Love the World
(Sounds True)Thomas Merton was the interesting blend of aesthetic and aesthete. At the age of twenty-six, he went off to Abbey Gethsemani in Kentucky, where the monks were expected to observe "perpetual silence" (some called it the Catholic Church's "foreign legion.") Novitiates were literally speechless, they could only talk (with permission) to a superior. And he, presumably, only to God.
They had a rigid schedule of prayer, study, simple tasks (gardening, cleaning) and a minimum of sleep. This rigidity and discipline was to acknowledge a love of the divine, and, through work, prayer and contemplation, to, perhaps, discover the truth about the divine.
§ § §For a man who vowed silence, Merton certainly got talky, quickly. In 1948, he published his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain which went to the top of the best-seller list, ultimately selling a million copies in its first year. He became a celebrity, a spokesman for the more mystical side of Christianity. Visitors came to Gethsemani --- Erich Fromm, Joan Baez, Boris Pasternak, James Baldwin, D. T. Suzuki.
During his life, Merton was to write sixty books, countless articles, papers, speeches and poems. But fans reading the 150 aperçus in Choosing to Love the World will face some confusion. All but six come from volumes published after his death in 1968. They are arranged in seven vague categories ("The Inner Ground of Love" "Contemplative Listening" "The Door to the Clear Light") but no dates are given, so we have no idea if they represent early, middle or late thinking (and Merton was to change his thinking --- especially about war and violence and the world --- before he died).
There are also instances of woozy, wishful ideas that can be, sometimes, breathtakingly oblivious to history: "When I speak, it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with those forces of injustice and destruction," he writes, ignoring some of the more bemusing facts from the history of his church.
Beyond politics, the thoughts sometimes shade into a wambly mistiness: "Christian personalism is, then, the sacramental sharing of the inner secret of personality in the mystery of love."
The sharing demands full respect for the mystery of the person, whether it be our own person, or the person of our neighbor, or the infinite secret of God.
In speaking of his "monastic vocation," he writes, "It is not an environment in which I become aware of myself as an individual, but rather a place in which I disappear from the world as an object of interest in order to be everywhere in it by hiddenness and compassion.
"To exist everywhere," he concludes, "I have to be No-one."
§ § §
In the process of becoming a "No-one" Merton certainly became a someone. And his pacific vision led him not only to proclaim the importance of the contemplative life, but to define the need for men to respect other men's beliefs and lives. During the Vietnam War he created ample governmental suspicion for his opposition to violence. He died on a journey to the edges of the war zone, in 1968, under what some took to be mysterious circumstances. According to those who were there, it was pure accident: he was barefoot, wet, tried to turn on an electric fan; when the shock knocked him over, the fan fell on top of him. His death was reported on the front page of the New York Times.
This volume, short and nicely laid out, has a quote appended to the back cover that well demonstrates his style:
Wherever man and society exist; where there are hopes, ideals, aspirations for a better future; where there is love --- and where there is mingled pain and happiness --- there the contemplative life has a place.--- L. W. Milam