Sunday, May 10, 2009

Thomas Merton's Writing Vocation

Professor Ben Howard alerted me to his "Shambala Sun" review of "Echoing Silence," a 2007 compilation of Merton's thoughts on writing: "A Very Public Hermit". Howard as a practitioner's sensitive to Merton's Zen predilection: "One Time, One Meeting." He wonders if this leaning's inherent as well as willed. "Merton’s embracing of the Zen tradition, which he saw as entirely compatible with Christianity, may well have been a matter of temperament, but it also reflected his moral and philosophical outlook."

Howard also reminds us of Merton's desire to appear in print-- in fifty books-- that articulated the monk's wish for telling us about the life of silence, and increasingly solitude apart from his fellow Trappists. What a vocation: most popular eremite in postwar America! "More conspicuous than Merton’s spiritual progress, however, is the persistent quarrel in his psyche between the ambitious, ego-driven author, who assumed an increasingly public presence in the culture of the 1960s, and the self-effacing contemplative, who longed for a life of solitude, poverty, prayer, and silence."

I recently read, on Howard's reminder, and reviewed here on May 1 (and on Amazon) Seán Dunne's memoir "The Road to Silence." (See also Tony Bailie's May 6 "Ecopunks" review here.) Dunne notes how "triumphalist" Merton's autobiography and early writings seemed; I agreed. Merton's someone I always imagined inviting to my dinner party of top table-talkers; I've wondered what his voice sounded like, given his transcontinental and bohemian upbringing.

I admired at the age of twelve his account of such a life, "The Seven Storey Mountain." Perhaps, if in hindsight, even then I discerned along with the relief that the young Merton shared of his overcoming the lures of the wily one on the outside a sense that Merton lorded his decision over the rest of us, still secular, still stranded, still sinful. This was, after all, the 1940s, and Catholicism, even more perhaps for a grateful convert, instilled this sense of election and approval within his needy self. He grew up, coming there at the age of twenty-seven, within the monastery. I recall his comment that the only difference between a monk and the rest of us: "a monk chooses his own battleground."

Howard explains Merton's role as pundit, walled up in the cloister, who chose to critique the passing parade from a Kentucky knoll. Seeing I have a dear friend in the real and blog worlds now reading Rand half for a twisted sense of maudlin fun in our "downturn," I note Merton on the Objectivist. Also, seeing that Kerouac's celebration of himself and Gary Snyder as "The Dharma Bums" (50th Anniversary Edition) is in my stack of what to read next from the library-- with me very underexposed by choice so far to their own rather "triumphalist" antics-- I anticipate verifying Merton on the coddled and carefree caffeinated cabal of Beats!

Invited to comment on the social issues of his time, Merton willingly obliged, and often with panache, as when he excoriated “the supermarket culture,” or debunked Ayn Rand’s philosophy as “moronic,” or dismissed the Beat poets as "infantile." In so doing, the poet-monk enhanced his reputation and added cubits to his stature. But he also strengthened a sense of himself as separate and morally superior, a man at odds with the “war-making” society in which he lived. And though he knew that for St. Augustine “fixation upon the external self” was “one of the principal elements in the fall of Adam,” he remained acutely conscious of his public image. Looking back at The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton viewed the narrator of that book as the “superficially pious, rather rigid, and somewhat narrow-minded young monk I was twenty years ago.” Harshly negative though it is, that judgment typifies Merton’s continuing concern with his public persona, which had been fashioned primarily through the printed word.

Merton later tried to separate his considerable ego, stoked surely by the fame that came his way and which he sought despite his vows that separated him from his past. I admire Merton, for in this struggle he proved to us that after his youthful "triumph" over the world, he showed in his maturity his own difficulties, his own humanity, that persisted and tempted him. That he remained a monk to me is his true triumph, for all the pain that his decision caused him. In his prime, he came to fulfillment in a painful transformation. His retreat towards the East where he would die in such a poignant, unexpected, and sudden way shows that some path he never thought would open before him when he entered Gethsemani in 1941 came back, exactly halfway in his life after he became a Trappist, to end his life with eerie precision.

Merton himself earlier speculated on the stepping back from publicity, from promotion, from self.

No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say when there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.

Howard adds: "Significantly, those poignant remarks appear in Merton’s preface to the Japanese edition of his Thoughts in Solitude (1966). With their overtones of the Zen koan (“the Hearer is No-Hearer”), they reflect their author’s gravitation toward Asian culture in general and Zen in particular."

Merton, according to Howard's judgment, perhaps never reconciled the tension between voice and vocation, taciturnity and jocularity. I use the image of Merton as Zen master (Mona Lisa smile?) as an example of the conflicts and the resolutions he embodies. He admitted in what Howard perceives as a partial resolution of Merton's predicament: "As I reflect over the past and over God’s grace in my life there are only two things that are more or less certain to me: that I have been called to be at once a writer and a solitary. The rest is confusion and uncertainty."

I hope that Merton on his final earthly journey to Bangkok and his meetings with what then was an unprecedented encounter between Buddhists and Christians who pursued monastic fulfillment found peace. I doubt, given the current tenor of the Church to which he remained a faithful if contrary servant, that he will be elevated by the papacy among those canonized. But, for those of us outside such boundaries ourselves, we assuredly admire him for being one of the most human holy men of all. At least among those we've heard about-- part of the problem and solution for him?

Illustration: Br. Robert Lentz, OFM (1985): "Thomas Merton (1915-1968)"

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