It is with deep feelings of gratitude that we are pleased to present this serialised series of reflections by Fr Patrick Collins on the spirituality of Thomas Merton. The entire essay runs to over 12,000 words and we will be presenting it in bite-sized portions over the coming Sundays. Fr Collins has previously written for Catholica on the Spirituality of Thomas Merton and you can catch those earlier reflections by clicking HERE.
Part I: the so called 'spiritual life' must not be separated from ordinary existence...
Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, is considered by many to be one of the greatest American spiritual writers of the twentieth century. Dom Jean LeClerq ranked Merton among the early and medieval Fathers of the Church. Henri Nouwen spoke of him as the most important spiritual writer of the twentieth century. David Tracy suggested that Merton might turn out to be the most significant Christian figure of the century. And Lawrence Cunningham sensed that Thomas Merton, like the great patristic, spiritual theologians, could speak existentially in the language of the day about the experience of God.
Merton's greatness in the field of spirituality lies in his ability as a writer to put into contemporary terms some very ancient and traditional notions about the human spiritual journey. His approach was a contemplative rather than a devotional spirituality. Of the latter he wrote to Brazilian Sister Emmanuel de Souza e Silva in 1955: "The Holy Spirit prays in us, in these days, with groans, inenarrabilibus gemitibus, as we consider the power and superficiality of so much that is called 'devotion' – including devotion to the Blessed Sacrament." (Sr. M. Emmanual 2.28.55 HGL 181)
Very personal responses to particular person's questions and issues...
The Merton words woven into this essay are drawn from the five published volumes of his correspondence in which he dealt with many different spiritual topics. When viewed chronologically, one can note Merton's own developing ideas of spirituality as they developed through his epistolary conversations with his correspondents. In these at times free-wheeling writings, Merton's thought was uncensored. He could speak without external or internal hindrance in ways he thought would be meaningful and comprehensible to the recipients of the letters. Here we find, then, not well-honed theories of spirituality but very personal responses to particular person's questions and issues.
Thomas Merton's writings about the progressive nature of the spiritual life were based upon his own experiences. His was not principally a message based upon study of the texts of others, although he read voraciously and widely in many spiritual traditions of both the East and the West. What he shared with his correspondents was always couched in what he had learned from his own spiritual journey. In The Seven Storey Mountain the Trappist had written about the genesis of his desire to become a saint. His friend, Robert Lax, told him in 1938 that Merton should desire to become a saint. The thought struck Merton as "a little weird." "How do you expect me to become a saint?" Merton queried Lax. "By wanting to," said Lax simply. So Merton bought the first volume of St. John of the Cross and began to learn about contemplative spirituality from one of the great spiritual masters. (7 Storey Mountain, pp 260-261)
Fools for Christ's sake...
After fifteen years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Father Louis Merton began to realize the complexity of his earlier desire for sanctity. Becoming a saint for him meant, in some ways, to realize that we are fools for Christ's sake. He wrote about this maturing realization in 1958 to his New York friend, Catherine de Hueck Doherty: "After so boldly advertising to the world that I was out to become a saint, I find I am doing a pretty bum job of it... But it certainly is a wonderful thing to wake up suddenly in the solitude of the woods and look up at the sky and see the utter nonsense of everything, including all the solemn stuff given out by professional asses about the spiritual life: and simply to burst out laughing, and laugh and laugh, with the sky and the trees because God is not in words, and not in systems, and not in liturgical movements, and not in 'Contemplation' with a big C, or in asceticism or in anything like that, not even in the apostolate. Certainly not in books. I can go on writing them, for all that, but one might as well make paper airplanes out of the whole lot." (Catherine de Hueck Doherty, September 18, 1958)
By 1959 Thomas Merton was very much aware that the "deep interior revolution" of the spiritual life can never be devoid of anguish. He contended it is the anguish itself which combusts into the fruit of spiritual growth. He expressed these personally garnered thoughts on spirituality to his friend, John Harris, a school teacher in England, with whom Merton corresponded for ten years. Grace, he contended, works on nature, sometimes suddenly if it pleases. This takes time and is comparable to the aging of new wine. "We have no adequate idea of what takes place in our depths when we grow spiritually or change. Meanwhile you have had a chance to go through a lot of quick and volatile surface reactions, which are bare indications of the adjustment taking place deeper down." He encouraged Harris to let peace settle within him and not to be troubled if he did not always experience such inner settling. The sacramental life of the Church will be helpful but will not take away all anguish. The anguish must always be there but it must deepen and change and become vastly more fruitful. "That is the best we can hope for nowadays: a fruitful anguish instead of one that is utterly sterile and consuming." (Harris, John 9.12.59 HGL 393)
When intellectual study leads to 'spiritual dryness'...
Another English friend, Etta Gullick, was an Anglican scholar, lecturer and writer on the spiritual life. In 1962 Merton discussed some of the problems which can develop in our spiritual lives when we reflect too much and work too hard to 'accomplish' that Reality which is beyond us — yet with us always. This is particularly the case when our intellectual study leads to spiritual dryness. If one experiences a spiritual desert, Merton said that books can only make matters worse. "There is too much conscious 'spiritual life' floating around us, and we are too aware that we are supposed to get somewhere. Well, where? If you reflect, the answer turns out to be a word that is never very close to any kind of manageable reality. If that is the case, perhaps we are always in that where." So why to try to verify a fact which we cannot see. He said that we should let go our hold upon ourself and our will. Live in God's Will. He wrote that contentment is surely to be desired by it must be combined with a measure of despair. "And the worst thing of all is false optimism." (Gullick Ettta 10.29.62 HGL 355)
One can have such 'false optimism' if one defines and confines ones spiritual life to devotional practices. For Merton the spiritual life was above all and simply just your day-to-day life including especially our suffering. He expressed this to Mrs. Gullick in 1963, saying that the so called 'spiritual life' must not be separated from ordinary existence: "Our 'in the Spirit' is all-embracing, or should be. First it is the response of faith receiving the word of God, not only as a truth to be believed but as a gift of life to be lived in total submission and pure confidence... From the moment that I obey God in everything, where is my 'spiritual life'? It is gone out the window, there is no spiritual life, only God and His word and my total response."
Yet, he wrote, there are factors beyond our control which make it impossible to respond totally. Our subconscious, routine or 'obligatory' existence gets blocked off and we find ourselves in opposition to, or not in union with, the will of God. This brings suffering inevitably. So we should try to be free and follow the Spirit wherever that may lead. Yet the comfortable and respectable existence we normally lead is in fact to a great degree opposed to the real demands of the Spirit in our lives. Yet paradoxically this is all we have to work with. "We cannot say that our bourgeois existence is purely and simply the 'will of God.' It both is and is not ... But we are held back from the deep and total gift which is not altogether possible to make in a conventional and tame setting where we do not suffer the things that the poor and disinherited and the outcast must suffer." (Gullick, Etta 1.18.63 HGL 357-358)
Dr Patrick W Collins
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©2007Patrick W Collins