Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Primacy of Love in Spiritual Life

All through the Verba Seniorum we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.
Love, of course, means something much more than mere sentiment, much more than token favours and perfunctory almsdeeds. Love means an interior and spiritual identification with one’s brother, so that he is not regarded as an “object” to “which” one “does good.” The fact is that good done to another as to an object is of little or no spiritual value. Love takes one’s neighbour as one’s other self, and loves him with all the immense humility and discretion and reserve and reverence without which no one can presume to enter into the sanctuary of another’s subjectivity. From such love all authoritarian brutality, all exploitation, domineering and condescension must necessarily be absent. The saints of the desert were enemies of every subtle or gross expedient by which “the spiritual man” contrives to bully those he thinks inferior to himself, thus gratifying his own ego. They had renounced everything that savoured of punishment and revenge, however hidden it might be.
Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, Introduction pp17-8

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Dialogue, Love and Revelation

He had complained that Heaven had cast him off, but now the whole breadth of heaven leaned low over his bed holding out two strong, white, woman’s arms to him. His head swimming with joy, he drifted into happiness, as though losing his senses.
All his life he had been active, doing things about the house, looking after patients, thinking, studying, writing. How good it was to stop doing, struggling, thinking!—to leave it all for a time to nature, to become her thing, her concern, the work of her merciful, wonderful, beauty-lavishing hands.
He soon recovered. Lara fed him, nursed him, built him up by her care, her snow-white loveliness, the warm, living breath of her whispered conversation.
Their low-voiced talk, however unimportant, was as full of meaning as the Dialogues of Plato.
Even more than by what they had in common, they were united by what separated them from the rest of the world. They were both equally repelled by what was tragically typical of modern man, his shrill textbook admirations, his forced enthusiasm, and the deadly dullness conscientiously preached and practised by countless workers in the field of art and science in order that genius should remain extremely rare.
They loved each other greatly. Most people experience love, without noticing that there is anything remarkable about it. To them—and this made them unusual—the moments when passion visited their doomed human existence like a breath of timelessness were moments of revelation, of ever greater understanding of life and of themselves.
Boris Pasternak, Dr Zhivago, p387

Incarnation, Love and Hope

Night watch.
Even though I am Novice Master and am in the novitiate all the time, the novitiate takes on a great air of mystery and revelation when I pass through it on the night watch. The rooms which I hardly notice during the day seem, when they are empty, to have something very urgent to say, so that I want to linger in them and listen.
The novitiate no longer speaks to me of my own past (see “Firewatch” in Sign of Jonas). To begin with, it was remodeled six years ago, and now it speaks more of the present generation of novices.
As I was going through absent-mindedly on my round, I pushed open the door of the novices’ scriptorium and flashed  the light over the desks, and the empty room spoke again. I stood there for a long time before going up to the chapel. Four long rows of desks. Their desks are all they have that  is more or less “theirs.” It is there that they sit reading, writing, thinking whatever is most personal, most truly their own. They keep their letters, their own few books, their own notes there.
Looking at the dark empty room, with everyone gone, it seemed that, because all that they loved was there, “they” in a spiritual way were most truly there, though in fact they were all upstairs in the dormitory, asleep.
It was as if their love and their goodness had transformed the room and filled it with a presence curiously real, comforting, perfect: one might say, with Christ. Indeed, it seemed to me momentarily that He was as truly present here,  in a certain way, as upstairs in the Chapel. The loveliness of the humanity which God has taken to Himself in love is, after all, to be seen in the humanity of our friends, our children, our brothers, the people we love and who love us. Now that God has become Incarnate, why do we go to such lengths, all the time, to “disincarnate” Him again, to un-weave the garment of flesh and reduce Him once again to spirit? As if the Body of the Lord had not become “Life-giving Spirit.”
You can see the beauty of Christ in each individual person, in that which is most his, most human, most personal to him, in things which an ascetic might advise you sternly to get rid of. But these attachments, too, are relevant to your life in Christ, and I have noticed that novices who try to be too grimly detached from parents and friends, and from other people in general, often lack a most important spiritual dimension in their lives, and frequently fail altogether as monks. Those who are more “human” make better monks, precisely because they are more human and because they simply do not believe the injunctions of those who try to tell them that they must be less human.
In any case, I felt there was something quite final and eternal in looking at this empty room: that though they themselves might not understand what they are going through, and though many of them may fail, may leave, or may have to look elsewhere to get the real meaning of their lives, yet the sign of love is on these novices and they are precious forever in God’s eyes. Certainly, it has been a great gift of His Love to me, that I am their Novice Master. It is very good to have loved these people and been loved by them with such simplicity and sincerity, within our ordinary limitation, without nonsense, without flattery, without sentimentality, and without getting too involved in one another’s business.
From this basic experience one can, after all, recover hope for the other dimension of man’s life: the political. Even though we have the power to destroy the whole world, life is stronger than the death instinct and love is stronger than hate. It does not make logical sense to be too hopeful, but once again this is not a question of logic and one does not look for signs of hope in the newspapers or the pronouncements of world leaders (in these there is seldom anything really hopeful, and that which is supposed to be most encouraging is usually so transparently hopeless that it moves one closer to despair). Because there is love in the world, and because Christ has taken our nature to Himself, there remains always the hope that man will finally, after many mistakes and even disasters, learn to disarm and to make peace, recognizing that he must live at peace with his brother. Yet never have we been less disposed to do this.
The fact remains, this is the one great lesson we have to learn. Everything else is trivial compared with his supreme and urgent need of man.
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp212-4

Totalitarian violence

“Vitalism,” the enthusiastic exaltation of life in neopagan and totalist forms of mass-society is, as Bonhoeffer saw, in reality a masked hatred of life, and a radical unfitness for its common and simple joys, the natural joys implanted in nature by God, and which prepare us, by gratitude and hope, to enter into His Kingdom.
Where the animal “joy of living” is expressed brutally with ferocity, and with many violent images, what we have is no longer a superabundance of life but a failure and a deficiency of life. Perhaps the mixture of satiety, boredom, violence, and despair which characterizes our mass-society comes from the impotence of well-fed bodies with empty and lost minds. The obsession with lust and violent, erratic forms of sex is not a sign of great passion but of the absence of passion. On the contrary, Westem society is characterized above all by its abstraction, its confusion, its pseudo-passion (passion fabricated in the imagination and centered on fantasies). There seems to be excitement—but there is only the superficial agitation of a nervous daydream. So much for our lusty apes with cowboy hats—they are not even comic any more!
But collect them together, put uniforms on them, give them a leader that fits into the pattern of their fantasies and knots their dream images all together into a psychosis—then the whole thing comes alive in destruction. The total incapacity for love is let loose, with extreme and efficient effect, in hate that smashes cities and ravages whole countries. Yet even this hate is impotent. It can burn buildings and ruin crops, it can smash and mutilate bodies, it can torture and degrade: but life comes back all the stronger and derides it.
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp202-3


" Nowadays there are more and more cases of small cardiac haemorrhages. They are not always fatal. Some people get over them. It’s the common illness of our time. I think its causes are chiefly moral. The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. Your nervous system isn’t a fiction, it’s a part of your physical body, and your soul exists in space and is inside you, like the teeth in your head. You can`t keep violating it with impunity. …
" All right, I’ll give you my answer. I’ve been thinking something of this sort myself recently, so I can really promise you that there’s going to be a change, I think it’s all going to come right. And quite soon at that. You’ll see. No, quite honestly. Everything is getting better. I have an indescribable, passionate desire to live, and living of course means struggling, going further, higher, striving for perfection and achieving it."
Boris Pasternak, Dr Zhivago p471-2

A wise heart

A holy day in December….
I pray much to have a wise heart, and perhaps the re-discovery of Lady Julian of Norwich will help me. I took her book with me on a quiet walk among the cedars. She is a true theologian with greater clarity, depth, and order than St Theresa: she really elaborates, theologically, the content of her revelations. She first experienced, then thought, and the thoughtful deepening of experience worked it back into her life, deeper and deeper, until her whole life as a recluse at Norwich was simply a matter of getting completely saturated in the light she had received all at once, in the “shewings,” when she thought she was about to die.
One of her most telling and central convictions is her orientation to what one might call an eschatological secret, the hidden dynamism which is at work already and by which “all manner of thing shall be well.” This “secret,” this act which the Lord keeps hidden, is really the full fruit of the Parousia. It is not just that “He comes,” but He comes with this secret to reveal, He comes with this final answer to all the world’s anguish, this answer which is already decided, but which we cannot discover (and which, since we think we have reasoned it all out anyway) we have stopped trying to discover. Actually, her life was lived in the belief in this “secret,” the “great deed” that the Lord will do on the Last Day, not a deed of destruction and revenge, but of mercy and of life, all partial expectations will be exploded and everything will be made right. It is the great deed of “the end," which is still secret, but already fully at work in the world, in spite of all its sorrow, the great deed “ordained by Our Lord from without beginning.”
She must indeed believe and accept the fact that there is a hell, yet also at the same time, impossibly one would think, she believes even more firmly that “the word of Christ shall be saved in all things" and “all manner of thing shall be well.” This is, for her, the heart of theology: not solving the contradiction, but remaining in the midst of it, in peace, knowing that it is fully solved, but that the solution is secret, and will never be guessed until it is revealed.
To have a “wise heart,” it seems to me, is to live centered on this dynamism and this secret hope—this hoped-for secret. It is the key to our life, but as long as we are alive we must see that we do not have this key: it is not at our disposal. Christ has it, in us, for us. We have the key in so far as we believe in Him, and are one with Him. So this is it: the “wise heart" remains in hope and in contradiction, in sorrow and in joy, fixed on the secret and the “great deed" which alone gives Christian life its true scope and dimensions!
The wise heart lives in Christ.
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp211-2

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Modernity and Church

In the whole question of the (Catholic) Church and the world, we come again and again to the various ways in which adaptation to "'the world" can in fact be an expression of shame and fear – guilt at having failed to "hold" the modem world and to charm it with spectacles, pageantry, lively new debates, and other contrivances. To be dominated by the fear of losing our "hold" on men, especially on youth, is implicitly to confront the world in abject shame at the name and power of Christ. We do not preach Christ, we preach our own modernity, our own cleverness, our liveliness, our fashionableness, and our charm; or (if we are conservatives) our unshakable security and unchangeable rightness, our inviolable respectability (and God knows that is no attraction for youth of the world!).
Bonhoeffer, writing in the time of the Hitler Jugend, wrote: "The Church offered no resistance to contempt for age and the idolization of youth, for she was afraid of losing youth and with it the future. As though her future belonged to youth!"
The last thing in the world that should concern a Christian or the Church is survival in a temporal and worldly sense: to be concerned with this is an implicit denial of the Victory of Christ and of the Resurrection.
Yet this is what seems to concern most Christians. It is this fear of destruction and of suffering that has reduced the "Christianity" of so many Christians to mere anti-Communism and little else. It is this mortal terror of not "surviving," or indeed of not having a privileged place in society, that makes Christians willing and eager to destroy Communism with H-bombs. Or, in the case of liberals, the same fear takes another form: the fear of falling behind the intellectuals and the radicals who seem to make more sense than anyone else, and who seem to know the way into the future. The same fear of not surviving, of not being acceptable any more, of not having any place m the world of the future!
Anything that a Christian does under the impulsion of this fear is bound to be, in some way, an evasive repudiation of the name of Christ, whose death has "overcome the world" and whose resurrection is the only pledge of a real future that anyone can possibly have!
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of Guilty Bystander (Image Books, 1968), pp125-6