Friday, June 23, 2017

Pharisaism

Photograph of Gal Vihara by Thomas Merton
We are all convinced that we desire the truth above all.

Nothing strange about this. It is natural to man, an intelligent being, to desire the truth. (I still dare to speak of man as "and intelligent being"!)

But actually, what we desire is not "the truth" so much as "to be in the right."

To seek the pure truth for its own sake may be natural to us, but we are not able to act always in this respect according to our nature.

What we seek is not the put truth, but the partial truth that justifies our prejudices, our limitations, our selfishness. This is not "the truth." It is only an argument strong enough to prove us "right."

And usually our desire to be right is correlative to our conviction that somebody else (perhaps everybody else) is wrong.

Why do we want to prove them wrong?

Because we need them to be wrong. For if they are wrong, and we are right, then our untruth becomes truth: our selfishness becomes justice and virtue: our cruelty and lust cannot be fairly condemned.

We can rest secure in the fiction we have determined to embrace as "truth."

What we desire is not the truth, but rather that our lie should be proved "right," and our iniquity be vindicated as "just."

No wonder we hate. No wonder we are violent. No wonder we exhaust ourselves in preparing for war!

And in doing so, of course, we offer the enemy another reason to believe that he is right, that he must arm, that he must get ready to destroy us.

Our own lie provides the foundation of truth on which he erects his own lie, and the two lies together react to produce hatred, murder, disaster.

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 78

How to be a pharisee in politics

Eparchy of Newton
How to be a pharisee in politics:
At every moment display righteous indignation over the means (whether good or evil) which your opponent has used to attain the same corrupt end which you are trying to attain.

Point to the means he is using as evidence that your own purposes are righteous - even though they are the same as his.

If the means he makes use of are successful, then show that his success itself is proof that he has used corrupt methods.

But in your own case, success is proof of righteousness.

In politics, as in everything else, pharisaism is not self-righteousness only, but the conviction that, in order to be right, it is sufficient to prove someone else is wrong.

As long as there is one sinner left for you to condemn, then you are justified! Once you can point to a wrongdoer, you become justified in doing anything you like, however dishonest, however cruel, however evil!

- Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp. 77-78

Rare photo of Merton

H.B. Littell | AP Photo
A friend sent me this photo of Merton taken during the celebration of his first Mass. In my years of browsing around Merton lore, I had never seen it.

The accompanying article (with somewhat larger perspective photo) is HERE.

H.B. Littell | AP Photo

Thursday, June 22, 2017

We do not know the things that are for our peace


Photo by Thomas Merton, from "The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton"
For the last few days (or years) I’ve been pondering Merton’s words in “Conjectures”. This particular vein of Merton’s writings are especially relevant now, speaking to what I read in “the news”,  a near constant bickering and standoff between conservatives and liberals. You’re wrong, we’re right.

Merton speaks of this projection as being both collective and personal. We project our darkness as a group and as individuals, onto others. The enemy. We scapegoat. This certainly resonates with how I have come to know the world (life) and myself, and it helps to read Merton affirming the insight. Nowadays, few are willing to talk about it, at least not in terms strong and clear enough to break the spell.

My efforts here are to pull from Conjectures, little by little, the words that are particularly resonating. Bring together a coherent message that might better expose the tangled mess of lies that we are trapped in. Merton’s writing on the matter is dense and deep. If I read too much at one time, I don't totally grasp the broad yet precise truth of what he is conveying. Which leads me to believe that it is not just an intellectual wisdom that Merton is passing on, rather something that we find within ourselves. A hope, a peace, a revelation. An awakening.

Today, there is this:
We live in crisis, and perhaps we find it interesting to do so.

Yet we also feel guilty about it, as if we ought not to be in crisis.

As if we were so wise, so able, so kind, so reasonable, that crisis ought at all times to be unthinkable. It is doubtless this “ought,” this “should” that makes our era so interesting that it cannot possibly be a time of wisdom, or even of reason.

We think we know what we ought to be doing, and we see ourselves move, with inexorable deliberation of a machine that has gone wrong, to do the the opposite. A most absorbing phenomenon which we cannot stop watching, measuring, discussing, analyzing,  and perhaps deploring!

But it goes on.
And, as Christ said over Jerusalem, we do not know the things that are for our peace.

-Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 66
Does not this passage nail us, now more than 50 years after Merton wrote it? Are we missing the point, the very gift of our time, our crisis?

Crisis:

a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.

"a crisis point of history"

synonyms:critical point, turning point, crossroads, watershed, head, moment of truth, zero hour, point of no return,


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is Your God Dead?


Damon Winter/The New York Times
A significant article published in the New York Times a couple of days ago. Written by George Yancy, an African American philosopher at Emory University. Prophetic. Like Merton and Merton Luther King Jr, Yancy makes the connections between race and religion (and sexism, homophobia, patriarchy, indifference). His insights into what we're seeing exposed in our country, our world (and ourselves) are close to what I'm finding in Merton's Conjectures. 

You can read all of George Yancy's article here.

Heschel writes, “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.” I wait to be awakened by that scream. I have not yet heard it. It is that scream, that deep existential lament, that will awaken us to the ways we are guilty of claiming to “love God” while forgetting the poor, refusing the refugee, building walls, banning the stranger, and praying and worshiping in insular and segregated “sacred” spaces filled with racism, sexism, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and indifference.
WE HAVE FAILED TO DEEPEN our collective responsibility. Some of us will never do so. What would the world look like if believers from every major religion in every country, state, city and village, shut down the entire world for just a day? What would America look like, on that day, if we who call ourselves believers, decided to weep together, hold hands together, commit together to eradicate injustice? We might then permanently unlock our sacred doors, take a real step beyond our sanctimoniousness, and see one another face to face.
I await the day, perhaps soon, when those who believe in the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” will lock arms and march on Washington, refusing to live any longer under the weight of so much inhumanity. Perhaps it is time for a collective demonstration of the faithful to delay going to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, to leave the pews in churches and pray one fewer time a day. None of us is innocent. “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people,” Heschel reminds us. “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Our Time

Photo by Benjamin Lowy / Corbis
We are living in the greatest revolution in history — a huge spontaneous upheaval of the entire human race: not the revolution planned and carried out by any particular party, race, or nation, but a deep elemental boiling over of all the inner contradictions that have ever been in man, a revelation of the chaotic forces inside everybody. This is not something we have chosen, nor is it something we are free to avoid.

This revolution is a profound spiritual crisis of the whole world, manifested largely in desperation, cynicism, violence, conflict, self-contradiction, ambivalence, fear and hope, regression, obsessive attachments to images, idols, slogans programs that only dull the general anguish for a moment until it bursts out everywhere in a still more acute and terrifying form. We do not know if we are building a fabulously wonderful world or destroying all that we have ever had, all that we have achieved!

All the inner force of man is boiling and bursting out, the good together with the evil, the good poisoned by evil and fighting it, the evil pretending to be good and revealing itself in the most dreadful crimes, justified and rationalized by the purest and most innocent intentions.

Man is all ready to become a god, and instead he appears at times to be a zombie. And so we fear to recognize our kairos and accept it.

- Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp. 66-67

KAIROS - (καιρός) is an Ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

the hours of silence when nothing happens

Photo by Beth Cioffoletti
Why do I live alone? I don’t know.... In some mysterious way I am condemned to it.... I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realization that just being there is enough, and to add something else is to mess it all up. It would be so much more wonderful to be all tied up in someone ... and I know inexorably that this is not for me. It is a kind of life from which I am absolutely excluded. I can’t desire it. I can only desire this absurd business of trees that say nothing, of birds that sing, of a field in which nothing ever happens (except perhaps that a fox comes and plays, or a deer passes by). This is crazy. It is lamentable. I am flawed, I am nuts. I can’t help it. Here I am, now, ... happy as a coot. The whole business of saying I am flawed is a lie. I am happy. I cannot explain it.... Freedom, darling. This is what the woods mean to me. I am free, free, a wild being, and that is all that I ever can really be. I am dedicated to it, addicted to it, sworn to it, and sold to it. It is the freedom in me that loves you.... Darling, I am telling you: this life in the woods is IT. It is the only way. It is the way everybody has lost. ... It is life, this thing in the woods. I do not claim it is real. All I say is that it is the life that has chosen itself for me. A Midsummer Diary for M. June 23, 1966

Merton, Thomas (2003-02-01). When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature (pp. 135-136). Ave Maria Press - A. Kindle Edition.

Pharisaism

Photograph of Gal Vihara by Thomas Merton We are all convinced that we desire the truth above all. Nothing strange about this. It is ...