Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"I have to be a person that nobody knows" - Merton

“Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows,” - Rowan Williams

From Jim Forest's review of a new book about Merton by Rowan Williams, "A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton".   I may have to get this book.  I was the same age as Williams (18) when Merton died, so most of my exploration and friendship with him occurred after his death as well.

" ... Not the least of the many meeting points for Merton and Rowan is their Orwell-like awareness of the abuse of language, so easily used for magical (that is to say, manipulative) ends. Thus war is described and justified in words that mask its actual purposes, dehumanize the adversary, and cloak its actual cost in human agony. The problem extends to religious words as well — ways of speaking about God that flatten rather than unveil. “Words of faith,” Rowan observes, “are too-well known to believers for their meaning to be knowable.” Indeed, “almost any words in the modern cultural setting will be worn and shabby or illusory and self-serving.” Rowan sees in Merton’s writings how, with ascetic effort, language can be restored to the transparent state of plain speech, a revealer of truth, a preserver of freedom, but this involves a day-by-day, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence struggle.

"We see in these several essays that Rowan, no less than Merton, regards Christian life without a contemplative dimension as incomplete and also recognizes that the contemplative life is accessible not only to those living in monasteries but to anyone who seeks an “interiorized” monasticism, for “contemplative prayer is the vocation of every believer.” One of the major tasks of contemplative life is the ongoing search for the actual self, the unmasked self, a self that is not merely the stage clothes and scripted sentences that we assemble and dutifully exhibit each day in the attempt to appear to be someone, but the self that exists purely because it exists in God. Rowan notes how often Merton is drawn to a “delusory self image” but then quickly abandons each self-image as a ridiculous deception.

"Merton’s pilgrimage, from his initial attraction to the Trappists until the day of his death, was to disappear — that is not to be the brand name “Thomas Merton” or a Thomas Merton who has become mainly the bearer of various labels: monk, writer, contemplative, mystic, etc. Twice in this book Rowan cites a passage from The Sign of Jonas that he first read when he was eighteen: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead. Father Louis — he’s half-dead too.” In fact, for all Merton’s grumbling about his famous adversary, Thomas Merton, he remained Thomas Merton, fully alive and always writing in a voice that was intensely and recognizably his own — but a Merton who was unwilling to make himself the prisoner of his readers’ expectations and illusions. (No doubt the struggle not to be defined purely by an ecclesiastical role is every bit as pressing to Rowan as it was to Merton.) “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows,” Rowan writes, “because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire and manifold qualities, seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent.” ..."


  1. the last sentence, if i am understanding him correctly, is that language is inherently structured, except by the exception of the unknown "man"(please can we get away from this patriarchal designation, mr. willams)

    it's related to context maybe - the right word at the right time. like a guitar lick in a rock song that is placed just right

    it's so ironic that in our age of hyper/speedoramic techno communication we are understanding less what each is trying to say more

    good post - very thoughtful

  2. Yeah, Rowan Williams should know better. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I hadn't thought about language being inherently structured to obstruct reality. When we speak, the ego is right there in it. So how does one become invisible and able to speak/see the truth?

    I need to think about this some more. But I think it has to do with silence, speaking only from a place of silence.

    Hyper/speedoramic techno communication is just static, don't you think? Meaningless chatter that obscures.

  3. Great review - thanks. I can relate to this last part through this quote "Silence is God's first language" ( St John of The Cross)

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