with following the Catechism, stressing the so-called “life issues,” and preaching a subtle religious nationalism than with deepening a life of prayer. With the church and secular society providing only half-truths and quick-fixes, I felt alone and at sea.
It was only later, in a welcome moment of reprieve from depression, that I discovered Merton had in fact foreseen the serious consequences of asceticism for the many of us who struggle with mental illness. Later in the early ’50s, following the post–Seven Storey Mountain surge in monastic vocations, Merton became a strong proponent of psychological screenings for incoming novices. Presciently, he proposed this at a time when Pope Pius XII was tending in the opposite direction, warning psychologists not to “lose sight of the truths established by reason and by faith.” Merton worried about the toll “neurotics” might take on the monastic community, as well as the undue burdens placed on them by cloistered life. While he did not disqualify people with various mental illnesses from pursuing religious vocations, he warned that “a depressive character will nevertheless suffer much more acutely in religion that out of it.”
Merton recognized that what many monastic aspirants needed most was not religious life itself, but therapy and psychiatric care. He knew, as I had experienced firsthand, that taking on spiritual disciplines while depressed was like “attempting to run before we can walk.” Still, despite his growing openness to the discipline, Merton continued to relegate psychiatry to a secondary status, never abandoning his belief that asceticism was perhaps the only true path to holiness: “Asceticism aims to make a healthy person become holy and spiritual. Psychiatry only aims at making a sick person healthy and mature.” Merton never considered that the two disciplines could work in tandem—a paradigm shift that the church has only recently begun to absorb.
It wasn’t until the constitutions of the Second Vatican Council (in Gaudium et spes) that the church directed pastoral counselors to make use of psychology in addition to theology, “so that the faithful may be brought to a more adequate and mature life of faith.” Prior to Vatican II, the church had held that there were certain human emotions, like guilt, that psychology could not adequately address. The idea was that the feeling resulted from violations of God’s law. (For Pius XII, for example, guilt had to be treated by “contrition and sacramental absolution by the priest.”)
Under Pope Francis, the church has acted with far less suspicion toward the role psychology plays in the spiritual life. Francis himself has spoken openly about undergoing psychotherapeutic treatment during his tenure as Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina. And unlike his predecessors, Francis emphasizes that guilt does not always stem from moral failure, but, as the catechism says, can be the product of “psychological or social factors.” Where once guilt was treated with penitence and confession, Evangelii gaudium encourages priests not to make the confessional into a “torture chamber” of blame and remorse, but a site of mercy and forgiveness.
Still, even as the church under Francis builds toward a new understanding of mental illness, its ancient habit of holding the two traditions of asceticism and psychology in competition persists, preventing us from making full use of both. No person is an island, as Merton famously taught. And neither, it should be said, is the church. In an age of anxiety, the church should not pretend to be able to adequately address issues of mental illness on its own. This does not mean that spirituality or asceticism cannot play a role in the creation of a healthy person or a healthy society. They can, and should. Nevertheless, asceticism often requires a corrective force to bring things back into balance. Merton understood that psychology could play this role, offering support to the solitary ascetic. The American church would do well to understand that the psychological needs of its members often goes beyond what it has historically offered—solitary prayer, confession, penance, and the rest. The church should instead embrace the insights of psychology, knowing that any other response to the growing mental health crisis may leave seekers without the tools to continue living a spiritually robust life. Such a shift would send a much more compassionate message to American Catholics, relieving them of the burden of solving their inner problems alone.