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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Merton on Contemplation and Action 
17th-Jan-2009 08:16 pm
Thomas Merton OCSO
I happened to glance into an old letter I'd written some years ago and found the following quote from my reading in a volume of Merton that Erik had given me as a gift after our Pentecost 1996 visit to Gethsemani. (I believe the arrangement was that we had bought one another a gift of a volume at the bookstore in Bardstown as we were leaving for Cincinnati, neither of us being able to really justify buying a book for ourselves, but able to justify splurging for a gift for someone else.) It's odd to note this passage, as some parallel thoughts had passed through my mind the other day, when I was thinking about passages in Merton's 1966 journal, as he began to sense that there was something "off" in some of his fellow social justice seekers who were attacking him for living a monastic life. He was beginning to see the patterns resulting from social activism cutting itself off from its spiritual roots and turning angry and ugly as a result....
Since I am a man, my destiny depends on my human behavior: that is to say upon my decisions. I must first of all appreciate this fact, and weigh the risks and difficulties it entails. I must therefore know myself, and know both the good and the evil that are in me. It will not do to know only one and not the other: only the good, or only the evil. I must then be able to love the life God has given me, living it fully and fruitfully, and making good use even of the evil that is in it. Why should I love an ideal good in such a way that my life becomes more deeply embedded in misery and evil?

To live well myself is my first and essential contribution to the well-being of all mankind and to the fulfillment of man's collective destiny. If I do not live happily myself how can I help anyone else to be happy, or free, or wise? Yet to seek happiness is not to live happily. Perhaps it is more true to say that one finds happiness by not seeking it. The wisdom that teaches us deliberately to restrain our desire for happiness enables us to discover that we are already happy without realizing the fact.

To live well myself means for me to know and appreciate something of the secret, the mystery in myself: that which is incommunicable, which is at once myself and not myself, at once in me and above me. From this sanctuary I must seek humbly and patiently to ward off all the intrusions of violence and self-assertion. These intrusions cannot really penetrate the sanctuary, but they can draw me forth from it and slay me before the secret doorway.

If I can understand something of myself and something of others, I can begin to share with them the work of building the foundations for spiritual unity. But first we must work together at dissipating the more absurd fictions which make unity impossible.
– Thomas Merton, Confessions of a Guilty Bystander, p. 95
18th-Jan-2009 02:34 am (UTC)
18th-Jan-2009 02:44 am (UTC)
I really liked that. Thanks for posting!

P.S. Umm. Whenever you can get around to it, could I ask you about grad school? Simple things, like, what's it like? And how does money work, in general? And how do you tell if a school has a good program? The last semester has been really hard on me, and I'm wondering if I'm even cut out for it, or if I'd even like it. How different is it from the undergraduate level?
18th-Jan-2009 04:36 am (UTC)
I'm horning in, which I hope you'll forgive me for. Mike will probably vouch for my hard-headed practicalness. I'm an English PhD Candidate, and I'm assuming (given you're asking Mike) that you're interested in some form of humanities-based degree.

- Grad school is v. different from undergrad. It is not designed to be undergrad Part II -- and if it is, you should worry. Bonus: you get to study almost exclusively what you're passionate about. It's increasingly less-structured, and self-motivation is key. The "winners" in grad school are the people who can work hard, stay focused and motivated.

- That said, self-doubt at times? Totally normal for everyone.

- Grad school is a credential for a specific kind of job -- in the humanities, it's almost exclusively "good for" a career as a professor. Want to know more about the job? Go to The Chronicle of Higher Education (columns are available online), and read this.

- Know what you want to study when you apply, then do research to find the people who are working with graduate students. Read journals in your field, ask professors in your department, etc. Who you study with is as important as where you study.

- Take a break before grad school, even if it's just a year. Get out of the hamster-wheel of school, look around you. Ideally -- get a job and bank some cash (you'll need it). You'll know yourself and your goals better that way, which in turn will make you a stronger applicant - and more likely to complete the degree program you start.

- If you are considering any field that is in the humanities, do not go to a program unless they are paying you. In a responsible program, you will pay no tuition, and you will be paid a stipend for research and/or TA/teaching responsibilities (which also double as on-the-job training for life as a professor). Most grad student stipends aren't enough on their own -- most grad students supplement such stipends with a combination of: 1. external fellowships; 2. student loans; 3. credit card debt; 4. part-time jobs; 5. savings; 6. parental/spousal support.

Hope this is more helpful than not.
18th-Jan-2009 11:43 pm (UTC)
Yes, thanks, this is helpful! I'd like input from as many people as possible.

It's a lot to think about. (And yes, I'm a history major.) Everyone always says grad school is different, but I guess what I want to know is how it's different. Do you take less classes? It's probably hard to judge because everyone's undergrad experience is different. My classes right now are very structured -- I go to a small school, with small class sizes, I know pretty much every professor personally, not attending class is simply not an option, every class has an old-fashioned sit-down midterm and final, all my humanities classes have 1-4 papers each, all of them have research papers, etc. Obviously these sorts of things will vary from prof to prof, but how is a grad program structured?

The financial info is very helpful, thank you. And I'm glad people have been saying I should take a break after undergrad. My problem right now is that I'm only a junior but feel very burnt-out. Worse, I seem to have hit a rut where I hate writing. It's only by an extreme effort that I even get words on the page. The whole idea of producing work or even articulating thoughts repulses me right now. I obviously need to change the way I work, but needless to say I'm reevaluating my previous desire to go to grad school. If "self-motivation" is the key, I'm in trouble. Even if I can do the work, which my grades have shown that I can, I haven't learned how to handle the stress.

But thanks for the advice! I will have to think through things carefully.
19th-Jan-2009 02:30 am (UTC)
Again -- try not to worry too much about feeling burned-out right now -- it happens to the best of us. Be kind to yourself -- and stress-management is critical to that. Figure out now how to carve out time for the things that relax you, make you refreshed and happy. Whatever you do after college, you will need those skills.

Anyhoo. Structure: almost all courses (and I've taken English and History grad seminars) are built on a discussion-based seminar model of no more than 15 students, with a final 20-25 page research paper as the sole or the overwhelmingly most-important component of the grade. Very few, if any, finals or midterms or smaller assignments. Lots of reading.

Different students take different course loads -- I took 3-4 each semester, some students took more and some (often with families or other responsibilities) took less. And that's the first half of a PhD program -- after you finish your coursework, you take some sort of exam (it varies widely from school to school) and become "ABD" (all but dissertation) -- and you write a 300+ page book of original research which you defend to get your degree.

Since you're a historian, there's tons of info especially for you courtesy of the AHA, which is the leading organization for historians.
3rd-Feb-2009 06:19 am (UTC)
Oh, crap: I'm a total putz. Sorry, Courtney. When I saw the excellent response friede jumped in and gave you, I decided to pause for a moment and let that exchange run its course. My intent, which I'm now finally communicating, was to offer to talk on the phone about this one, because the topic is too big and nuanced for just typing a response, especially if you want to talk in more detail about subject matter, and beyond the basics.

Let me know if you want to make a time to talk.

18th-Jan-2009 04:16 am (UTC)
While I could not be as eloquent as Merton (or you), I recognize the underlyng
ideal. Thanks for posting this piece. It is encouraging in its way.
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