Randomness: FedEx just delivered my new bookcase. I ran out of shelf space a few months back and have been lining books along the edges of walls. That's getting to be a real mess, so I finally caved and bought a new set of shelves. The only problem is that Julie is now out at Stony Brook working the first year of her Ph.D. program. It had become a bit of a tradition to have her come over and put the shelves together over a bottle wine while chatting away: she did two or three earlier bookcases with me. Had I money to throw around a little more freely, I'd fly her out for the occasion, just for the fun of it.
The light-headedness took its minute toll socially this week. I had to cancel my dinner plans with Jessica for Wednesday night. I went to Barnes's Augustine class on Wednesday, but I just felt right on the edge enough that we might go out and have a great conversation that would make me feel quite a bit better, or that I might spend the whole time not quite following what she was saying and wishing I could just lie down, which would be no fun for either of us. I decided not to risk it. I ran into her and Nathan outside at the intersection when I was heading over to the Gesu for Holy Thursday Mass last night and heard a bit of their news that way.
I've been reading Merton's Raids on the Unspeakable this week as part of my Merton/Lenten meditation. I'm noticing a new kind of – I don't know what to call it – paradigm is perhaps getting toward the right word: a paradigm of Merton's literary and spiritual relationship with his time. I had called him somewhat "dated" in conversation with Barnes, as I might have mentioned here earlier, but I didn't mean that in the pejorative way that people usually use "dated." The comparison I've been making is with Augustine: he is "dated" in the sense that he is fully engaged with his time, but like Augustine, he is a writer whose importance is not limited to his time. He can be abstracted with great profit from his immediate setting. The major thing that I've been noticing, what I loosely (or light-headedly) am trying to call a paradigm, is that Merton is a Sixties writer who did something perhaps unique among such engaged 1960s writers: he escaped the Sixties. It is his holding to his monastic orthodoxy – in the face of everyone encouraging him to leave it behind so as to become more "relevant" – that allows him to step back from what I call the Tyranny of the Immediate, and to reject the new emerging Liberal/Conservative polarization in both American politics and in American Catholicism. I think that that is a big part of why he remains an important (and bestselling, for that matter) spiritual writer today. Too many of the Catholic bishops, I'm afraid, buy into the superficial reading of him as a 1960s radical theological liberal at the end of his life, when instead he is explicitly repudiating that whole pressure for its own shallowness in buying into the American political polarization wholesale, and letting those agendas determine ecclesial and theological agendas. The thing that's truly difficult for absorbing Merton is that he is as about fully-formed a believer by the end of his life as we can get. Not without flaw, shortcoming, sin, and blind spots, but given over to God in spite of all those and thus beyond much engagement in his writing with the more legal ethical paradigm that makes up the earlier stages of the spiritual life. Our bishops tend to focus upon that sort of spiritual level, both because more people are simply at that level and because it is, in itself, much less complex, easier to understand, and less dangerous. If there has been any disaster philosophically and spiritually that the 1960s exacerbated, it has been an absolutizing of the notion of individual freedom as a good. This isn't to deny that freedom is a good, of course, but it is not an absolute good, and the nuances of this are beyond many people, so conditioned are they by this massive philosophical current running through our Enlightenment/Post-Enlightenment culture. Merton's moving into a freedom in orthodoxy beyond this sort of freedom is easy to misunderstand and abuse for a lot of people without his monastic, vowed discipline. That is what I think makes him suspect in some bishops's eyes today, but that is a self-defeating misreading. So, anyway, I've been thinking about that (light-headedly). I talked a bit about this with Terry Crowe after Mass last night, walking down Wisconsin Avenue. I didn't know it, but he'd done a Master's thesis on Merton, at Wheaton of all places, back in the Eighties. Go figure.
This was supposed to be a note. I'm like that.