Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Merton and the Nerve to Look Honestly

Forty years ago yesterday, Thomas Merton wrote from his Kentucky hermitage about an encounter with another well-known monk. The other monk called him a pessimist, said he was too anxious and too negative. Merton wrote in his journal about the underlying disharmony and mistrust that seemed to lie beneath the surface cordiality and agreement between the two.

As Merton reflected further that day, he started to ponder who he was and what he had written to that point. He began to pull out his books and to analyze how they had been received by peers . . . "so and so is not happy with this one . . . this one would disturb most European monks . . . he thinks this one was a foolish experiment."

In the next paragraph of his journal, he started to offer his own critique of the books he had written. There were books he stood by, things he wrote that he continued to feel were important. He continued to believe in "a few things I said here . . . a good bit of this book . . . maybe a little of this one." He called other books he had written "foolish" and "a mistake."

By the end of that day's journal entry, you can almost feel Merton wallowing in the pit he has dug for himself. Not only this day, but the journal entries for the next few days suggest his ongoing struggle with who he was, his reason for writing, and the response he expected from his audience. He looked honestly within himself and noticed that which lived in his shadows, what he called his "sick drives."

It's pretty honest stuff, uncommonly raw for someone widely considered the most important spiritual figure of the last century.

I find that his honesty runs counter to our usual notions of piety, in which we image ourselves continually striving "upward and onward," getting better and better, cleaner and purer the farther we go on the path. In these journal entries Merton revealed his shadow, the dark part of his personality that doubted who he was, mistrusted the authenticity of others around him, and questioned the validity of his life's work to that point.

For Merton, at least in these journal accounts, spirituality was not about going "onward and upward" to some state of moral perfection beyond doubt and darkness, but rather plumbing the depths of shadow and despair to notice our inner landscape . . . and then to find God there.

I suppose there are ways of conceptualizing spirituality in which these doubts and questions turn to certainties and assurances. It hasn't tended to worked that way for me, though. I share Merton's darkness, his questioning of self, his inner darkness, the way he doubts his motives for what he has done and written.

Frankly, it's what keeps me from writing more . . . my mistrust of my own motives for writing . . . and the fear that one day, like him, I would say, "What I wrote there was a load of hooey!" or "I don't think I believe that any more."

I don't know that I can clean up my motives or get my belief system straight. I can, however, be more and more aware of those inner structures that tug at me, that direct me, that determine my movements moment by moment.

So Merton sat in this darkness on June 6, 1961. He wrote about it on the porch of his little hermitage in the woods near the Abbey of Gethsemani, perhaps not knowing that one day we would be able to read his words of self-doubt.

Then, the last line in his journal entry for the day:

For my comfort a squirrel just ran across the porch.

[The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999)]


Anonymous said...

As the last line of Merton’s journal entry mentions “for my comfort a squirrel just ran across t he porch,” so I am grateful for small affirmations in my every day life like the occasional scampering squirrel, fluffy bunny or this blog post. A smidge of hope to hang on to for again this morning I utter my feeble yes to accept stepping into dance with the dragon I do battle with…grateful for the small affirmations of being on my right path however dark and anxious and painful.

Kathryn Kelley said...

nothing profound except my progress on getting my hermitage

road to my hermitage

walk on my hermitage. am so looking forward to it...

my hidden hermitage

i may not come out except to kayak but that is only 15 minutes away into national forest! well and 15 minutes the other way to work.

we'll see what gets produced in this hermitage. i hope and plan good things.

Kathryn Kelley said...

goals of hermitage
1. to look honestly
2. to dwell
3. to experience
4. to listen
5. to write
6. to make
7. to kayak