Some people have asked for a copy of last Sunday’s talk for the commemoration of Thomas Merton’s 100th birthday. This post is not a verbatim account of that delivery; the particular treatment was a response to that particular group of people and, it seems to me, cannot make the same sense to those who weren’t there. Why? That talk was not a written script but a spontaneous delivery guided by an outline and collection of quotes. This post utilizes the same outline and the same quotes and is generically addressed to people I can neither see nor react to. As in the actual talk last Sunday, I will try to let Thomas Merton speak for himself from his own writings. I have not altered the gender exclusive language of Merton’s writing; that issue had not yet crystalized in society and I believe it implies no social or political bias. If that leaves his writing dated, well, it is! In the same way, I have not repaired his split compound verbs or any other infelicity of style. Let the texts to speak for themselves!
By the way, the word “marginal” is not used in Merton’s talk which is the foundation of these reflections. He does use it elsewhere.
This consideration of the monk, or monastic, as a marginal person is not a research paper. It’s just a sketch originating in the last talk that Thomas Merton delivered in Bangkok the day he died. At that time it was entitled, “Marxist Theory and Monastic Theoria” and was published in Merton’s posthumous The Asian Journal as “Marxist Theory and Monastic Perspective”. In that text, Merton referred to a visit to Santa Barbara, California, en route to Asia; there was a meeting of European Students whom he described as “revolutionary university leaders” at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Remember, this was 1968, the year of the invasion of Cambodia, escalating the Viet Nam War, and of the student riots in Paris. Marxism, especially a non-Bolshevik, non-Maoist, non-imperialistic Marxism was in the air as an alternative to the Capitalist Establishment of the West.
Merton, in an informal meeting with the students, introduced himself as a monk. Without missing a beat, a French student responded, “We are monks also”. Merton inferred from his tome of voice that he meant: We are the true monks. You are not true monks, we are the true monks. That certainly gave him something to think about and he concluded:
The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures, just as these students identify themselves essentially as people who have taken up a critical attitude toward the contemporary world and its structures…[the monk] must have, in some way or other, reach some kind of critical conclusion about the validity of certain claims made by secular society and its structures with regard to the end of man’s existence. In other words the monk is someone who says, in one way or another, that the claims of the world are fraudulent. Now this is, of course, a dreadful thing to say–especially now that it is being said on T.V.! [His delivery was being recorded on camera] But never the less there is something essentially valid in this kind of claim.
I would point out that without any warning Merton seems to have glided from a socio-political use of the term “contemporary world” to the vocabulary of John’s Gospel in which “the world” refers to those unredeemed, sinful and delusory structures of human, and even cosmic, sinfulness. That is to say, he has shifted the perspective from an ethical to a theological examination of the world we live in. I would also want to suggest that what he is saying can be detached from the (now defunct) Marxist challenge and applied to our contemporary society. He continues:
We [monastics] will be relevant in the world of Marxism in proportion in proportion not as we are pseudo-Marxist or semi-Marxist monks or something like that, but in proportion as we are simply monks–simply what we are.
There are several important points to observe. One being that Merton is not defining what a monastic, monk or nun, is but is illustrating how a monastic relates to the world. I wonder whether this is why Merton has been so widely read: he does not write like an academic, mapping out definitions and strategy, leaving us to carry a lot of baggage through the text. Like a good journalist, he grabs our attention with a conflict and draws us in with his descriptions. That descriptive language is evocative and may reconnect us with our own experiences and conflicts. It’s as if he saying, It’s OK to discuss this controversial, perhaps insoluble, stuff.
From one concrete encounter, he introduces a model describing the monastic over and against human society. I would not claim that this is the only model of the monk in Merton’s writins. One could suggest many such models from his writing, be it “the man of prayer” (not unrelated to being marginal, as it turns out) or, reading between the lines, the artist, the maker, the homo farber. I would propose, however, that this is a fruitful, enlightening model to explore and not just for monastics. That is the point of these considerations.
To render this exploration more productive for us, I’d contrast the monastic with our contemporary consumerist society rather than Marxism, which has ceased to be a player in the current game. To describe those differences I’d contrast our society’s inclusion (everyone being a key participant) to monastic eccentricity, that is, on the sidelines, not a major influence in current events. Or our society’s demands for entitlement (never content with what I have but straining for the next gain) as opposed to monastic gratitude for what we actually have even when less than the “norm”. Or consumption versus stewardship; accumulation versus renunciations; alienation versus solitude.
Finally, it is important to observe that exhorting the monastic not to seek a delusory relevance to the “world’s” values, but to be “simply what we are”. There is another hidden presupposition here. Unlike a social persona of my own making, being “what we are” presumes a call from God out of social conventions and into a conscious relationship with God. One of St. Benedict’s criteria for a true monastic vocation is that the candidate is “truly seeking God” (the others are zeal for the Work of God and a capacity for hardships). Again, there’s been a shift from the socio-political to the theological. Merton has snuck in right under our noses a relationship with and dependence on God which already removes the monastic from the center of society’s values. We are already on the fringes of a secular culture.
to be continued