Sunday, May 25, 2014


UPDATE: By the way, I contacted Christian Wiman today and let him know, while praising his book, that we thought he had lifted the Merton words out of context. He agreed, said we were surely right, said that he loved Merton's work and should have excised that paragraph.
“The reason why Catholic tradition is a tradition,” writes Thomas Merton, “is because there is only one living doctrine in Christianity : there is nothing new to be discovered.” A little bit of death from a thinker who brought the world so much life. Nothing new to be discovered? The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular knowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of strychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneously transformed into a corpse. Any belief that does not recognize and adapt to its own erosions rots from within. Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance. Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms. (To be fair, Merton himself certainly realized this later in his life, when he became interested in merging ideas from Christianity with Buddhism.)
* * *
Of course, to assert that all doctrine is provisional and in some fundamental way untenable is itself a doctrine, as subject to sterility and vainglory as the rantings of any radio preacher bludgeoning his listeners with Leviticus. One must learn to be in unknowingness without being proud of it.

Wiman, Christian (2013-04-02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (p. 109). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.


  1. Pretty tough criticism of Merton by Wiman. Without knowing the context of Merton's writing, his statement about "nothing new to be discovered" might be Merton's criticism of Catholicism. Or if Merton's statement were about the living doctrine as a response in depth to the ground of being, what else would need to be discovered? It seems that Wiman doesn't get it, that he is thinking and writing in another, dual, context. Perhaps the living doctrine Wiman is looking at is the one encumbered by all sorts of dualistic notions, the ones that Fr Rohr asks us to be aware of, that can stop us in our tracks in our movement toward wholeness.

    1. I will see if I can find a footnote for that Merton quote, James. I know that in his early years as a monk Merton was quite devout (and traditional). It took him a few years to work his way through that. I think that when he entered the monastery he was convinced that here was "truth". He even turned his back to the "secular" world with a sort of repugnance. Took him a few years to work his way through that as well.

      In other ways it reminds me of Richard Rohr's 2 halves of life theme - how we NEED certainty and structure in our first halves of life in order to be able to grow into the freedom of uncertainty of the latter half of life.

      However, in light of the recent discussions about "conscious evolution" (via the LCWR nuns selection of Barbara Marx Hubbard as a keynote speaker), I can sort of agree with your comment about living doctrine (what else needs to be discovered?) I was really jostled by Marx Hubbard's strange response to Cardinal Mueller.

      Wiman may be writing in another dual context. I'll see if I can find the context for Merton's words.

    2. from New Seeds of Contemplation (found it with a Google Search)

    3. Thanks for the link, Beth and Daniel. Merton in this essay is thorough about doctrine, tradition, and what might in other words be the process toward becoming a bodhisattva. I agree with Daniel, that Merton questions the encrustations of tradition as does Wiman. As artists, we rise out of traditions, and there are discoveries in the materials with which we work. I like to think that's the doctrine Merton points to, "the spirit of God...always seeking and creating new forms" (as Wiman states it so powerfully).

  2. Here is a link to the Merton quote in context:

    It seems to me that Wiman may not have read this Merton in context? Much of what Merton writes here seems to be quite similar and supportive of Wiman's thesis! (and the other way around). Obliged.

  3. This conversation brings to mind what brought me to Catholicism. I was born into and raised a Catholic, taught by Franciscan Missionary Sisters at a small Catholic Grammar school in New Jersey. Most of my young life was spent in the Church. I lived across the street from the Church - it was my life. Then high school and college. Then I just stopped practicing my faith. Not that I wanted to leave it, I just didn't think about it. Then, after marriage and children - through a parish priest, I was introduced to Mother Teresa. Not actually Mother herself, but her sisters. I was and am an MC volunteer - I have been for years. The MC sisters taught me the love of Jesus, how He works through his Church .. in spite of its human faults. During the early years of this ministry, I was told about a trappist monk who changed his life in a dramatic way. I picked up and read Seven Story Mountain." I fell in love with Merton .. he was like a mentor to me. I entered diaconal formation and I am now a permanent deacon. Jesus, Mother Teresa and Merton. It was all their doing.

    Now I read much about Merton in his later years, embracing eastern thought and prayer. I do believe, and please everyone, do not be offended, that the liberal secular world WANTS Merton to turn away from the truth of Catholicism. It fits into the anti-Catholic Church agenda of the day.

    Maybe Merton was interested in ways to improve/change his Christian prayer life, by his study of Zen and other eastern practices. Still, I do not believe he would have left the monastery. Yes, he complained about the life strongly - so do some of us married men - but we stay, for we know where love lies, where we find the "Truth."

    Two weeks ago we lost our new born granddaughter Josephine Weronika. We are devastated. We grieve, but we do not despair. Our Catholic faith is our anchor - our strength. Our faith "stays put", it does not change... It is the Truth. I believe, at the end, Merton would have said the same.

    Beth, God bless you and all your blog readers.


    1. I am so sorry about your granddaughter, Brian. I know that your faith will carry you through this.

      I don't think that Merton would ever have left the monastery or Catholicism either. He was able to mine its deepest truths and then articulate and give those truths to us in ways that resonate with people from many different spiritual backgrounds.

  4. I agree with y'all, and I too am sorry about your loss Brian. Blessings

  5. Reading Merton's "Tradition and Revolution", I am once again astounded at his gift. He somehow is able to embrace the heart of tradition and revolution in the same breath (what we sometimes superficially call "conservative" and "liberal"; or "secular" and "religious").

    It does seem as if Wiman's quoting him out of context kept him from seeing that Merton was really saying the same thing that he was.

  6. 2Cents -----------------------
    Merton is interesting and OK - in think he had big time
    psychology problems that he never resolved in or out of the monastery
    and the monastery protected him from facing them perhaps he is not one
    to follow ,a red flag between seven story mountain on one side girl friend
    on the other as in many older religious feel lost and forgotten ,just believing in Jesus
    dose not make all problems go away - its my personal think he should have resined and got married that would be a real benefit to his personal well being - i think the only reason he was not expelled from the Trappist was he was bring in to much money
    with his books --

    Blessings ______________________________________________

    1. a good 2 cents, bob. I too have some pretty big psychology problems that will probably never get resolved, so I don't mind that in Merton. Not sure that I should follow anyone, but I have enjoyed having Merton walk along side of me. He's shown me some inner ways that I'm not sure I could have found on my own. Lax too. Maybe you have to be on a similar wavelength or something to catch these things.

  7. By the way, I contacted Christian Wiman today and let him know, while praising his book, that we thought he had lifted the Merton words out of context. He agreed, said we were surely right, said that he loved Merton's works and should have excised that paragraph.

  8. Beth, amazing, it never occurred to me to contact him. Wiman's book is amazing but even the best go amiss here and there. I think you should do a post of FB about this and Wiman's response. Blessings.

    1. Hmmmm. Some of my friends are telling me to get off of FB. That it is distracting and that they don't understand it. I don't know. So I'm laying low for awhile, waiting to see ...

    2. 2Cents

      Beth hang in there !!!
      my take on " Unknowingness "

      ADDRRESS ***

      Kind of
      Would have
      Address -

      Would be
      If she lived
      In this town -

      You can visit
      With a address
      At any time -


      With no address
      Who could think such a thing ???

      Blessings ________________________________--

    3. bob - is nowhere the same as everywhere?

  9. 2Cents __________________________________________

    i think this is a kind of word play
    putting word things in categories -
    in reality all categories are without
    realness,artificial so to speak
    to name a thing this or that
    does not make so -

    Blessings _________________________________

    1. yep, things are what they are. it is what it is.

    2. I'm sorry, Bob - I shouldn't be so glib. I was not feeling well when I responded to you and didn't give it the thought that I should have.

      I don't know that I can say that God is not in this place but is in another place. Some people say that God is Reality itself, can be experienced (known) as both absence or omnipresence. Speaking of categories, there are people known as apophatics or ketophatic, depending on how they pray. I always identify more with the apophats, preferring not to form a mental construct of who or what God is. I like leaving that space open and empty. Others like to use terminology (addresses?) for who and what God is (Love, Mercy, Forgiveness).

      But even though I am apophatic, I'm almost always aware of an inner relationship and dialogue going on in me that seems to be a lot bigger than me and my little life. I tend to want to believe in that and follow it, breathe it, respond to it. Maybe this is faith. Without it I tend to fall into despair, so I hold on to it.

  10. 2Cents -

    you are just 2 nice -
    no one is required to be there best when sick
    and no one should expect it -

    so back to your question ???

    one could say that nowhere is actually a case of " void "
    one could say that everywhere is actually a case of " void "
    comparing " 0 to 0 " as same or different or both or neither
    would require what is perhaps beyond present day brain comprehension -

    - belief and faith are very tricky stuff to sort out
    an bring about much confusion to my way of thinking
    it is how you look at it a product of your own thought -

    Blessings ______________________________________



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