We have 108 guests and no members online
DIM / MID: What would Thomas Merton do?
Sr Margaret Mary Funk OSB At a family gathering recently there was intense talk about the current Iraq War and forthcoming elections. Like most families, mine is sharply divided. The range of opinion is not unusual. It's also normal to have many points of view, and to hear vastly different sides in a debate. What was striking this time was the level of intensity, the sustained informed narrative brought to the table, and the despair at finding common ground. This is my fifteenth year of being involved with monastic interreligious dialogue and my eleventh year of having it as my full-time assignment. Isn't there some skilfulness we can bring to a family gathering from our experience? Or do we dialogue 'out there' but remain mute in our home monastic Communities and family reunions? At one point I dropped out of the conversation and became an observer, asking myself some questions: I wonder what Thomas Merton would have said about our contemporary dilemma? Would terrorism justify laying aside a non-violent strategy? Would Thomas Merton have grown up and out of the 1960s mentality that was so optimistic? We, who were already adults in the 60s, actually thought that war would become obsolete. Forty years later there seems to be no prospect for finding solutions other than military ones. More disturbing is the fact that the reliance on non-violence as an alternative seems to fuel more opposition, and actually causes aggression instead of promoting peace. Perhaps he'd say we need a view, a voice and a vocation. A View No one really wants your 'view' at the table of dialogue. Different views seem to aggravate rather than lift up the conversation to the noble, the insightful, or the compassionate action. There's an edge to one's view. It often lacks maturity. Views often become polarities and create an oppositional climate rather than move the conversation to harmony, peace and Community. There's another level that must be cultivated by each individual and by groups that are preparing to come to the table of dialogue: a voice. We need to be clear, compelling, authentic seasoned, and appropriate. Our voice has the capacity to mediate truth. Views solicit opposing views and reaction rather than wisdom. Voice invites pause, wonder and response. What would our 'voice' look like? From the outside the voice would be speaking in the first person. The speaker takes responsibility and comes from his/her centre. The speaker's voice is personal and while speaking from 'I' it's not the eye of the ego, but the 'I 'that offers a relationship to the 'you' (the du of which Martin Buber speaks). This voice refrains from speaking at someone or resorting to principles rather than sharing from the heart personal convictions that are born of an experience of silence. While the our voice comes from the centre of the 'I' there ought to be a muted ego. Excluded from our voice would be words of power and control, competition and dominance, seduction and intrusion, or moralism and dogmatism that drive arguments and scores points. Dialogue is not debate, no matter how skilful. Nor is dialogue rhetoric. No amount of style compensates for substance. The voice is humble and creates spaciousness. Poised pauses honour distinctions; differences contrast preferences, subtleties foster appreciation. This voice welcomes differences because distinctions do not divide, but enhance the beauty, contrast and unity. You might wander about the ‘what if' you don't agree, or if the ‘other' is ignorant or even harmful if taken to conclusions. Negativity, no matter its many disguises, has no place at the table of dialogue. Negate nothing, say the ancient. What is, is. Dialogue is bigger than any person at the table. No one needs to defend truth. With humility- wisdom and charity emerges as a shared experience. Yet, here is where the view comes in again through the back door. A formed view makes a contribution beyond opinion, ego and reaction. There is no substitute for homework. Here's a list of some of Merton's view that is a response to the use of war as a means of peace: • Merton did not accept St Augustine's just war theory, which taught that it is possible to kill others morally if one intends objectives other than the killing, and if war is the last resort. Merton said that the divorce between intention and behaviour creates a moral schizophrenia in which one's motives are separated from one's actions, in this case, killing a human being. It was Augustine's way of thinking that permitted the Crusades and the Inquisition. • Merton espoused Gandhi's non-violence, which seeks to liberate the adversary from the mentality that makes violence and oppression appealing. Since there is no separation between the oppressor and the oppressed, there is no enemy. • Merton raised up the imperative of non-violence in the early Church tradition. Clement of Alexandria observed that a disciple of Christ is a soldier of peace in an army that sheds no blood. St Justin concluded that a Christian does not take another's life but dies for Christ. Tertullian, with his striking way of writing, insisted that Jesus disarmed every Christian soldier when he told Peter to put away his sword. • Non-violence imposes the need to root out our fascination for total solutions to problems and totalitarian approaches to life. We become violent because we believe we alone have the answers and the truth. We conclude that any alternative to our position must make matters worse and be false. There is arrogance in this. • Christians become belligerent, Merton affirmed, because they see the truth as smaller than they are, as something less significant than the Church. No, Merton thundered. The truth is larger than we are. It endures even when we do not defend it. We are not the possessors of truth but its servants. The truth is more than we are, more than the Church is. The Church is a minister to the truth, a witness to it, not its master. • If we believe that the truth is invincible, then we do not attack others to preserve it. Those who genuinely serve the truth are gentle with it and humble. The truth need only be spoken and its force can be felt. When we defend the so-called truth by violence, we are not serving the truth but ourselves. We turn to violence because we are aware at some level of consciousness that the truth is not in us and we are, therefore, insecure with what we propose as the truth. • Those we define as our enemies are often not our enemies but simply those we cannot control, those who take options in life we did not, those who see an aspect of the truth to which we are blind. This is not to assume that there are no wicked people in the world; it is merely that there are far fewer than we suspect. Many of those we declare wicked are not wicked, but different. • Fear is the root cause of war. With bigger and bigger weapons we will continue to dominate and be dominated. • Non-violence requires spiritual maturity. This is why prayer is an important element in the achievement of non-violence. The reason why non-violence fails to work on many occasions is because others sense correctly that beneath the surface of the non-violence there is a hidden belligerence, a desire to control or, at the very least, an assumption of moral superiority and self-righteousness. • Non-violence is a humble approach to life, seeking to purify the self from the vanity that gets in the way of our happiness and the greed that makes us violent with one another. • Two assumptions by those who advocate violence: that I am separate from the other, and that I can hurt the other without injuring myself. Violence seems advantageous: if I don't guard my interests, another will take them. Scarcity thus dictates a felt need to protect American interests.1 So, you might ask, exactly just what homework is necessary to form a view? And where does one find a voice? Our voice rises from our Vocation: As praying people we follow the calling to be Christ for others. Above the river we look ordinary and have nothing special. But under the river we are practitioners of prayer and honest self-discipline. When the ego relaxes his/her grip and from underneath Wisdom herself rises and we surrender to her voice. We can speak with a voice, the voice of a contemplative that transcends the oppositional polarities and speak heart to heart.2 Let me be more specific: Recognizing five warning signs: • Stereotyping opposing positions: e.g. liberal vs conservative, or non-violence vs. militarism, stances that freeze options and paralyze skilful actions • Dealing in abstractions (-isms or -ologies) that polarise and totalise strategies • Undervaluing the personal and the relational and thereby fostering an attitude of 'us vs. enemies' • Hiding behind ego-centred resistance and defensiveness that is fear-based • Resorting to negativity and dichotomies that narrow the field of vision Five innovative dialogue skills and practices: • Speaking in the first person • Shifting from ideologies to persons • Shifting from truth as an abstraction to personal beliefs, hopes, and experiences of the sacred • Shifting from ego-centred resistance to a shared consciousness of the sacred and of the human • Shifting from negativity to a conscious willingness to understand and honour differences To do the necessary inner work before coming to the table of dialogue, and to continue this while at the table: • To prepare for a dialogue with a week of prayer and moderate fasting • To have an ascetical practice that purifies our thoughts and emotions so that our own afflictions are not hindrances at the table of dialogue • To have methods of laying aside of one's personal afflictions of anger and dejection so that one is aware of the thoughts that rise unconsciously at the table of dialogue (This teaching would draw on John Cassian's treatment of 'the eight thoughts': food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory, and pride, as discussed in my book Thoughts Matter, published by Continuum in 1999.) • To find a personal prayer practice that is ceaseless and that creates a place of refuge where one finds peace and an inner emptiness to receive another • To wait upon the Spirit, who teaches us when, how, to whom, and what to say (This would include such prayer practices as the Jesus Prayer, Abandonment to the Present Moment, The Little Way, Colloquy, and Emptiness, as discussed in my book Tools Matter, published by Continuum in 2001.) • To embrace lectio divina is the integrating prayer form for each contemplative practitioner to put on the mind of Jesus Christ as our formation for dialogue. The ancient desert tradition teaches that with God's grace affliction is taken away and replaced with prayer. Continuous prayer awakens the practitioner to Presence, the shared place of Being and Essence. A Vocation is not achieved. We follow our calling to be steeped in Christ-consciousness. The directives that rise from underneath our mindless free-falling thoughts, and move toward the gentle stirrings of the Holy Spirit that moves us from light to light, insight to insight. We might find ourselves in unlikely places. In humility we sit in silence and have an inner knowing of the heart. Our voice is the contemplative silence punctuated by a word. Merton, in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander did two things: he named the situation with clarity and artistic soundness, and he also used the voice of 'we' accepting the full burden of the human condition. His writings came from his informed view, but his voice was from his contemplative way of life. He tasted humility and knew from experience the 'we' of existence. The ancient desert tradition teaches that, with God's grace, affliction is taken away and replaced with prayer. Continuous prayer awakens the practitioner to Presence, the shared place of Being and Essence. This is the ultimate zone of dialogue. This point, however, needs to be stressed that one's experience is about the other and not the self-referencing ego. The vocation of the one who prays at the table of dialogue is to give voice to Christ mediated through our own knowing and being known. As mystical as this might sound, there's no other way to meet and mediate the complexities of our times. We pray. Sincere prayer leads us to due diligence and discipline of doing our homework on our view - war, immigration, globalization, pandemics, distribution of resources, the list is endless. We give attention to our vocation that calls us to prayer and to ascetical work that removes the inner obstacles to prayer. Finally, our inner attention directs our voice as to when we speak, to whom, with whom and what to say. We literally get out of the way so that God speaks through us and we listen with the ear of our heart. Thomas Merton today would smile because we no longer need to quote him, or any other prophet, but be there and speaking as one having authority, an inner confidence that during our lifetime Peace is possible. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander In an interview with Br Patrick Hart published in issue 74 of our Bulletin, he recommended Merton's book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander as a vintage model of his writing and his style of engaged dialogue. In this classic book, first published by Doubleday in 1966, we get not only a glimpse of Merton's finest thinking and writing but also a voice for monastics to imitate. Merton said that the book was about a decade of 'personal reflections, insights, metaphors, observations, judgments on readings and events' (Preface). He presents his 'version of the world.' The genius of Merton was that he had a version of the world. That is, he could step back and look and then articulate it both for himself and for others, like us. In other words, he puts this version 'out there' and thereby begins and sustains a dialogue with the world. We may not have his immense capacity to receive and interpret the world with his brilliant mind, excellent education, and universal contacts with the intellectual and artistic Community of the 1960s, but we can notice what he did and how he did it, and imitate his 'doing' of dialogue 'in the world.' Merton's fundamental belief was that being a monk, rather than disqualifying him from having a point of view, gave him a vantage point that offered a unique and universal perspective. As human, he was engaged in living in our actual world. He says of Conjectures: 'Maybe the best way to ss historical and even theological, fitted together in a spontaneous, informal philosophic scheme in such a way that they react upon each other. The total result is a personal and monastic meditation, a testimony of Christian reflection in the mid-twentieth century, a confrontation of twentieth-century questions in the light of monastic commitment, which inevitably makes one something of a ‘bystander'' (Preface, v-vi; this and all subsequent quotations are from the Doubleday Image Books edition, 1968). A Voice for Praise and Worship Merton then proceeds to move through contemporary news items, philosophical systems, poetry, theology, and all manner of things in a way that makes an opened page look one-dimensional. In scanning this book for the sake of my dialogue practice, I read with the intention of understanding just what the 'voice' of a bystander is. What did Merton see that I want to notice for myself? At one point near the end of Conjectures, Merton portrays a particular day on retreat: We are on retreat. Very cold morning, about eight degrees above. I left for the woods before dawn, after a conference on sin. Pure dark sky, with only the crescent moon and planets shining: the moon and Venus over the barns, and Mars in the west over the hills and the fire tower. Sunrise is an event that calls forth solemn music in the very depths of man's nature, as if one's whole being had to attune itself to the cosmos and praise God for the new day, praise Him in the name of all the creatures that ever were or ever will be. I look at the rising sun and feel that now upon me falls the responsibility of seeing what all my ancestors have seen, in the Stone Age and even before it, praising God before me. Whether or not they praised Him, then, for themselves, they must praise Him now in me. When the sun rises, each one of us is summoned by the living and the dead to praise God. (p. 280) The authority that all contemplatives, lay and monastics claim is that we come from the cloister of solitude. 'You must be free, and not involved. Solitude is to be preserved, not as a luxury but as a necessity: not for 'perfection' so much as for simple 'survival' in the life God has given you.' (97) It's in this solitude we name the contemplative moment from our on-going practice of Lectio Divina. Our eyes are trained to ‘see'. 'I pray much to have a wise heart, and perhaps the rediscovery of Lady Julian of Norwich will help me. I took her book with me on a quiet wall among the cedars. She really elaborates, theologically, the content of her revelations. She first experienced, then thought, and the thoughtful deepening of experience worked it back into her life, deeper and deeper, until her whole life as a recluse at Norwich was simply a matter of getting completely saturated in the light she had received all at once, in the 'shewings,' when she thought se was about to die [...]To have a 'wise heart,' it seems to me, (Merton goes on to comment about Julian of Norwich) is to live centred on this dynamism and this secret hope - this hoped-for secret. It is the key to our life, but as long as we are alive we must see that we do not have this key: it is not at our disposal. Christ has it, in us, for us. We have the key in so far as we believe in Him, and are one with Him. So this is it: the 'wise heart' remains in hope and in contradition, in sorrow and in joy, fixed on the secret and the 'great deed' which alone gives Christian life its true scope and dimensions! The wise heart lives in Christ (212) So, what would Merton do? Two words from the title of his book - 'guilty' and 'bystander' - function as an idiom of watching, from the outside. We monastics often use the collective, personal pronoun 'we' as a way of accepting responsibility for the current condition and of expressing our joint commitment to accountability for the next generation, to taking action on behalf of those who will follow us. The 'we' of Thomas Merton's writings is saturated with compassion and hope. However, this collective 'we' is only half of the monastic's vocation in the world. Merton uses the singular 'I' when he names the now of each contemplative moment. Notice the passage above: 'We are on retreat.' 'I look at the rising sun.' We might share our concerns about America at war, but to miss the now that is calling for praise and worship would mean forsaking an important part of our vocation. A Voice for Protest and Honest Talk However, Merton also knew that monastics cannot limit their activity to praise and worship. He once said that he wanted to make his entire life a protest against the injustice and cruelty that are as evident in our world today as when he was writing forty or more years ago. We simply must ask: 'Why war?' a question I have asked of some of my relatives. I believe the following lines from Merton do much to explain our ongoing Iraq War: The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have a monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error. We then convince ourselves that we cannot preserve our purity of vision and our inner sincerity if we enter into dialogue with the enemy, for he will corrupt us with his error. We believe, finally, that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy-for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us and exactly the same as our policy by which he defends the 'truth.' He has identified us with dishonesty, insincerity, and untruth. He believes that, if we are destroyed, nothing will be left but truth. (68) Why do we need to prove our enemy wrong? 'Because,' Merton writes, 'we need them to be wrong. For if they are wrong, and we are right, then our untruth becomes truth: our selfishness becomes justice and virtue, our cruelty and lust cannot be fairly condemned. We can rest secure in the fiction we have determined to embrace as ‘truth.' What we desire is not the truth, but rather that our lie should be proved ‘right,' and our iniquity be vindicated as ‘just' This is what we have done to pervert our natural, instinctive appetite for truth' (78). Truth itself can be a trick. When we have 'the truth,' this gives us permission to hate. Merton gives an example drawn from table reading at his monastery: In the refectory a tendentious book about Communism is being read. Communism is insidious. We should hate all that is insidious, especially this ultimate diabolical insidiousness which is Communism. If we truly hate it with all the power of our being, then we can be sure we ourselves are, and will remain, righteous, free, sincere, honest, open. Today then (we are told) hatred of Communism is the test of a good Christian. The pledge of all truth is our political hate. Hate Castro. Hate Khrushchev. Hate Mao. All this in the same breath as 'God's merciful love' and the 'beatings of the Sacred Heart.' There seems to be some other dimension we have not discovered. (44) Merton even cautions the monastic about positing another 'truth' that trumps the previous abuse of truth. His skillful method toward love that informs and forms truth is this: 'The best I can do is to look for some of the questions' (49). So, I guess Merton would not appear on a talk show. Being a monk he could stand back and watch. But his genius was to watch without being hooked into the crisis. He also insisted on the importance of thought, of being a thinking person: 'Nothing can take the place of thoughts. If we do not think, we cannot act freely. If we do not act freely, we are at the mercy of forces which we never understand, forces that are arbitrary, destructive, blind, fatal to us and to our world. If we do not use our minds to think with, we are heading for extinction, like the dinosaur: for the massive physical strength of the dinosaur became useless, purposeless. It led to his destruction' (79). Personal Lessons to Take from His Book Having reviewed some of the most potent teachings in Conjectures, and nothing substitutes for the direct experience of doing it leisurely yourself, let me conclude this brief piece by reflecting on some ways in which Merton's book might serve as a tool for me the next time I'm at the Funk family table and the political world becomes part of the menu, no matter what the feast. First, I must continue to do my own practice so as not to participate unconsciously as a person of the lie and claim to 'see' the hidden agenda of others from my own store of hubris. My own angers, competition, and propensity to retaliate and keep the cycle of violence in full swing need be rooted out with practice before coming to the dinner table and to the table of dialogue. I fear not only 'the Lord' but also my own stored tendencies to 'kill my enemies,' even if they are my kindred by blood or ties of friendship. I don't apologise for being a nun and bringing to the table views that I have picked up from here, from there, from reading, from other conversations-views that are neither better than nor richer than others, but just 'other views.' Being in this world and actually living today is the only warrant to engage in the conversation. However, silence, when not used passive-aggressively, is my greatest strength before, during, and after the talk. I would bring to the table that contemplative ‘eye of the heart' that has the witness of the 'we' but the urgency rising from the 'I'. The description of Merton's night-watch when he was Novice Master serves as an ode to all of us who see: 'Looking at the dark empty room, with everyone gone, it seemed that, because all that they loved was there, 'they' in a spiritual way were most truly there, though in fact they were all upstairs in the dormitory, asleep. Merton goes on to reflect, 'It was as if their love and their goodness had transformed the room and filled it with a presence curiously real, comforting, perfect: one might say, with Christ Indeed, it seemed to me momentarily that He was as truly present here, in a certain way, as upstairs in the Chapel. The loveliness of the humanity which God has taken to Himself in love is, after, all, to be seen in the humanity of friends, our children, our Brothers, the people we love and who love us. Now that God has become Incarnate, why do we go to such lengths, all the time, to 'disincarnate' Him again, to unweave the garment of flesh and reduce Him once again to spirit? As if the Body of the Lord had not become 'Life-giving Spirit.'[...] 'In any case, I felt there was something quite final and eternal in looking at this empty room: [...] how precious. It is very good to have loved and been loved by them with such simplicity and sincerity.' (214) Most of all, what contemplatives bring to the table of dialogue is to gently raise up in the midst of dissonance the contemplative moment of the here and now. I'm here at this table, belonging to this family and coming from my particular monastery. Merton has the words to describe this attitude: 'Dealing with these Brothers, my attitude toward the monastery changes. I see that they have need of me, and I have need of them, and I am glad to do what I can for them. This is a source of peace that makes much more sense than aiming at something less attainable and then being dissatisfied because one has not ‘attained' it.' (280) So, stay at the table. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Cf. Miramon (de) Charles, Les 'donnés' au Moyen-Age. Une forme de vie religieuse laïque (v .1180 - v. 1500), Cerf, Paris 1999; Deroux MP, Abbé, (Abbot) Les origines de l'oblature bénédictine, Les éditions de la Revue Mabillon, Abbaye de Ligugé 1927. Deroux, op.cit. Deroux, op.cit.p.95 The original list was gleaned from Anthony Padovano's book, A Retreat with Thomas Merton: Becoming Who We Are (Cincinnati, St Anthony Press, 1995, 73-75). A longer version of What would Merton Do? is to be found in MID Bulletin 73 and 74, available on line at www.monasticdialog.com