Thomas Merton

I am not happy about criticising adversely any other person who is (like myself, I hope?) in the vineyard doing the work s/he sees God to have given her to do. There are plenty of books which do this, and that is enough said about them.

I have read Thomas Merton various times in various of his writings; and I respect his dedication to his work and to God. Even sometimes, not uncommonly, I have been struck by an observation of his in which I have felt the pressure of truth and even revelation and such remarks as these I have been able to carry home.

I have no doubt that Thomas Merton was genuine and in places insightful and so helpful to readers such as myself looking to him for understanding and clarification for one’s own spiritual life. And maybe I expect, have expected, too much from a man like Thomas Merton – his reviewers have certainly lavished praise and admiration on his writings – yet Thomas Merton like you and me is/was human, and thus even so writes ‘with all our imperfections on our heads’.

I think I wan to be clear that had Thomas Merton taken a little more care and examined more critically some of the thoughts and ideas he put to press on paper, he would have been even more useful to readers like you and me; had he revised more; or else maybe had he, as Alexander Pope was said to have done, put his finished manuscripts in a drawer, looking again at them only after a period of five or so years, and so with a fresh and more experienced critical eye, then Thomas Merton might have become a classic writer in the genre of devotional and instructive meditational works.

Of course there’s a certain ‘heat’ about the style of his writings which might have cooled a little more after a survey made by him of them at a time some years after their composition; and this loss of ‘heat’ may well be considered by some of his readers to represent for them a debit from the writings’ quality and/or value. There’s a fluency in his writings, which is a fluency of their style and tempo rather more than a fluency of the thoughts he expresses; which indeed although they do flow they are thoughts which I believe are often running too fast in his head, for him to be able to by measured and so extract to the full the juices from their stores of nectar and refreshment.

I would not call this pace and style, its uptempo, a ‘haste’ on Thomas Merton’s part; but rather I think it was perhaps the way he found he was able to work; how he was able to get his trains of thought down on paper; and maybe he was such a fertile and avid mind that he had too many thoughts at once for him to have captured the full materials of their composition in his manuscript?

Possibly a dictaphone or an amanuensis might have aided him were these drawbacks to have been the case for him?

Possibly he was happy to have captured half or a third of the full impacts of his thoughts; and to have consider these, like as The Wife of Bath had considered her husbands unjustified in carping about her promiscuity, because , as she says, they all received from her ‘God’s plenty’ and to spare.

Whatever the reasons or the psychology behind Thomas Merton and his writings, and these may be utterly different to what I have put forward hereabove as speculative suggestions, his work I believe is marred too often by the practical outcomes of such a psychology and set of reasons.

Myself, perhaps from having grown old, perhaps from having been lucky enough to have retired from employment, and so my having now the time and space to slow down, to slow myself down, I find I am able to read more deeply and extensively, I find a I am able to absorb and take note of inferences, nuances, and a whole parcel of fellow-travelling baggage which are somewhat the ‘clutter’ which many books carry; and with these ‘extras’ I can see that they are bearing import and so provide better understanding to me of the tenor of the authors of the items I read.

The price, if it is a price, I have paid for this self-imposed slowdown of pace in my life, has been that I have become less able to tolerate everyday life in a Western urban environment; an everyday life which carries on headlong and going it knows not where at a rate of knots and having everyone on board. I have always suffered a plethora of ‘information’ getting through my psychic ‘filters’ and into my consciousness, all my life more or less; and it has gotten rather like a madhouse going on inside my mind sometimes; I having to seek solitude and quiet for some time in order to rally and to recover equilibrium.

Yet I am not the natural vocational monkish-type as seems to have been Thomas Merton; I enjoy having around me a certain level of activity; and I would feel deprived were I to be situated as was Thomas Merton in a secluded and single small area all my days.

I want to show you one or two examples of Thomas Merton trying just that little bit too hard to be enigmatically epigrammatic; him trying to get down on paper in a nutshell the kernel of his meditation and without him wanting to unpack what he is actually writing. His is often a case of words being the master and the pen leading the writer, a case and phenomenon which is able to grab any of us and which we should always be on the lookout for and so try to avoid it happening to us.

I am going to cite Karl Popper (again) the 20th century philosopher of science who said:

“There is nothing I can say which will not be misunderstood”

Karl Popper appreciated that language as we are able to use it, even at our best, it remains an approximate tool, one which all to easily is liable to lead our minds and our writings astray, and at times even unconsciously so,- so that when we suffer this to happen we may never know that we have done so, unless we are lucky enough to be told or have it pointed to in some way.

Like those Virgins in the parable who remember to bring with them sufficient oil for their lamps, so that they are present with lamps lit when the Bridegroom arrives at midnight, we too should try hard to remain vigilant and to make preparations for ourselves and so take all care in what we say and write down.

Let’s begin with this passage I have taken from Thomas Merton’s book titled “No Man an Island”:

“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety.”

The assumption in the first clause is that a person who fears to be alone, fears to be alone because that person being alone will feel lonely. There is, in this statement, and at this point in the argument, no consideration from Thomas Merton that persons may not wish to be alone for other reasons than because of their feeling lonely when alone? There is a sense in which a person might feel that s/he has too much company when being alone.

For instance it is not loneliness per se a person may fear, but instead those recollections and thoughts which spring to mind when s/he is alone. Yet loneliness in itself does not have to include a person having a host of memories and thoughts which s/he would rather not have pursue her/him.

Loneliness at bottom is maybe merely a wish and desire to have company at a time when one has none.

Thus to be ‘at peace with one’s own loneliness’ might be the same thing as being content in one’s own company? Thomas Merton implies that such a person who is contented in her/his own company has successfully fought off and found resolutions to bad memories and haunted thoughts. But as I have said, this does not necessarily have to be so.

This fact of one’s own loneliness which is said to be ‘reality’ by Thomas Merton, is set opposite, and is set there for what looks like contrast, to one having the company of others which is, he says, an ‘illusion’.

This is said to be the case even though we are assured by Thomas Merton that with us having the ‘companionship of God’ we might be able to enjoy the company of others, so that this companionship which he has termed just now an ‘illusion’, we might enjoy it ‘truly’. Thus we enjoy and illusion truly; which is an odd thought?

By the same token he goes onto say that one is able to be ‘alone with God in all places’ but yet also at the same time one ‘truly enjoys the companionship of others’. If one is ‘alone with God’ then one is not in fact alone; if one is in the company of others one is not ‘alone with God’. The word ‘alone’ has been used in two separate ways by Thomas Merton here, but the claims by him as writer seem rhetorically to want to say that the word ‘alone’ has been used uniformly here. For him to have used this word ‘alone’ consistently in this passage, he should have had to accept the plain fact that when one is alone one is not in the company of other persons. Even though there is in the English language an acceptable usage for the word ‘alone’ which says that ‘I was alone with another person’; that is, without anyone else but the one person. But this is a different usage to one saying plainly and absolutely ‘I was alone’.

Further, when a person ‘loves in God’ ‘other men’ and when these other men are loved by oneself when one is ‘in God’s presence’, these ‘other men’ seem to become ‘not tiresome’ to oneself; as if Thomas Merton is implying here that when ‘other men’ (persons) are in one’s company when one is NOT in God’s presence, then these other men become tiresome to oneself. This seems to be a rhetorical implication which perhaps Thomas Merton did not want to use and maybe was a little unaware of its ramifications?

Thomas Merton goes onto say that God’s love allows us to love others in a way which ‘can never know satiety’; yet surely any experience or appetite which ‘can never know satiety’ is a frustrated incomplete experience, a frustrated appetite? I think Thomas Merton has chosen the wrong word in his choice of the word ‘satiety’ in use here?

Here is another passage from the same book:

“God does not demand that every man attain to what is theoretically highest and best. It is better to be a good street sweeper than a bad writer, better to be a good bartender than a bad doctor, and the repentant thief who died with Jesus on Calvary was far more perfect than the holy ones who had Him nailed to the cross. And yet, abstractly speaking, what is more holy than the priesthood and less holy than the state of a criminal? The dying thief had, perhaps, disobeyed the will of God in many things: but in the most important event of his life he listened and obeyed. The Pharisees had kept the law to the letter and had spent their lives in the pursuit of a most scrupulous perfection. But they were so intent upon perfection as an abstraction that when God manifested His will and His perfection in a concrete and definite way they had no choice but to reject it.”

In regard to the opening clause in this passage above here I would offer that God does not demand anything from anyone; and that God is he who stands at the door with patience and awaiting for the human knock for him to open it. Moreover this word Thomas Merton uses, the word ‘theoretically’; he repeats it twice in this passage, but uses different constructions, where he writes the words ‘abstractly speaking’ or else plain’abstraction’.

The terms ‘abstractly speaking’ and ‘theoretically’ appear to me to be being used by Thomas Merton as synonyms here. That this is so can be shown by us substituting the one term for the other in their occurrences in the passage. Thus we have ‘God does not demand that every man attain to what is abstractly speaking highest and best” and again we have “And yet, theoretically, what is more holy than the priesthood”

There is a great confusion in this passage, between the usages of his sets of laudatory terms and their rhetorical juxtapositions beside their corresponding sets of pejorative terms. We have a good sweeper, a good bartender, and correspondingly a bad writer and a bad doctor. What might this arrangement of ideas mean in the light of these good and bad examples being used to illustrate, as they are meant by Thomas Merton to do, the practical application of what he terms ‘what is theoretically highest and best”?

Is a writer to be thought higher and better than a roadsweeper; a bartender to be thought higher and better than a doctor; or is a good roadsweeper to be thought higher and better than a bad writer, and a good bartender to be thought higher and better than a bad doctor; or is it both these sets of meanings simultaneously? Whichever the meaning, it remains that case that The Lord Jesus is pointed out two or several times very clearly in the gospels as being ‘no respecter of persons’ which is to say that Jesus did not see people as roadsweepers and bartenders as doctors and writers; but that he saw people always on a single level of their fundamental existential plain humanity.

Thus we have parables and stories about The Widow’s Mite; about The Blind Beggar; about The Ten Lepers; and these stories are pointed up purposely and in particular to us to show us that Jesus distinguished nothing between a Centurion; a Master of Israel; or a Roman Procurator; and these humble but equally needful and so blessed persons in His treatment.

To believe that God thinks higher and better of a doctor or a writer than of a bartender or a streetsweeper, as seems to be the foundation upon which Thomas Merton is building his arguments here, and it is to see Jesus and God very mistakenly I believe. To believe that a bad doctor – in that s/he is poor at dispensing medical help – or that a bad writer – in that s/he cannot put two sentences together, is therefore and necessarily a bad person in any ethical sense is a non sequitur also.

Thus when Thomas Merton comes to his point about The Repentant Thief at Calvary with Jesus, and his marking him out as being ‘more perfect than the holy ones who had Him [Jesus] nailed to the cross”, at this point we are now talking ethical and transcendental ‘perfection’ and not about whether the High Priests did their day jobs better than The Thief did his.

That these High Priests who ‘had Jesus nailed to the cross’ are “abstractly speaking”, amongst those whom nothing “is more holy” – this is a statement of hyperbole, for is not Jesus himself more holy than any set of only human persons? – and that this Repentant Thief is of a type, a criminal, of whom nothing ‘is less holy” – is this not also mere rhetoric in that ‘less holy’ is a fudge here for the term ‘most evil’, and surely there are many who fit this bill above how a common thief might? – that these rhetorical tropes are made by Thomas Merton and made with some panache on his part I think, begs a question whether he stopped to consider seriously his reductive and naive equation of civil lawbreaking with Godly commandment breaking.

The condemned thieves were petty criminals. Jesus himself in the eyes of the Jerusalem law enforcers was such in his overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple courtyards, and driving them away with a whip of cords. The fact remains that a man or woman can be a lawbreaker in a civil sense and yet be relatively unblemished from the point of view of her/him being a sinner or being an evil person; and commonly perhaps may be far less so than a person whose office is to uphold the civil law.

Thomas Merton tells us that ‘the Pharisees had kept the [Mosaic] law to the letter”, which of course is a non-Biblical statement, one not found in or upheld by The Bible. Had they “kept the law to the letter” there would have been no need for Jesus and his Incarnation – hyperbole yet again – words running away with Thomas Merton’s enthusiasm.

Thomas Merton ends this passage with a flourish which is more a gratification of a failed triumph, than anything which has to be considered seriously as holy truth.

“But they were so intent upon perfection as an abstraction that when God manifested His will and His perfection in a concrete and definite way they had no choice but to reject it.”

The sentence just does not make sense. Its final conclusion just does not follow from its first premise. It is set up rhetorically (rather than linguistically) as if it ought to make sense; but only a purblind enthusiasm is able to carry through to its end with any satisfaction a reader who is not so careful and critical as s/he should be.

Once again it’s the absoluteness of the terms of the claims Thomas Merton wants to try to make; his usage of phrases like “intent on perfection” and like “God’s… perfection” and also “concrete and definite” and “no choice but to reject” and so on. One senses the writer’s energy and vitality, his urgency and his earnest; but this is also in a bad sense because he is not filtering his feelings and measuring them by his reasoning and thought processes.

Ask yourself: were the Pharisees actually ‘intent upon perfection as an abstraction”? In fact they had books and scrolls filled full of practical applications of the Mosaic Law; when one might plant; when one might bath; when one might eat ears of corn in the ripe fields and so on. If anything it is the opposite; the Pharisees were laden down with too many facts and particulars, contingencies and practical minutiae of hedges against breaking a commandment. Theirs indeed was an attempt at a ‘concrete and definite way” to “manifest God’s will and perfection”.

The “abstraction” if it lay anywhere lay with Jesus and with his gospel message; with his completion and fulfilment of The Mosaic Law by way of its psychic internalisation, and so to some degree its subjectification, as one’s apprehension of one’s standing with God. It is The Lord God whom Isaiah tells us is sick and tired of burnt offerings and libations; of external and practical performances by his people in a vain effort to cleanse ‘the inside of the cup’.

God, Jeremiah tells us, and Jesus bring the same message home, “will put his spirit in us and he shall write his law upon our hearts”. Hardly tangible; except in the fruits borne of such a transformation.

And yet why should the Pharisees “have no choice but to reject” God’s gift to the world of his son Jesus Christ? Certainly Nicodemus was able to accept him; and who was a Master of Israel. For any person to have no choice but to reject The Lord Jesus, this statement, as it stands unqualified, is unBiblical.

I’ll say no more, except a general point that talking and writing about God and his love is not a game of Cowboys and Indians. In God’s games everyone is included; and he never – I use this unqualified absolute carefully – plays off one side against another.

Our own preferences and predilections, our assumptions about social norms and values; none of these are Gods’ predilections and preferences; and we do well to curb ourselves and to measure and temper what we say in his name, as it were attempting to say in his behalf.

It’s not much of a pleasure writing such an article as this; to perhaps burst a person’s bubble and to pull apart a person’s prose. Only for the persons who read this article and who accept the drift of what I am saying; it may do them some good; it may make their own choices of words and their writings that bit more circumspect, and as it were,by trying to let go of ones petty self we give just a bit more of our hearts to God ever and anon?

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