“We and our world interpenetrate”.
This is an important insight for me. The world is not something that is “out there”, while my own life and spirituality is somehow “in here”.
Life in a monastery is attractive to me. Even the religions that isolate themselves from the “public life” of the world (Anabaptists) have a certain appeal to me. In a way this distancing is a protest and refusal to be pulled into a reality that defines itself in terms of money, power, business, or political advantage.
When 27-year-old Merton entered the monastery he did, indeed, think that he was leaving the world behind. He vowed to struggle against the will to power and individualism within his own psyche.
Obviously, some kind of distance and discipline is necessary. Modern life is filled up with movement and activity, with speech, news, communication, recreation, distraction. Billboards everywhere invest this frantic activity with the noblest of qualities – as if it were the whole end and happiness of man. As if our meaning were to be found somewhere outside of ourselves, in what we own or achieve or do.
Ancient and traditional societies, East and West, have always recognized that wisdom involved a “way” of spiritual discipline in which an inner meaning of being could be attained.
So, there must be some kind of deliberate turning away from the world, turning inward – and yet it cannot be an evasion or fleeing from the world.
“This way of wisdom is no dream, no temptation and no evasion, for it is on the contrary a return to reality in its very root. It is not an escape from contradiction and confusion for it finds unity and clarity only by plunging into the very midst of contradiction, by the acceptance of emptiness and suffering, by the renunciation of passions and obsessions with which the whole world is “on fire.” It does not withdraw from the fire. It is in the very heart of the fire, yet remains cool, because it has the gentleness and humility that comes from self-abandonment, and hence does not seek to assert the illusion of the exterior self.” (from “Honorable Reader”, p. 67)
About halfway through his monastic vocation, Merton began turning back toward the world, becoming fully informed, engaged and responsive to the crises of his times. His prophetic protesting was balanced by his more personal writings, where he revealed himself mostly as a poet of his inner experiences.
Some have called Merton “a man with and uncaged mind”, one who was free of the “obligatory answers” proscribed by educations, racial and national heritages, religious tribes, or institutions that thrive by dividing human beings into family and strangers.
My sense is that Merton’s monastic inner work led him to an awareness of a personal freedom that is available to all of us. Inherent in this freedom is the ability to dance between (bridge) the outer and inner dimensions of how we know reality – our world and ourselves.