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Vol 39 No 3


Richard Lennan
STILL RELEVANT? Vatican II Forty Years On

Tony Paganoni CS
ETHNIC MINISTRY IN AUSTRALIA: History, Present Realities and Future Options

Frank Fletcher MSC
THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE HEART: The EJ Cuskelly Memorial Lecture 2005

Brian San

Rev Dr Lawrence Cross, Australian Catholic University

John Falzon
STATS AND STONES: Vinnies’ report from the trenches on the poverty wars

Danny Kinnane
MERTON: A Modern Perspective

Janiene Wilson
REVIEW: Jane Anderson, Priests in Love: Australian Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Friendships

Kevin Mark


Merton: A modern perspective


ON OCTOBER 3, 1968, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara, California, which had been set up in 1959 by Robert Hutchins and friends as a place and forum for discussion of the issues of the day, welcomed perhaps its most unusual guest speaker in its twenty-nine years of existence. To his Trappist community back in Kentucky he was known as Brother Louis. To the world today he is universally known as Thomas Merton.

It was quite a significant time in Merton's life. Not since he took his first vows twenty-seven years earlier had he ventured out so far from his Louisville community. As such it was only the first step towards the realisation of a dream that was evolving in the Merton psyche: to go to Asia and experience first hand the living Buddhism that he was imbibing at this time through his meetings and correspondence with David Suzuki, the famous Zen master. In hindsight we know that, sadly, it would be the last time Merton would share with his adopted countrymen something of that vision and spirit which had become the moral and spiritual conscience of his era. What was to be his last book, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, had just come out. This work focussed his Asian preoccupations and, especially for our concerns here, his thoughts on how these reflected back on western spirituality. But to get a proper and deeper awareness of his interests in these things we must retreat to an earlier Merton.

'The only thing that will save the world from complete moral collapse is a spiritual revolution.' So begins The Ascent to Truth, Thomas Merton's most formidable undertaking in writing. 'He had set himself the ambitious task of writing a theology of contemplation that would be nothing less than a grand synthesis of scripture and tradition.'1 Merton was well aware of the need for such a synthesis. In fact, no significant treatises dealing with contemplation had emerged in western theology since the days of St John of the Cross. Merton used St John of the Cross' prose writings as his basic source for The Ascent to Truth.

Perhaps Merton had also another need. He had worked his way through a number of vital and necessary life decisions: to become a Catholic, join the Trappists, have his autobiography, The Seven Storied Mountain, published, be ordained a priest. In a relatively short space of time the much-travelled, budding novelist and poet, individual seeker after truth, had found an intellectual and emotional place that felt like home. The search, it seemed, was over. Now he wanted to explain, and perhaps justify, to himself and to the world, the importance of the contemplative life in a work of scholarship that would be seen and accepted as such by both the world and the Church to which he had committed himself. His personal and spiritual difficulties of the time can be traced in The Sign of Jonas, a selection of extracts from his journal and diaries.

But perhaps the more interesting revelations are to be found between the lines of The Ascent to Truth itself. For anybody familiar with the power, passion and texture of the comprehensive Merton literary output the writing here, generally, is quite stilted and apologetic. One finds in abundance such phrases and sentiments as 'objective truth' and 'the Catholic church as the repository and final arbitrator of objective truth'—all quite foreign to the Merton oeuvre. He seems to be trying too hard to be the scholar, bringing together his more than five years of research and presenting this objectively on the written page. Following one model of scholarship he is separated from his subject, trying to be the accepted impartial observer, allowing the facts to speak for themselves. This is not the inspirational Merton, the Merton of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander or of The Seven Storied Mountain, who was to become the moral, social and political conscience of his era. Here we are in the realm of reason more than of faith, the realm of science not of relationship.

In his other books there is no such separation; rather as readers we find we are involved in the passion and experience of a man who is writing out of such passion and experience. Merton the man of letters had a wonderful facility for writing; yet the bringing to birth of The Ascent of Man (as we know from his own diaries and letters) was a rather tortuous experience lasting over five years.

With his magnum opus out of the way, however, the passionate, confident and competent author of The Seven Storied Mountain quickly finds his voice once more. In New Seeds of Contemplation, and in his Emblems of a Season of Fury no longer is the self-conscious Catholic apologist to the fore. Rather, it is Merton the contemplative whose writ transcends denominational and religious boundaries yet remains deeply rooted in the Catholic contemplative tradition which he had made his own. This latter point should remind us as Catholics that we neglect him today at our own peril.

Yet, there is a sense that for us today, his difficulties with The Ascent to Truth are as significant as his many victories in his other writings. Here in the soul of one man we find emerging what has become a very modern problem, a largely unrecognised conflict or dialectic in the modern soul: the attempt to reconcile objectivity and subjectivity, to reconcile a rampant Age-of-Reason consciousness that offers little space to any religious sensibility with a sacred faith tradition of relationship. In his research and writing Merton feels forced by tradition to bow before the academic credentials of scholarly objectivity, and in doing so he comes up against the emerging credentials of subjectivity, the heart of contemplation, already heightened in his awareness by his literary and poetic endeavours, but more so now by his decision to pursue a contemplative lifestyle as a Trappist monk.

We see something of this conflict and the importance of subjectivity in his second last book, Mystics and Zen Masters, published in 1966. It is focussed by his heightened interest in eastern spirituality. We should be aware of the time factor here. It is post-Vatican II. He clearly is very much aware of that wonderful statement of the Council: 'the Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions'. But his purpose is much more than to make the basic tenets of these eastern religions available to western readers. His instinct tells him that to do this he must make them his own. It is not simply a scholarly interest; the growth of his own spirituality and humanity is at stake here.

Two years later in the publication of Zen and the Birds of Appetite it becomes much more obvious where the Merton spirit is moving. At the very beginning of this seminal and wonderful little book he speaks of 'a concrete and lived ontology which explains itself not in theoretical propositions, but in acts emerging out of a certain quality of consciousness and awareness'. What 'certain quality' is he referring to? Most certainly it is not a Cartesian consciousness, as we find out later. He puts it very succinctly: 'Yet the great problem is that for the Cartesian consciousness the 'other' too, is object…Is a genuine I-Thou relationship possible at all [his italics] to a purely Cartesian subject?'2

Here, with supreme clarity, we have Merton framing the very question, I believe, that still haunts the religious endeavour today and that stultified Merton's magnum opus, The Ascent to Truth, which we can now say was written under the cloud of Cartesian consciousness. As Merton sees it, the problem does indeed go back to Descartes.

Descartes' philosophical venture was paradoxically the first great fracture in the hierarchical vision that Plato left to the west—paradoxically, since Descartes himself was basically a platonist. The platonist vision is well known to us all because it was the basis for Augustine's City of God, the legacy of which still informs our Christian cosmological vision today. Here God's people lived out of—and for some today, still live out of—a vision of existence where the real world was the world to come, the eternal world of heaven and hell—Plato's perfect world of Ideas. This was a world of 'we', God's people, the world of Christendom. Clearly, from hindsight, it was a limited world, but an integrated one where God was in his heaven, and his people journeying through the Valley of Darkness had at least an eternal focus.

Descartes' world, however, is a Renaissance world, a world of the emerging 'I'. It is a journey inward, the infant steps of modern man, but with a huge outward consequence that is going to frame the parameters of the emerging Age of Reason, the Enlightenment. The inward consequence is a strengthening of the individual as the basic unit of society, with a greater responsibility. He is the detached subject of modern society. As such he is an individual separated from his fellows.

And it is here that Merton's question emerges: if such separation is the lot of people in today's world, as indeed it is in our world of subjectivism, how can one ever get around such an 'I-it' relationship back to an 'I-thou' relationship? To put it in a different way: how can one reconcile objectivity and subjectivity in a predominantly objective world? The world of spirituality and religion, the world of faith, is experientially a world of subjectivity. Yet in a predominantly objective world the world of religion can also suffer confinement, for our theology, dogma and canon law also inhabit that frame of mind that is an 'out there' world—out there truths about religion rather than religion itself, which is an inner reality of relationship, of subjectivity.

This is by no means the last word on the whole issue of the correct place of objectivity in the Christian vision. Here I am simply framing the question because I believe the consequences of not facing it are apparent all round us in the Church today.

Perhaps in passing I should clarify some terminology: subjectivism, which is rife today, is the classic self-centred ego mentality, the false self in Jungian terminology, the unredeemed self; subjectivity on the other hand has nothing to do with such self-centredness. Rather it is the depth of human experience, the best example of it being contemplative or mystical experience.

Today The Ascent to Truth is probably the least read of all of Merton's written output; it fails to get the nod from even some latter day contemplatives as a foundation or even source-book for their lifestyle. However, the effort in itself, specifically because it was the effort of a great mind, bears a special fruit for us today: it challenges us to take up the unfinished Merton venture. Failure to resolve the subjectivity-objectivity conflict, I suspect, will simply accelerate the feeling of irrelevancy that hovers over much of our organised spiritual ventures these days, couched as they are in either sentimentality or a dehydrated objectivism—a worst case example being some of our latter day Eucharists that manage to be both! One can but surmise what would have happened if Merton had not died, seemingly tragically, in a Bangkok hotel, but rather returned to the silence of his monastery to chew on what was becoming a huge religious experience, his Asian adventure—his experience of the famous Buddhas in Sri Lanka being a case in point.

We get a sense, perhaps, of what might have been from the following. In an essay entitled 'Transcendent Experience' from his last book, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Merton initially describes a particular religious experience as follows: 'It is an experience of metaphysical or mystical self-transcending and also at the same time an experience of the 'Transcendent' or the 'Absolute' or 'God' not so much as object but Subject.'3 This statement, incorporating as it does the summation of a basic Christian contemplative experience, is an important statement of what is at issue for the whole religious and spiritual enterprise today. It speaks of the human meeting-point between the human and the divine and grasps as well the nature of the arena of that meeting. For clarity let us itemise the salient points:

We have (a) a human capable of self-transcendence; hence (b) a human capable of experiencing something of the divine; in this contemplative experience we find (c) the experiential breakdown of the subject/object dualism, a dualism that the world of objectivity imposes on us and severely restricts our experience of the divine; this contemplative experience, the deepest experience of the human, is hence (d) one of subjectivity, telling us that the human 'I' has no meaning outside of the divine 'Thou', and their meeting-point is in the depths of human subjectivity.

The two questions that force themselves upon us from the Merton endeavour are, I believe, as follows:

• Is this Subjectivity the totem-pole around which all theological endeavour must happen today, in a time and culture where the 'I' is drowning in its own subjectivism because its religious instinct is being choked and starved to death by a dehydrated objectivity which knows nothing experientially of a divine come to tryst?

• When will theology and Church practice begin to give more credence to the human experiential reality which happens in the depths of subjectivity, the experience of 'a divine coming to tryst'—and how will it do that?

Danny Kinane is presently pursuing a contemplative lifestyle in the southern Queensland bush. His book on spirituality, The Sacred Quest, has just been published by Sid Harta Publisher, Melbourne.

1. Robert H King, 'Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh'. Continuum, London & New York, 2001, p. 46.
2. Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New Directions, 1968, p. 22.
3. ibid. Page 71.