Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"we and our world interpenetrate"

[Below are some of my thoughts surrounding Merton’s writings on “the world”. Though I have kept this blog mostly informative about the life, art, friendships, and writings of Merton, I also consider him my primary spiritual guide, and am continually musing upon what he says. It’s quite personal. So I have decided to try to articulate some response here, without getting scholarly. Comments are welcome and wonderful. In time, I might develop some kind of more personal "style" for this blog - maybe find my voice :-)]

“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.


  1. We tend to view detachment as something life-denying. Merton came to see it as ultimate freedom. The one who needs nothing, is, in fact, the richest. It allowed him the freedom to interact with the world, live a compassion for the world without grasping on to all that is sticky and confining about institutions and preconceptions of all kinds.
    Glad that you are sharing more of you.

  2. thanks, Barbara. You're right, it's tricky to live without grasping.

    I think that Merton found his way to a constant, inner, turning over. I'm going to try to write about that next. Still not comfortable with my "voice", but just going to write my way through it.

  3. Hi Beth:
    Good post. Based on my admittedly limited personal experience, life in a monastery can be intensely political. As a buddhist nun once told me, she found the problems of the outside world in as far as interpersonal relationships goes, magnified painfully in the monastery.
    I like very much St. John of the Cross' "in order to gave everything, desire to have nothing."
    As an aside, did you know Merton had colitis? One of my favorite essays on Merton is by Dan Berrigan whence I garnered this little factoid.
    Another aside: have you read the chapter on Merton is "The Catholic Counterculture in America..."?

  4. Marc - that's just where I think I'm going next with Merton's thought: relationships.

    I tend to think that the work of marriage is largely relationship work - learning to put the needs of another first, a gradual tempering of EGO and learning of a deep kind of love that stays with someone despite all the problems and faults. And I would think that in a monastic setting, with all those personalities and this close living, this could be very challenging. Just the working out of boundaries!

    Yes, I knew that Merton had digestive problems (and bursitis and skin problems too).

    But I don't know the chapter, "The Catholic Counterculture in America..." In what book is this published?

    I really wish that I could feel that the Catholic Church was the American Counterculture. But I think that the institution of the Catholic Church in America is firmly tied to the cultural establishment, offering little in the way of real relief or guidance to those who seek to live the teachings of the Gospel.

  5. The name of the book is "The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962" by James Terence Fisher. If you'd like, I can send you my copy if that's not obtrusive. I got out of it what I needed.

    I think for converts to Catholicism the experience is much different of what the church is about. My wife, and a friend from high school who is also a woman, have very painful feelings associated with Catholic upbringing. I heard a couple of morning d.j.'s of all things, talking about conversion with their associate and explaining to him as a convert that he wouldn't be "able to download the chip" of guilt that they grew up with as Catholics.

  6. 1933-1962 sounds definitely like the Catholicism that I gre up in - and I don't know about "counter", but it definitely was a "culture" in its own right.

    As for Catholic guilt, I don't seem to have any.

    By the time I was a teenager, I was rebelling against of lot things (mainly the mindless "rules" and superstitions), but Pope John 23rd brought a lot of hope and vision for change, and I was lucky to have attended a liberal Jesuit college where my teachers encouraged my questions and searching.


2nd Sunday of Advent 2023

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