Monday, May 5, 2008

remembering merton (part 3) - fearlessness

One of the lines from the round table discussion that jumped out at me was Jim Forest’s remark about Merton’s fearlessness:

"This was another quality. I would call it the quality of fearlessness. That I think is one of the most important attributes of Merton: that he communicated to so many people what it is like to live a fearless life." - Jim Forest
I have been musing over this quality of fearlessness the past few days – what it is to live without fear or anxiety, with each day truly a gift and adventure. I believe that both Merton and Dorothy Day tapped into a wellspring of Life, living water that allowed them to live without fear. They both found within the context of Catholicism an incredible freedom and a way that opened out toward previously unimaginable possibility.

I wonder if, like Jim suggests, one can "catch" this freedom by being around a person who has discovered it? Can one point the way for another? Is it even possible for you to discover your own fearlessness by yourself? Or is it pure gift? Is it gift that is always given, but we discover how to accept?

Jim Forest goes on to add …

"If you read, as I am at the moment, the first of these volumes of his journals that are being published, you might keep it in the back of your mind while you are reading it, how open he is, how unprotective he is about himself, his future, and so on. There is some place where he just says that you have to abandon yourself completely, to love God and love your neighbour. This sense of abandonment. Not to be worried about the future and what will happen. Will you have the house? Will you have this and will you have that? Will people care about you? Will you be important etc. etc.? Although he didn't speak about it very often and perhaps never spoke about it so transparently as in these early journals, this theme that we see picked up very early in the journals is of simply abandoning yourself so that you can live very freely in the Resurrection because there is nothing actually to worry about. There's nothing we can do to prevent our death. There's absolutely nothing we can do to prevent a good deal of suffering in our own lives. It's all going to happen. And so you just say well that's going to happen. The form it will take remains to be seen. The only thing that actually matters is just simply living in obedience, living in attentiveness to this wonderful creation that's been given to us and which will carry us along in whatever way is necessary. This sense of the providence of God. Whenever you meet somebody like that, it's a life-changing experience. As much as people talk about it, when you encounter the reality of somebody who lives with that kind of absolute confidence in the providence of God, you are never the same again. It's very freeing."


  1. It is always surprising to read something one has said in the past -- a relief to find it still holds up.

    One of the core aspects of sanctity, it seems to me, is a remarkable degree of (at least relative) fearlessness. It's not a state of being easily come by.

    A question: How does one access the site where the roundtable transcript is located? I clicked on the link but got ar error message.

  2. I guess that is pretty scary, seeing a transcribed conversation being pulled up some years later!:-)

    As always, Jim, I find your words about Merton extremely insightful. You always seem to hone in on what's important, in my opinion.

    The link works when I try it. I also have it over on the left, at the top of the Merton links.

    This is the address:

    Let me know if you are still having problems and I'll email you the page.

  3. Love this description of fearlessness in Merton (and Day and others of their spirit). I think of it as taking the great risk, without looking back, knowing God's got your back. It is rare and a great grace, a divine madness.

  4. Madness, for sure, Barbara. As I come to know Merton, and most other people that I consider exceptionally "fearless" (or surrendered or something), I find that they are quite ordinary, and riddled with the same neuroses as the rest of us ... but it's as if none of that matters (the neuroses and all). Thier focus is not on themselves or thier own specific fate.

  5. just as well, beth, that their focus is not on themselves or their own specific fate -- because their fate will likely not be pretty.

  6. Beth, I think this freedom that they both found within the "context of Catholicism" was also within the context of contemplative prayer. I found it really interesting that the metaphors you use to talk about arriving at fearlessness (tapping into the living water, the Wellspring of life) are also metaphors for infused contemplation, e.g., St. Teresa of Avila. And the questions you raise about freedom and fearlessness - they are some of the very same questions many people ask about contemplative prayer.

  7. No doubt about it, Gabrielle, contemplative awareness (prayer) and fearlessness go together. The trust in God is deep in the psyche/soul.

    Somewhere recently I read that in the last year of his life, Merton was interested in the Jesus prayer - and what has become the Contemplative Prayer Movement. I would like to learn more about this and would appreciate any leads you can give me.

  8. Beth, do you remember the YouTubes I posted mid-Jan. 08 (three parts re Merton and the Jesus Prayer)? If I'm not mistaken, they were from lectures to novices around 1965, so Merton's knowledge of and interest in the Jesus prayer seems to have begun at least a few years prior to his death, but I really don't know how far back.

    Re a "movement", I don't know what that might mean either, unless Merton was aware of what was going on in the background a few years prior to contemplative writings and groups really coming to the attention of the public. For instance, Catherine Doherty's book "Poustinia" wasn't published until 1975, I think, although Merton knew her and her spirituality very well. Dom John Main started his Christian meditation groups (based on the teachings of the Desert Father Cassian) in London, England in 1975 and then in Montreal in 1977. Father Thomas Keating was Abbot of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts from 1961-1981, but I think it was also around 1975 that his work re contemplative prayer and Lectio Divina began to reach the public. But a "movement" in 1968? I'd like to know more too!

  9. I will listen to those tapes, again, Gabrielle. That may be where I came up with the notion that Merton was interested in some kind of "organized" effort to bring this kind of prayer to the mainstream.

  10. Beth, I don't have this book, but I just came across the title (maybe you already know of it):
    "Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart & the Eastern Church", edited by Jonathan Montaldo.

  11. Thanks for this information, Gabrielle. I am very interested in this book and will order it.


The Stuff of Contemplation (Joan Chittister)

Thomas Merton, Trappist, died December 10, 1968 Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, at the age of twenty-s...