Saturday, December 29, 2018

I have to be the person that nobody knows


This article, Thomas Merton - Modern Monk, is in this week's New Yorker magazine.

Being a lifelong Merton reader and fan, I'm picky with many of the "about Merton" articles that appear. They seem to be just a little off, projecting an agenda or persona onto Merton that doesn't sit right with me. Not the Merton that I know.

That is the case with this article. The author (Alan Jacobs) is punchy and quick to draw conclusions right from the start --
"If he had continued to live in the world, he might have died not by electrocution but by overstimulation."
I googled Mr. Jacobs. He is a fine, and well regarded teacher and writer at a school in Texas, but talk about overstimulation. Take a look at his website, and venture, if you dare, into something called "bullet journalism"! Yikes. I can imagine Merton's rant. No wonder Jacobs' writing feels "punchy".

The New Yorker article gets worse before it gets better. I sort of like the way Jacobs presents Merton's struggle with "the world", politics, peacemaking, and world religions. But he doesn't quite get to the contemplative root of it all.

Anyway, toward the end of the article is an insight that I find quite remarkable. An insight that comes by way of Rowan Williams.
In 1978, marking the tenth anniversary of Merton’s death, a young Anglican theologian named Rowan Williams wrote, “Merton’s genius was largely that he was a massively unoriginal man.” And by “unoriginal” Williams means that Merton was not the kind of genius who was always himself, always some distinctive “original” force, but rather was “dramatically absorbed by every environment” that he found himself in. To which one might add: “absorbed by,” yes, but also “in conflict with.” Merton rebelled against Gethsemani’s discipline, but then he rebelled against the character of Clare College, too. Every environment shaped him profoundly, but he always found the shaping painful. He was always, in some sense, and down to the core of his being, at the mercy of his surroundings. 
This is why Williams focusses his inquiry on something Merton wrote in “The Sign of Jonas,” one of the first books he worked on after entering Gethsemani: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead.” Williams says, “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows, because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire . . . seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent.” Williams believes that it is this distinctive absence that helps us to understand how Merton “could give almost equal veneration to Catholic and Buddhist traditions.”
And then Jacobs, still punchy, says this:
"He repeatedly affirmed a creed that can be stated in words, but was drawn to a discipline whose masters insist that Zen cannot be articulated. He was his contradictions: the person in motion who seeks stillness; the monk who wants to belong to the world; the famous person who wants to be unknown. ...
"He sought the peace of pure and silent contemplation, but came to believe that the value of that experience is to send us back into the world that killed us."
I think I would call it paradox, rather than contradiction. 

Jacobs is trying to put Merton into a box (or a bulleted list), and that's not going to work. I hope he reads some of Merton's poetry before writing about him again.

Here is the link to the New Yorker article. You need a subscription to the New Yorker, but the 1st 3 articles are free to read.

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