Theological Notebook: Merton on Contemplation and Action
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