Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ironic Advent Meditation #10: The Feast of Thomas Merton, OCSO(B)

The Feast of Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O.(B)

So some Episcopal thingee (official thingee or just blog thingee) has decided that December 10 should now be the Feast of Thomas Merton. You can read it for yourself because I've provided a link (link to feast of merton thingee). And because you have a brain. Related to that, I apologize in advance for thinking instead of purring. Meaning I like Merton too, but he's not another cute Advent kitten. So, here are some thoughts about Merton, also known as Father Louis, who died on this day, December 10, under the sign of the archer and in the year of the Incarnation of the Word of God, 1968 (if you can't tell, I'm imitating Merton's rather pretentious voice in his so-called spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain).

Because thirteen is the actual number of apostles, here are
Thirteen things about Merton

1. He was a helluva writer, and probably would have been a better one if he didn't fall in love so much with his own voice. And, frankly, for all his professional humility, with his own sanctity. The official "Feast of Merton" page I'm linking to this gives a few samples, Facebook-ready since they are short enough to be almost (but not quite) worthless. Because Merton was a master of aphorisms, they still carry a lot of power. Just beware because somewhere else he probably contradicted himself with another equally powerful bit of pith. My advice is to read longer chunks or, at least, not to call scanning random phrases "reading." Purr.

2. I first read The Seven Storey Mountain when I was about fifteen. On a retreat day at St. Anthony's Junior Seminary (what we called our high school). I didn't know about half of the stuff he was talking about. Maybe I understood even less than that. But it was probably the strongest, surest, and most stylized voice I had ever read in a piece of non-fiction. I decided then and there that I too wanted to be a very very intelligent, poetic, sensitive, and famous ascetic.

3. Merton wrote a Master's Thesis on William Blake. High five.

4. Merton studied at Columbia University with the distinguished and devout (Protestant) literary scholar Mark Van Doren. Van Doren's work on Shakespeare guided my early teaching career. His class on Shakespeare, which Merton stumbled into accidentally at first, had a major intellectual and imaginative (and ultimately, religious) impact on Merton.

5. I think of Merton and his Columbia buddies, Lax and Gibney and others, intellectually gifted, poetic, "religious" in the broadest sense, as sort of the forerunners of the Beats who met each other at Columbia about ten years later (especially Kerouac and Ginsberg). Years later Merton corresponded with Kerouac and published some of Jack's poetry in a journal he edited.

6. Merton, who grew up vaguely protestant but mostly hedonist (I don't mean that as a negative; his parents were both artists and he always had a keen appreciation for sensory pleasures), was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church after a long winding religious search. He later became a Cistercian monk lived the rest of his life at Gethsemani Abbey near Louisville, Kentucky.

7. Merton eventually wanted to be a hermit as well, so he created a sort of hermitage on the grounds of the monastery. Other monks resented his aloofness and the special treatment he received.

8. Merton was, for years, a spiritual director and a teacher of contemplative prayer, among other things. He was also a fierce social critic, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, a poet, and a novelist. Other than his autobiography, his most influential works were his reflective spiritual works like Seeds of Contemplation. Merton, like Augustine and C. S. Lewis (among others) was a master of intensely beautiful religious rhetoric. Like them, he sometimes makes you want to believe something simply because he states it so powerfully. I think we need to be suspicious of such writers, even if we finally agree with them. In the renaissance they sometimes called rhetoric "rope tricks."

9. Near the end of his life, Merton had a romantic relationship with a young nurse (she was in her early 20s, he in his 50s). He seriously contemplated leaving the monastery. Maybe he should have. Obviously, the movie being made about Merton will focus primarily on this.

10. Merton died of electrocution in a bathtub in Bangkok, after speaking there at a conference on Eastern and Western monasticisms. He was deeply interested in Eastern ways of contemplation and some think he was considering relocating to the Orient.

11. I've been to pay my respects to Father Louis many times at Gethsemani. Usually I leave a treat at his grave. Last year, I drove through the day of December 31 so I could be there for the end of the old and the beginning of the new year. I left him my favorite cowboy tie. Then I went into the chapel and slept until the 3 A.M. prayer service of the monks. I love Merton.

12. Merton was a talented, proud, strong-willed, artistic, passionate, contradictory, religious man. Someone I admire a great deal, but not necessarily for the reasons he would approve. Nowhere is the ironic situation of his lovingly-rendered struggle with what he called his "shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister" than in the powerful epilogue to The Seven Storey Mountain. I'll resist a long quotation; it's easy to find (page 400 if you have my old Signet paperback). Here's the thing. I don't believe him. Or I do. I mean I believe that being a writer was of the greatest importance to him. I just don't believe he really wanted to extinguish that desire (I think Salinger did, by the way).  Which is fine with me. He was who he was, flung into the world by the instress of the inscape of his unique selfness under the grace of the . . . (oops, there I go imitating him again).

13. So I'm down with the Feast of Merton, as long as we know what we are feasting. Passion, pride, contradiction, ambition, poetry, eros. God.
A prayer for the feast of Merton:
Dear Mysterious Power of Beauty, Pleasure, Intellect, and, we hope, Love, may the life and work of our brother, Thomas Merton, help us to appreciate and treasure the human activities of beauty, pleasure, intellect, and love so that we might live our lives so fully that, even against our own false religious humility, those who love us and who have been struck by the power of our own unique humanity, may drive to our graves at the end of the day, at the end of the year, and leave their cowboy ties, their respects, and their regrets. And may the monks forever chant their 3 A.M. Lauds as a sign of hope. And the chapel be open. And warm. 

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