The beginning of a new personal spiritual chapter can bring me anticipatory eagerness and anxiety. Eagerness to deepen my personal relationship to God, to enrich my faith, and to provide me needed sustenance and perseverance in the face of daily adversities. Anxiety about the time required, the demands presented, and the worthiness of the venture.
Pope Francis gave a nod to Thomas Merton as he cited Merton as being one of four representatives of the American people to turn to for examples of faith and standing up for social justice, equal rights, liberty, and peace.
By Merton’s account he was no saint or model of purity. Perhaps that he is why valuable as an example;
‘I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.’ [i]
In an instant you can google Merton and find detractors regarding his motivations to enter the religious life (draft dodger) or his human fallibility pre-monastic life or later in life with a woman named Maggie.[ii] How do we pair the human side of Thomas Merton with the body of work that he left behind after his accidental electrocution in Thailand in 1968? The irony of death paired with this statement in “The Seven Story Mountain” is perhaps co-incidental, yet unnerving:
“That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”[iii]
The book has controversy as well regarding attacks that it was highly edited.[iv] This was also Thomas Merton’s first major work and later in his life he reflected that it would not be the same today if he was to write it again. How can I not read his later works to see where his spiritual maturity bought him after such an esteemed start?
My read of this classic was easy going. He tells his early life story and journey with simple language and clarity within the context of a world driven by strife and a world at war (WW II). Some compare his conversion story to that of St. Augustine. His use of Dante’s purgatory mountain for his title is telling. The battle with human affectations (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth) is a battle for Monks as well as laymen. The duality of action and contemplation in harmony is mindfully present in this story.
Seeking God for any of these reasons is bound to fail. The fragility of seeking spiritual perfection is a path of eagerness and anxiety. The price is high, the path narrow, and time is short (at least for me).
Merton’s introductory work was worth my investment. There are too many quotes and insights to re-post here. Hopefully my Merton journey is providential! Maybe one day I will visit Kentucky. If you are familiar with the Thomas Merton Society, The Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, or have a favorite Merton work, please comment and give your insights!
[iii] Page 462, Seven Storey Mountain