Striving towards Being & The Journals of Thomas Merton

 

Writing to Thomas Merton in 1960, the poet Czeslaw Milosz reflected that we moderns “lack an image of the world ordered by religion.” Merton first wrote to Milosz in 1958, and they corresponded until Merton’s sudden death a decade later. In their letters, at once generous and scrupulous, Milosz makes exacting demands of Merton and does not hold back from trying to provoke him: He writes, for example, that he has not yet read Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert (1960), “perhaps because I feel it is a sort of luxury-for those who [have] coped already with some basic theological questions.” Milosz urges Merton again and again “not only [to] understand and deplore the modern gnashing of teeth, but to have some complicity with it”-like Pascal, to pay attention to the atheists and perhaps the atheist in himself. “I imagine a reader,” Milosz writes, “who...would be ready to follow [you] in five volumes through a vision of the world redeemed by Christ.” But did Merton have such an overarching vision? Milosz was that reader, and he wanted to learn what was Merton’s “image of the world.” If Milosz is still interested, the possibility he imagined is now here: five volumes of Merton’s journals have been published. The journey is long (over 2,000 pages), but by midway through I got into the rhythm of Merton’s days and the patterns of his thinking, found him credible and sympathetic, and found myself reading between the lines. Merton notes, in 1956, the French writer “Julien Green’s idea that between the lines of what you write, say, in a journal, is a prophecy for your future.” I read between the lines of Merton’s journals for prophecies not only of his future, but the future of the church. The first volume of the journals, Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation (1939-41, 490 pp.), reads more like the melodrama of a vocation. I found it by turns trivial (“And now I am glad to have written something”); dull (lists, lists, lists of what Tom likes or does not like); and anachronistic (“If [the Franciscans] were tonsured..., it would be a fine Order”). Like the second volume, Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk & Writer (1941-52, 501 pp.), the first volume is also clogged by a textbook piety that made me shudder at the thought of having to read another 1,200 pages to write this review. Both volumes abound in tiresome mush (“Love carries me around. Love sails me around the house. Love, love, love lifts me around the cloister”) and histrionic piety (“I do not flatter myself with a disease”); they suffer, for this post-Vatican II Catholic, from an unbearable level of devotional humidity. But they’re also obviously the work of a well-educated young man (born 1915) with brains, passion, and discipline. The first volume has its moments of both self-criticism and insight (faith is not just a deposit of opinions, but “a virtue and active habit which...seeks what is beyond reason”); the second volume has flashes of the older Merton’s twinkling, self-deprecatory wit and attests to his increasing disquietude with “the rosy picture I have painted of our life.” As he writes to himself in 1947, “Get at the root.” As most readers will know, Merton’s most successful book, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), was also autobiographical, the story of his conversion. But his writing in these journals is rawer and more ambiguous and, for me, richer and more persuasive. The journals introduce us to both the density of his life-as Merton put it in 1960, “an unsolved problem”-and the depth of his faith. In his early years in the monastery, his thinking fell into strict and hoary dichotomies: supernatural/natural; monastery/world; clerical/lay. But he quickly came to question the “opposition between contemplation and activity when they are properly ordered,” with consequences for his whole way of looking at things. In the third volume, A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life (1952-60, 406 pp.), Merton intensifies this questioning to the point that the volume’s editor, Lawrence Cunningham, is moved to speak of his acedia, the monk’s disgust for his place in life. During this period, Merton woke “from a dream-the dream of my separateness, of the ‘special’ vocation to be different.” He turned scathing (and funny) against monastic rigorism and skeptical of American Catholic culture: “But Father! Our ghetto is so truly refined, it is veritably a paradise!” “To think there are still people-Catholics-who can talk [like Chesterton, with whom “everything is ‘of course,’ ‘quite obviously,’ etc., etc.”] and imagine they know the answers.” He was just as prickly and relentless with himself, struggling to go “beyond the surface to have full confidence in the deep action of God’s laws and his will.” In this struggle Merton belonged to the spirit of the times. His ongoing conversion and autobiographical writings about it made him, as not a few commentators have noted, a symbol for a generation of American Catholics. As the poet Robert Lax wrote in these pages in 1984, “When I was traveling, I’d meet theological students and people like that who had just encountered his books for the first time, and they’d always say, ‘He was talking as though he was talking inside of me.’” As Daniel Berrigan remarked in 1973, citing Dorothy Day, he “got the word around.” Though such exaltation occasionally got to Merton’s head-“My vocation is...to understand and to have in myself the life and the roots and the belief and the destiny and the Orientation of the whole hemisphere,” the Übermönch wrote in 1959-he never lost his fearsome need for meaning and his “sense of meaninglessness and sin and emptiness, of pretense.” In the end, this restlessness was what most impressed me about him and made me feel that he was also talking to me. The fourth and fifth volumes of the journals, Turning toward the World: The Pivotal Years (1960-63, 360 pp.) and Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage (1963-65, 384 pp.), show him undergoing “constant self-revision” in an effort to keep “Godward.” “Against those who rejoice in every dogmatic definition as a new limitation which restricts the meaning of such and such a dogma,” Merton sought “some grasp of the reality expressed in the propositions.” Before the question, “And what do you mean by God?” he was scandalized by “the shoddiness, the laziness of my response.” Like his hero Tertullian, this was a violent man, seeking the grace of peace. “For my own part,” Merton wrote in 1965, “the gift [of Christian faith] has been too great to be trifled with.” While not denying the mystery of salvation, however, he railed against lifeless legalisms. But struggle as he did, a new “image of the world ordered by religion,” such as Milosz wanted, still eluded him, just as his political activism in the 1960s brought him only grief and frustration. “I feel myself in fact caught,” Merton wrote in 1964, “between the two triumphalisms of the council,” “conservatives” who wanted to reestablish old boundaries and roles and “progressives” who refused to recognize that, even as a “way of life,” faith has its own rules. Hearkening back to “Julien Green’s idea,” between these lines, I think we can find much of the church today. From these journals, which testify to the profundity, dynamism, and scope of the church’s tradition, I took renewed hope for the possibility of belief.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 
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Bernard G. Prusak is professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His co-edited volume, with Jennifer Reed-Bouley, Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought, will be published by Paulist Press in February 2023.

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