Novak (novak) wrote,

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Theological Notebook: Reading Thomas Merton Again; Low-Key Saint Patrick's Day

As I've mentioned before, I have returned heavily to Merton since Chrysogonus's death. Outside of my dissertation reading and work, my reading has largely been Merton. I tore through the epic autobiography of The Seven Storey Mountain while traveling, moving too fast to get any good out of this journal as a reading journal. I was most stunned in my re-reading of it on two related points: the first being one of cultural history, we might say, and the second being more concerned with Merton himself.

I was struck by the reading of the Second World War as a result of a spiritual miasma in the generation leading up to it, of Merton's partial blame for the war on himself – and all others like him, caught up in the cult of Self. What struck me so heavily was that there was no sense in any response I've ever heard of to the book that this reading was condemned. For all those that would mis-read Merton as "going hippie" in the 1960s, there was no condemnation of him as an antiwar "peacenik" in the generation of the war itself: instead people responded very positively to the book. I finally saw all this in contrast to the narrative of the War that I had acquired when growing up from movies, television and especially from all the 1950s youth histories of the war that I read in grade school – my first serious investment in history, and the foundation for my becoming an historian. In all these, the Second World War seemed to be presented as a kind of inevitable triumph of American technology and can-do confidence in responding to evil abroad. There was, in the face especially of Nazi horror, no self-doubt and no questioning about the evil of war itself. I'm not noting this as a pacifist, or as one holding to classical Just War Theory. I'm just suddenly struck by noticing the stark difference between the narrative of the Second World War as I received it, and the narrative as Thomas Merton presented it in a wildly-popular (if clearly penitential) book among those who experienced the war. (Not to sound all Post-Modern with regard to "narratives.") No hint of a perspective on the war as Merton describes it – as of great moral ambiguity, even – has survived in any other account that has made it to me, except in cases where what I'm seeing is a clear projection of Vietnam-era politics back upon the past. That's common-enough in that 1960s-era narratives are still dominant in our entertainment and politics today.

The second thing I was struck by, that more concerned with Merton himself, is a related point. This is the fundamental consistency I'm seeing between two Thomas Mertons who are often set against one another: "the Merton of The Seven Storey Mountain" and "the Merton of the 1960s." This way of looking at Merton is often heard from those who have not read Merton, or at least have not read Merton very closely, it seems to me: even from some Catholic bishops. (It is similar in that respect to those who blame Augustine of Hippo for every imagined sexual dysfunction in Western culture, which is popularly taught among college professors of many fields who haven't read Augustine himself, but who listen closely to other professors who haven't read Augustine.) In that telling, the "spiritual Merton" of the early books gave way to the "social justice Merton" of the 1960s, who had more-or-less gone off and become a Buddhist, or was about to, by the time he was killed. The latter idea is just silly to anyone who knows his writing and his life: it was the depth of his Christianity that was empowering his explorations of Asian religions, and which made the leading figures of those faiths take him far more seriously as a conversation partner than the fundamentally areligious dabblers in Asian religions that became so ubiquitous from the 1960s onward. The youthful Dalai Lama was powerfully affected by their meeting, but has never reported supposing that Merton was a Buddhist or about to be one: it was the depth of Merton's Christianity that so struck Tenzin Gyatso, according to his account of their meeting. So the "spiritual Merton" was driving the "social justice/inter-religious dialogue Merton" of the 1960s, and in The Seven Storey Mountain I was strongly moved by the social justice themes – however much they were articulated in the language of a recent and traditionalist Catholic convert of the 1930s – that ran throughout that text. However much Merton developed as a scholar, as a writer, and as a human being – and there are dramatic differences in style and depth between 1948 when The Seven Storey Mountain was published and 1968, when Merton died at the monasticism conference in Bangkok – there is a fundamental consistency of vision throughout his corpus that I had never before so strongly perceived.

My Saint Patrick's Day was a mellow one, particularly by American standards. If anything, I would have enjoyed hitting the Saint Patrick's Day Mass at Notre Dame and soaking in that liturgy as an aid to a good time of prayer (as well as just great music from the Folk Choir). I was really amused when I learned that Saint Patrick's Day back in Ireland really was more of a religious holiday than anything else, although I'm embarrassed to hear that the ongoing vulgar Americanization of this, too, is making way there. There was a time when the Irish would have found it insulting to have our culture reduced to nothing more than going on a bender. I did have an interesting if random conversation on the bus today (a celebration of my Irish gift of the gab?), when a woman named Anita sitting next to me introduced herself when asking if I was a seminarian. (She had noted my reading material.) When I said I was a theologian, I discovered that she'd done Master's work in Theology at Garrett, with undergrad work in Economics and Mathematics, and had recently gone back to school for another undergraduate degree in something biological, as a prelude to doing M.D. work, with an eye toward combining it all in medical/economic ethics. It was a fascinating conversation, really, as she outlined some of her proposed work, which involved an amazing amount of intersecting expertises. Add to that some of the ethnic/cultural angles she wanted to address as an African-American woman, she seemed to be a potential powerhouse in getting all the credentials to be able to tackle the problematic ways we're doing medical care in our country, particularly as medicine becomes increasingly a corporate animal, and with its rush to implement any innovation, with profit far outstripping ethics as a deciding fact in whether to implement new technologies. Interesting stuff. Another point for public transportation!
Tags: america, asia, books, ethical, historical, ireland, liturgical, media, milwaukee, notre dame folk choir, scientific, theological notebook, thomas merton

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