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A Monk and his Political Silence
Mary Gordon, On Thomas Merton (Boulder: Shambala, 2018, 118): "By the late fifties Merton was deeply disturbed about his political silence."
Should he have been? This world is a passing scene. The temporal order is next to nothing compared to eternity. That is the old-time Roman Catholic teaching that justifies the world-flight of monks and nuns. From The Seven Storey Mountain we know that Merton understood and deeply felt the contemptus mundi enjoined by the monastic tradition. His sense of the vanity and indeed nullity of the life lived by the worldly, and the super-eminent reality of the "Unseen Order," a phrase I borrow from William James, is what drove Merton to renounce the world and enter the monastic enclosure. Despite his increasing critical distance from the enthusiasms and exaggerations of the book that brought him instant fame, he never lost his faith in the reality of the Unseen Order. He never became a full-on secularist pace David D. Cooper, Thomas Merton's Art of Denial: The Evolution of a Radical Humanist, University of Georgia Press, 1989, 2008. Although Cooper is wrong in his main thesis, his book is essential reading for Merton enthusiasts.
To repeat, the conflicted monk never lost faith in the Unseen Order. But the reality of said Order is not like that of a ham sandwich. To the world-bound natural man, the 'reality' of such a sensible item cannot be doubted despite its unreality and insignificance under the aspect of eternity. But the Reality of the Unseen Order can. It is given to those to whom it is given fitfully and by intimations and glimpses. Their intensity does not compensate for their rarity. The glimpses are easily doubted. The monastic disciplines are insufficient to bring them on. Meanwhile the clamorous world won't shut up, and the world of the 'sixties was clamorous indeed. The world's noisy messages and suggestions are unrelenting. No surprise, then, that Merton wobbled and wavered. Cooper describes him as a failed mystic (Chapter 6) who never reached infused contemplation. I agree with that. This is why it is foolishly hyperbolic when his fans describe him as a 'spiritual master.' But I don't agree with Cooper that Merton resolved his conflict by becoming a radical humanist. He remained conflicted.
Merton came to realize that the monkish ideal of a life of infused or passive or mystical contemplation was unattainable by him. That, together with his literary ambition and his need for name and fame, threw him back toward the world and drove the doubts that made him disturbed over his political silence.
It's a hard nut to crack. If you really believe in God and soul, then why are you not a monk? And if you are not, do you really believe in God and the soul?
I enjoyed Mary Gordon's book very much and will be returning to it. The lovely feminine virtue of sympathetic understanding is on full display.