The slighter gestures

B and her boyfriend just got into Reykjavík. They’ll tool around Iceland for about eight days. Lots of pictures, please.

B’s into the better self-help books. Last Tuesday she told us about two favorites, one of the go-getter variety and one that points out the virtues of acceptance (“very Zen”). She likes the tension between the two. Victoria quoted Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which defines navigating this tension as wisdom.

resistance photo
Photo by Monika Kostera (urbanlegend)

Can I justify avoiding a public life? I don’t mean a grand one, which I don’t have the personality or calling for. I could avoid a “normal” public life by claiming that there is no longer a public realm — at least not the kind that would support a republic. No public means no public life and no republic. B’s a sculptor, among other things, and maybe she can show me how to help chisel a public realm out of our mass culture.

But a person’s action can create a public space, and even, for a moment, a public and a republic. My sister, to my knowledge, doesn’t hold up signs, but she volunteers to help the poor. That’s creative as art.

Calls to elected officials and a meeting with the local police chief have felt very republican. Protests have felt very democratic. It’s funny that political parties have taken on these names. In Georgian England, if you were called a republican, you were accused of wanting to set up a republic. Similarly, democrats back then were accused of plotting a democracy. The names meant something. I’d like to see the United States restored to both forms of government.

It may be like what Merton says about saints and men: if I want to be a saint, I’ll first have to become a man; that is, I’ll have to discover my humanity. And if we want to be something other than a plutocracy, we’ll first have to discover public life.

Thomas Merton likes E.M. Forster on World War I: “For what, in that world-gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?” One can perceive Merton’s struggle for wisdom in this monologue about Forster’s quote:

Genuine dissent must always keep a human measure. It must be free and spontaneous. The slighter gestures are often the most significant, because they are premeditated and they cannot be doctored beforehand by the propagandist.

And so perhaps it is saner and nobler to expect effective protest from the individual, from the small unsponsored group, than from the well-organized mass movement. It is better that the “slighter gestures” never find their way into the big papers or onto the pages of the slick magazines. It is better not to line up with the big, manipulated group.

True, he who dissents alone may confine his dissent to words, to declarations, to attitudes, to symbolic gestures. He may fail to act. Gestures are perhaps not enough. They are perhaps too slight. (160)

Merton goes on to praise the then-current Civil Rights movement.

One can hear Merton’s search for wisdom also in the title of the book from which I’m quoting: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1965).

Photo by MJWein

Tribalism and true identity

Every school day for ten years, I’ve walked through our high school’s tall foyer. Most days, I lift up my eyes high above the foyer’s display cases and banners to the large abstract nouns stenciled on the foyer’s walls. But I’m not there today, and I can’t tell you for certain which abstract nouns are there. I think two are “integrity” and “excellence.” Maybe.

Abstractions put most audiences to sleep. I’ve learned this by bitter experience, so when I teach an abstract concept, I often use a narrative because a narrative makes my students perk up. Good speakers, as we all know, use stories.

The tribal advantage.

3PictureGerman-football-supporters-giving-the-Nazi-salute-during-the-international-match-against-England-at-White-Hart-LaneStories demonstrate the enduring appeal of what Austrian philosopher Karl Popper calls “tribalism,” a political danger he says has become active again after lying dormant for two millennia. Why stories? The inherent advantage stories have over abstractions is also the inherent advantage tribal societies have over open societies.

Tribal societies have narratives – specifically, myths – to understand what philosophers and scientists in open societies understand through observations, abstractions, models, and reason. Philosophers and scientists explain with narratives, too, but the narratives are usually only a strategy for teaching what is otherwise found to be reasonable.

But in a tribal society, the myth is both the medium and the message. The myth takes the place of the open society’s reason as a tool to discover moral and scientific truths. The tribe’s taboos amount to state-enforced virtues that prevent the development of individual morality, according to Popper (107, 164). And primitive tribal myths about natural phenomena keep members from distinguishing between tribal laws and universally applicable scientific laws, such as the law of gravity (164).

A brief history.

Tribalism first broke down in Athens a generation before Plato. Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies charts the rise of the open society from tribalism in Athens beginning with Democritus, Pericles, and Herodotus, who were among the first Western philosophers and rulers to insist on mankind’s essential equality. But democracy struggled following Pericles’s “Great Generation” and Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Plato lived through Athens’s defeat, and his political philosophy aimed to return Athens to a tribal, or closed, society, which he thought would make society more stable. Plato advocated measures that are similar to some totalitarian tactics over the past several decades: the murder by doctors of political dissidents and of the physically weak, the banishment of poets, the destruction of families, the worship of rulers as demigods, the free use of lies and deceit by rulers in furtherance of a greater truth unfathomable by lower classes (Plato admitted that his famous Myth of Blood and Soil was a propaganda lie (133)), the guarantee of a pure ruling class through eugenics, and the deliberate acclimation of children to war. Popper even takes a chapter to examine the reactionary elements inherent in Plato’s ideas of the Good and of the Philosopher-King. Plato hated democracy, and he advocated these policies to move Athens away from democracy and back to tribalism.

During the next couple of millennia after Plato, the world experienced some returns to tribalism, but multi-ethnic empires, feudalism, limited monarchies, and increasingly open societies were more prevalent in the West.

Tribalism today.

Twenty-four hundred years after Plato, tribalism is growing again. Popper explains how the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the service of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III, made Plato’s political philosophy and his return-to-tribalism agenda accessible to a modern world. Continue reading

Jesus on reading

3PictureBooksInIPhone

I have two shelves of devotional books, plus lots of other books – books of poems, writing instruction, history, and even political science – that often seem to act on me like devotionals. More than enough devotionals. When I’ve lost my way, as I have again now, I sometimes go back and read parts of a few of my earliest devotionals, works by Nouwen, Merton, and Steere. My heart doesn’t know or care if it’s a first or twentieth read, after all. My heart knows only if it’s being fed. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination – years of it – to digest some short but vital writing I feel drawn to. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination to rediscover the heart in its feeding again.

We have record of Jesus referring to reading six times. On each occasion, he asks his audience – always Pharisees, chief priests, elders, Sadducees, or scribes – if they have read some bit of scripture. (Matthew 12:3 & 5; 19:4; 21:16 & 42; 22:31.) He asks ironically, of course, knowing that they have indeed read the text he refers to. But his irony suggests that his audience hasn’t read or thought about the text sufficiently.

Jesus therefore counsels second or multiple readings – fresh reflections on texts that acknowledge the gentle way in which our hearts feed. Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, and the like, perhaps. He suggests, I think, that we revere the Scripture so much as to disclaim our deeper understanding of it, because for Westerners, to understand words is often to exhaust and dismiss them and to starve the heart.

But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matthew 9:13, KJV)

I’m going with the Pharisees for another read.

Why I like Obamacare [the Spiritual Masters Series]

When the heart is right
“For” and “against” are forgotten.

— Chuang Tzu (from Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu)

I like Obamacare’s medicine and policy; let’s get that out of the way. I liked it in 1993, and I like it now. But what I like best is the political process.

We have listened to one another. We have given in to one another. We can still compromise, we can still solve big problems. But time has taken the place of reason. Our deepest failing – our short collective attention span – has become our highest virtue.

We Americans are a forgetful people. We have forgotten that Obamacare is essentially the Chafee bill co-sponsored – co-sponsored! – by nineteen Republican U.S. Senators. The Chafee bill became the Republican rallying cry, the chief alternative to Hillarycare.

The Chafee bill contained that infamous Republican innovation, the individual mandate. It contained Obamacare’s state-based exchanges, its ban on denials for preexisting conditions, its subsidies for low-income people to buy insurance policies. It contained Obamacare’s expansion of the private insurance industry, its allowance for individual state innovation, its efficiency requirements, its reduction in growth of health care costs, and its expansion of Americans covered to around 94%. Even though the impartial Congressional Budget Office never did the analysis, the Chafee bill probably would have reduced the deficit in real dollars almost as much as Obamacare will. (Here’s a chart summarizing a comparison of the Chafee bill and Obamacare.)

I like how Democrats can now say, “Ha ha! You Republicans thought you lost when Obamacare was passed and upheld, but you really won! You got exactly what you wanted almost two decades ago, including your precious individual mandate that we hated, and the public voted us out of office in 2010 instead of you! Nyeh!”

I like how one can fall asleep a Republican in 1993 and wake up, Orlando-like, in 2010 a Democrat without modifying a single view. And how one can argue passionately as a Republican one decade and passionately as a Democrat the next while making the same points, even using the same words. In the alternative, I like how one can remain true to an inconstant party, ignoring the lipstick, the nights out of town, even the recently discovered love letters. We are virtuous consumers of political rhetoric: we remain loyal to a brand even when the brand itself is sold to its competitor. Time, aided by a certain peer pressure, makes it the most natural thing in the world to argue for more freedom as a teen and more responsibility from our teens, all the while hearing faint echoes of one’s future or former self. We have raised a child who (the ode reminds us) is father of the man.

Continue reading

Merton: Equality at natural law’s heart

The basic tenet of Natural Law . . . is that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, that we should not do to another what we would not want another to do to us. In other words, the Natural Law is simply that we should recognize in every other human being the same nature, the same needs, the same rights, the same destiny as in ourselves. The plainest summary of all the Natural Law is: to treat other men as if they were men. Not to act as if I alone were a man, and every other human were an animal or a piece of furniture.

– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, page 76.

This passage, which I discovered during a recent revisit to New Seeds, was the last thing I expected. Merton captures here better than I can the essence of natural law I learned first through Lincoln’s fixation on the Declaration’s equality clause.

Jobs & vocations

The blind spiritual instinct that tells us obscurely that our own lives have a particular importance and purpose, and which urges us to find out our vocation, seeks in so doing to bring us to a decision that will dedicate our lives irrevocably to their true purpose.

— Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin:     Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin:     Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

— From the 1967 movie The Graduate

[I write here with more conviction on the subject of vocations than I am entitled to. I have been mulling over the idea of vocation, and I push hard in certain directions here. Feel free to push back. I hope I am more flexible than I sound here, and I would appreciate any feedback or correction you may wish to advance.]


Our society encourages vocations for something like the first twelve years of a child’s life. Our society stops encouraging kids in their vocations after that, generally, when it’s time to put away childish things and get a job.

Vocations aren’t usually jobs or even professions, at least in their pure forms. Children usually aren’t interested in jobs, per se, anyway. If you want to quiet a child, ask her what she wants to do when she grows up. To a child, the options must seem incomprehensible, dull, or daunting. Most of all, adult work often may seem unimportant to a child except as a means of making money.

“I’d like to be a dental hygienist [forklift operator, hairstylist, corporate counsel, travel agent, telephone repairman, secretary, mortician, drywall hanger, swimming coach, accountant, etc.]!”

I bet you don’t hear any of that from children when you ask them what they wish to be when they grow up. More likely you get averted eyes and something like, “I dunno.”

Most children don’t talk about it, but they innately seem to understand the difference between a job and a vocation. A job is a living, something kids might have to do if the world continues to require people to work to get along by the time they grow up. But vocation is adventure.

Vocation helped me finesse a potential showdown with a student in class a couple of months ago. Tommy was trying to engage the other ninth graders around him with a small ball. I asked him for it, and he responded by putting it behind his back. As I got closer to his desk and asked for it again, he gave me a grin and asked me to guess which hand it was in. (I knew it would be in neither hand at the end of his act if I continued to participate in it.)

I surprised him. I folded my arms and grinned. “You want to be a magician, don’t you?”

He looked up at me with a different kind of engagement. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

I never got the ball, but – more to the point – I never saw the ball again. Even better, we found something to talk about for the remaining weeks of school.

People with vocations include entrepreneurs, healers, magicians, mystics, naturalists, poets, prophets, super heroes, virtuosos, and wizards. A lot of kids want to be wizards. My son Warren went through a wizard phase. He hasn’t hit a landscape architect phase yet, though, and I don’t see it happening.

David Keirsey, author of Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, has emboldened me to use the word “vocation” in a somewhat unorthodox way. In Please Understand Me II, Keirsey asserts that each of us aspires to become an executive, a mystic, a virtuoso, or a wizard. He defines each of these four terms broadly, and he links each term with one of the four temperaments he creates from Isabel Briggs Myers’s famous personality matrix. What I call a vocation he calls an aspiration and “more of a dream than an ambition,” noting, for instance, that “it’s one thing to dream of becoming a virtuoso . . . and quite another to become one.” True, but I think we might raise our sights if we acknowledge our dreams and then think and talk (discreetly, perhaps, at first) about our vocations in terms of our dreams.

Thomas Merton seems to see vocations pretty much as the Catholic Church teaches about it, but he also finds exceptions that help him define “vocation” in a way I like: as becoming the truth that we love. Sticking with the sense of the word “vocation” usually used in the Catholic Catechism, Merton limits his discussion in his chapter on vocation in his book No Man Is an Island principally to spouses, monks, and priests. He starts the chapter more broadly, though, stating, “Each one of us has some kind of vocation.” He also ends the chapter more broadly, pointing out that St. Francis found any label, even one for his vocation, too constricting:

He had thrown all vocations to the winds together with his clothes and other possessions. He did not think of himself as an apostle, but as a tramp.

Merton writes that, in addition to people with unorthodox vocations like St. Francis, a small percentage of people struggle for years without finding their vocations. This isn’t necessarily bad, since “. . . their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong.” I like to think that these people’s cultures – and even their own thinking – aren’t ready for the kind of vocation these people have before God. Our purpose is deeper than our thinking or our culture may be able to grasp. We wish to become the truth that we love, as Merton puts it, and there may not be a label for what we become.

It’s interesting to talk about what a vocation is and how it might differ from a profession or a job. It may also be fun but less rewarding to quibble over titles to the vocations. An agreed-upon list of vocations is impossible and unimportant, I guess. (It may be important to recognize, though, that some titles of vocations may also be titles for professions or jobs, just as some vocations may approximate certain professions or jobs.)

My buddy and mentor Michael is a wizard. He was a pastor (and a good one), but that title didn’t really encompass much of him. When we got rid of the churchy part of the church – you’d have to look pretty hard to find it anymore – Michael found himself with no short answer to the Great American FAQ: “What do you do?”

Wizards are part salesman (sort of the seedy side of the vocation), so Michael tailors his answers to the GAFAQ to fit his audience. He may allude to things like his life coaching, his infrastructure work with tribal leaders in India, his training of pastors in Eastern Europe, or his long conversations and friendships with other underground figures up and down the East Coast. But none of it comes to the point. “Life coach,” for one thing, is such a halfway house of a phrase. Why not commit yourself and say, “I’m a wizard”? That would get them thinking.

(Though I think most wizards abhor direct answers, or at least they don’t like a lot of talk that doesn’t tend to point to a new means of perception. I’m still enjoying one of Michael’s recent remarks: “If people really know you, they don’t know you.”)

Michael has no job anymore, though he works hard. He is one of the relatively few people I know who is paid for practicing his vocation.

I don’t think, though, that we should reinvent our economy to employ people at their vocations. Most of us benefit from working at our vocations without being paid for them. One such benefit is that we learn that our vocation is not about the money. Another benefit may be that we lessen the likelihood of veering from our true vocation at an early stage when it might be more susceptible to corruption. Still, it would be interesting to imagine what our society would be like, and what accommodations it would have to make, if it took to openly and more uniformly recognizing vocations and the people who practice them well.

The relationship between one’s job and one’s vocation is important. If I agree with Merton and Keirsey that everyone has an aspiration or vocation, then I can better put up with a less-than-fulfilling job. If I am in the job market, I may wish to look for jobs that will help me learn some aspect of my vocation, whether that aspect is a skill or a character trait. Finally, understanding that my job and my vocation are different may keep me from falling into the trap of defining myself by my job or profession. (As I hope to establish in another post, someone operating well in her vocation will hardly be tempted to view and understand herself in terms of her vocation alone.)

I think blogging has helped many people with their jobs and their vocations along these lines. I blog in part to get closer to my true vocation or at least to think through my vocation better. Blogging also helps me put my job in perspective since blogging gives me an outlet to express myself in ways I am not called upon to use at work.

Vocations may differ from jobs in at least four ways: in how one prepares for them, in how one is recognized in them, in how one relates to the public, and in what part of us is employed by them.

Vocations may differ from jobs in how one prepares for them. Jobs require training and maybe some experience, but, while vocations often require these efforts as well, they usually require dreams and inner transformation, too. A child or young adult may dream of a vocation, even if he conceives of it poorly. According to the Book of Genesis, Joseph at age seventeen senses his future vocation to govern, and he expresses his sense in the form of dreams he shares with his father and brothers in which the sun, moon, and stars – representing parents and brothers – bow down to him. The dream alone does not make Joseph a ruler. Instead, from the glimpses we get of Joseph over the ensuing thirteen years, it appears that his stints as a slave and a prisoner give Joseph the humility and patience necessary to tackle his vocation.

Literature and culture give us other examples of how the fire of transformation prepares people for their vocations. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Two Towers, Gandalf the Gray needs the abyss to become Gandalf the White, after all! Vision quests and similar coming-of-age rituals practiced by many Native American tribes deliberately put younger male teens through difficult experiences in part to help them discover and prepare for their vocations. The hablacia (“crying for a vision”) ceremony of the Oglala Lakota tribe was typical in this regard:

During the ceremony, a young person will leave behind the mundane problems of life, and contemplate on his place in the universe. Similar to a vision quest, the individual will sit for four days and four nights, without food or water, and contemplate the whys of his existence. A person will ask, “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?” “What is my purpose?” Basically, this ceremony helps a person get in touch with their spiritual being. In other words, they ask the spiritual part of themselves to come to life, so that they may fulfill their part in the Divine Plan.

(Gary Null, “Native American Healing: Native Americans Speak Out on Sacred Healing and Transformational Rituals,” http://www.garynull.com/Documents/nativeamerican.htm.)

Vocations may differ from jobs also in how one becomes recognized in her field. Jobs and professions often require certificates or licenses. Instead of these forms of accreditation, I may need confirmation in my vocation somewhat less formally, but sometimes more meaningfully, by some respected mentors and authorities who have themselves been recognized as proficient in their vocations.

Vocations may differ from jobs also in the relationship one has to the public. For most vocations, it’s no good hanging a shingle. Instead of proclaiming my vocation, I may need for someone in need of it to recognize the vocation in me. I think Jesus is saying as much when he sends out his disciples to an unsuspecting public with these words:

He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. (Matthew 10:41)

“So long as it’s within your level of competence, when someone recognizes and draws on a vocation in you, he will be rewarded with something from you,” Jesus may be saying. Jesus also seems to recognize that how he himself stands with his audience determines what the audience is going to draw from him. “Who do men say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” are not rhetorical questions, I suggest. If I don’t think someone is a superhero – or if I don’t believe in superheroes – then I may never receive a superhero’s services. In this way, vocations are respectful of the perceptions of individuals their practitioners come in contact with. They thus tend to honor people’s humanity in a way that normal marketing efforts may not.

A vocation’s “if you don’t get it, you don’t get it” approach may be advantageous for another reason: many vocations seem to be more effective when practiced under the radar. As a healer, Jesus was not using reverse psychology when he told many of his patients not to breathe a word about their healing to anybody.

One may well begin to understand the relationship between her gifts and the world’s use of them differently when she is living out a vocation. A vocation may or may not start as a dream, but it ends up being whatever is left once this fire of transformation is underway or ends. Through these fires, someone may become something she never expected to be. One may also sense a hard-won strength within herself, and one may sense when others are drawing on it. A strong humility may replace a fragile confidence in her relations with others. Marketing still may be part of attempting to live by her vocation, but the success of the marketing is not much of an indicator of the validity of her vocation. This passage from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh may express something of these effects:

There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way. Look here, now what must be done? Must one tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself, wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down – maybe to stay? Let him who believes in God wait for the hour that will come sooner or later.

(Vincent Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1959))

Van Gogh’s words suggest a final way in which vocations may differ from jobs: they may employ separate understandings of ourselves. Jobs usually require us to perform a role, to put on a certain hat or helmet during our shift. Jobs may come with codes of conduct, and some jobs (especially professions) may require that we conduct ourselves appropriately after hours as well as when we are at work. Vocations, however, come from inside us more than from a role we have studied and practiced. Someone operating well in a vocation is operating as herself through the truth she loves and has become.

 



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Posted July 2005

Descending with the mind into the heart

Henri Nouwen may be the gentlest writer imaginable, a nurturer of the inner person. His writing, like the prayer he advocates, “descends with the mind into the heart,” to borrow from Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse. Nouwen’s more devotional writings offer his readers a hand in the painful self-discovery he and fellow Catholic writer Thomas Merton advocate.

Merton’s writing influenced Nouwen’s understanding of his own vocation as a Catholic priest and writer. One may also often sense Merton in Nouwen’s thinking, but rarely in his feeling. Much of Merton’s best writing has a critical and prophetic bent, while most of Nouwen’s writing is pastoral. Even his more theoretical writing is mostly written to benefit pastors in their work. In most of Nouwen’s devotional writing, the mind is present but subservient to the heart, and it is rarely engaged in extraordinary service. We find mind enough, though, to make the descent into the heart.

[book cover]

A friend gave me Seeds of Hope: a Henri Nouwen Reader, which served as my introduction to Nouwen. Editor Robert Durback worked closely with Nouwen in preparing the first edition, and the second edition was published shortly after Nouwen’s death in 1996 as a kind of early memorial. Durback draws from many of Nouwen’s best writings, some of which have not been reprinted since their first publications in obscure church periodicals. The second edition is short – 213 pages – but its size seems to suit a writing style that has the feel of a pleasant and unassuming pastoral call.

Durback arranges Nouwen’s writings topically, and one of the best chapters is “Advent: Waiting.” Most of this chapter involves Elizabeth and Mary’s actions and patience as the seed – John and Jesus, respectively – grew within them. Nouwen concludes:

People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something else.

The months Elizabeth and Mary were alone together reminds me of the most difficult months of an identity crisis, when I had to begin to understand a patience in hope. Nouwen and a handful of other writers seemed to wait with me, offering me the lessons and the mercy their own struggles taught them.

 

The words of another

The Shambhala Library Edition of Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert is a pretty little family album of some of Merton’s favorite people. The book has the feel of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series, with the cloth bookmark and the gilt lettering on the cover. The package seems celebrate the men more than the sayings in Merton’s vignettes from the Desert Fathers, and Merton would find that appropriate, I think.

The Wisdom of the Desert amounts to Merton’s essay by the same name followed by “Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” which has the lion’s share of the book. Merton’s enjoyment of the Desert Fathers, the name given to some of Christianity’s first hermits and monks, is probably the only explanation of the vignettes’ selection and order the reader may arrive at. In that way, The Wisdom of the Desert is similar to The Way of Chuang Tzu, Merton’s paraphrase of works by the fourth century BC Chinese philosopher. In both books, Merton chose the selections he chose, and he made a point of not explaining or apologizing for his choices. One may guess that, as he did with Chuang Tzu, he wrote the book to share his idea of men who had become his friends.

There are a number of books in print about the Desert Fathers. I have read only three of these books besides Merton’s: Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart, Anslem Gruen’s Heaven Begins Within You, and John Anthony McGuckin’s The Book of Mystical Chapters. Each has its strengths.

The chief strength of Merton’s book may be its seeming ability to just get out of the way. Of course, we find Merton’s Fathers hospitable, charitable, and nonjudgmental. But we also meet grouchy Fathers, bizarre Fathers, and seemingly legalistic Fathers. Their stories make us wonder at the sandblasting these souls took to earn their few words. Here’s one of Merton’s stories I didn’t find in the more “inspirational” Desert Father books:

A certain brother, renouncing the world, and giving the things he owned to the poor, kept a few things in his own possession. He came to Abbot Anthony. When the elder heard about all this, he said to him: If you want to be a monk, do to that village and buy meat, and place it on your naked body and so return here. And when the brother had done as he was told, dogs and birds of prey tore at his body. When he returned to the elder, the latter asked if he had done as he was told. The brother showed him his lacerated body. Then Abbot Anthony said: Those who renounce the world and want to retain possession of money are assailed and torn apart by devils just as you were.

One may defend Abbot Anthony’s purported directions in this story, but can one do it without hypocrisy? I can’t. I can’t say a word about it.

[book cover]The Fathers’ words are attempts to throw a subject in a new light, and they are often concrete riddles to my ear. A hermit’s answer to a seeker’s question or situation may resemble a koan – a question posed by a Zen master to his disciple to help him awaken to his real self. In his introduction, Merton suggests that the lack of context unnecessarily exacerbates the riddling nature of some of the Fathers’ sayings:

The answers [to the seekers’ questions] were not intended to be general, universal prescriptions. Rather they were originally concrete and precise keys to particular doors that had to be entered, at a given time, by given individuals. Only later, after much repetition and much quotation, did they come to be regarded as common currency. It will help us to understand these sayings better if we remember their practical and, one might say, existential quality.

Whether specific or general, the sayings of the Father necessarily remain out of context, despite Merton’s gift of a well-rounded collection of stories. We weren’t there. To use the book, I must find my own context. “We cannot do exactly what they did,” Merton acknowledges. Here’s one of Merton’s selections, in its entirety, that says as much:

Abbot Hor said to his disciple: Take care that you never bring into this cell the words of another.

Some of the last words I may wish to part with are in Merton’s crackling essay. In the context of explaining the Desert Fathers, Merton describes the spiritual life offered by Christianity and not often exemplified.

The “rest” which these men sought was … a kind of simple nowhereness and no-mindedness that had lost all preoccupation with a false or limited “self.” At peace in the possession of a sublime “Nothing” the spirit laid hold, in secret, upon the “All” – without trying to know what it possessed.

Maybe this is the rest that the writer of Hebrews urged his readers to labor to enter. And maybe this is the rest that David ordered his soul to return to.

Forgotten words

Is there a sense in which we may safely forget even the greatest words? Do words contain inherent limitations that somehow keep us from the reality they may move us toward? Thomas Merton examines the nature of words in The Way of Chuang Tzu, his paraphrase of works by the fourth century BC Chinese philosopher who is credited with helping to transform Indian Buddhism into what we now call Zen.

Merton sees Chuang Tzu as his kindred spirit. Merton and Chuang Tzu both were hermits to some extent, and both spiritual philosophers of sorts, perhaps with Merton heavier on the spiritual side and Chuang Tzu more the philosopher. The content of their philosophies is similar, too. Merton assures us that his book “is not a new apologetic subtlety (or indeed a work of jesuitical sleight of hand) in which Christian rabbits will suddenly appear by magic out of a Taoist hat.” Yet Merton’s paraphrase demonstrates how Chuang Tzu’s writings closely resemble the apophatic thought of some Christian theologians and mystics that Merton writes about elsewhere.

Merton points out that Chuang Tzu’s Taoism is not “the popular, degenerate amalgam of superstition, alchemy, magic, and health-culture which Taoism later became.” Instead, Chuang Tzu’s Taoism values an inner unity, a hiddenness of the true man, and a practical asceticism that Merton also finds in Christian mysticism.

Merton believes that Chuang Tzu’s gift of “unknowing” is similar to Christian contemplation. A Chuang Tzu disciple loses his self-conscious “knowledge” and gains an inner “unknowing” by which he lives through Tao. The disciple in one Chuang Tzu story, for instance, prepares for the gift of unknowing through a patient emptying of desires, otherwise known as a “fasting of the heart,” much as Merton’s contemplative must go through John of the Cross’ Night of Sense, when the will grows tired of desire and reasoning. 1

[photo of Thomas Merton]

Because the themes and points in The Way of Chuang Tzu are found in Merton’s other writings, we may fairly ask if the book amounts to Chuang Tzu’s words or Merton’s. Of course, any paraphrase takes a certain degree of liberty with the original wording. The Way of Chuang Tzu may be even more about the translator than is the average paraphrase, however, since Merton admits to knowing almost no Chinese and instead puts his “readings” together by comparing four of his favorite western language translations. As a result, Merton says, his readings are “not attempts at faithful reproduction but ventures in personal and spiritual interpretation.”

Merton, then, has made Chuang Tzu his own, and it is not as if Chuang Tzu would care. Chuang Tzu saw words as constituting only a ladder to reality. When one climbs onto reality, one may push away the words he used to get there. To internalize great words is to climb the ladder.

To internalize great words is also the first step towards forgetting them. As Merton states in his book’s essay on Chuang Tzu preceding his paraphrase, “Chuang Tzu is not concerned with words and formulas about reality, but with the direct existential grasp of reality in itself.” Indeed, at the end of one reading, Chuang Tzu exclaims:

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.

Merton’s relationship with words and formulas is a bit more ambivalent than Chuang Tzu’s. Merton writes within, and struggles against, a Western philosophical tradition that is still largely foundational and analytical. A true grasp of reality, though, “is necessarily obscure and does not lend itself to abstract analysis,” Merton writes in the book’s essay. Chuang Tzu’s more anecdotal and meditative style seems to do a better job at approaching truth, Merton believes.

Merton is bound also to Christian theology, which, like Western philosophy in general, insists on expressing the ineffable. Because individual Christian experience is part of the broader experience of the Church, Merton says that individual Christian experience “must always be in some way reducible to a theological form that can be shared by the rest of the Church or that shows that it is a sharing of what the rest of the Church experiences.” 2 Zen, on the other hand, resists straightforward communication. 3

Merton’s ambivalent relationship to words, however, goes beyond his attempts to explain the ineffable in terms of Western philosophy, or even in terms of Roman Catholic theology. Merton’s ambivalence comes chiefly from his dual calling as a priest as well as a reporter in God’s contemplative temple. Merton’s reporting duties enhance but sometimes conflict with his priestly duties. Words sometimes just get in the way.

Writing is a self-conscious act, while the gift of contemplation involves a love freed from self-consciousness. Merton’s priest must give up words, even words to be used for the most altruistic purposes, in order to experience God in intimate contemplation:

But before we come to that which is unspeakable and unthinkable, the spirit hovers on the frontiers of language, wondering whether or not to stay on its own side of the border, in order to have something to bring back to other men. This is the test of those who wish to cross the frontier. If they are not ready to leave their own ideas and their own words behind them, they cannot travel further. 4

Merton’s priest loses his words and his self-consciousness, but he slowly becomes everything the words point to anyway.

Chuang Tzu finds irony in the limited role words have in communicating Tao’s unknowing. In one story, Chuang Tzu compares a true Tao man to an old toothless disciple who falls asleep during his Tao lesson. The instructor’s unheard words concerning Tao are accurate and well reasoned. Yet the instructor could not have been happier with his sleeping student: “His body is dry…[h]is mind is dead… [h]is knowledge is solid, [h]is wisdom true!” Free of desire, the old man has no hint of self-consciousness, and no use for analysis.

Chuang Tzu’s unknowing leaves no place for written history or even written philosophy, ironically the two disciplines that have preserved Chuang Tzu’s words for our use today. In one story, a wheelwright calls his prince’s philosophy readings “the dirt [the philosophers] left behind.” Pressed by the prince for an explanation, the wheelwright compares the philosophers’ learning to his own expertise at fitting wheels. The wheelwright cuts short his brief explanation of his skills by saying:

You cannot put it into words.
You just have to know how it is.

Everything the philosophers really knew went with them to the grave, the wheelwright concludes. What they really knew, then, was “unknowing.” Their words end up as no substitute for what they knew.

“Tao cannot be communicated,” Merton says, “Yet it communicates itself in its own way.” The irony is that we’re reading the dirt Merton left behind, which includes, as a sort of play within a play, the dirt Chuang Tzu left behind. What does Merton hope to communicate, if Tao — and Christian contemplation — cannot be communicated?

Merton’s choices of his favorite and least favorite writings may help us with this riddle. Merton said that he enjoyed writing The Way of Chuang Tzu more than anything else he wrote. Perhaps he could sympathize with Chuang Tzu, who admired Confucius but pointed out the hollowness of his followers’ self-conscious efforts to obtain virtue. Some of Merton’s books address the hollowness of a pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, which professed to follow Christ but was largely preoccupied with exterior forms and rationalism.

More likely, Merton enjoyed writing The Way of Chuang Tzu because it represented something like a surrender of his attempts to communicate the path to contemplation directly. By using another philosopher as his own multifaceted anecdote, Merton comes as close to “unconsciousness” (that is, unselfconsciousness) as he ever does in communicating contemplation. In writing Chuang Tzu, Merton seems to stay protected within “the tower of his spirit”:

The unconsciousness
And entire sincerity of Tao
Are disturbed by any effort
At self-conscious demonstration.

In contrast, Merton’s least favorite of his books is The Ascent to Truth, a systematic (for Merton) defense of John of the Cross’ mystical theology. By writing theology, Merton opened himself up to the criticism of theologians, and at least twice in his journals he expressed his regret for writing the book. While Merton values theology — especially good mystical theology — highly, his attempt at writing theology was, for him, a “self-conscious demonstration” that took him away from the protection of his spirit’s tower.

In The Way of Chuang Tzu, Merton is communicating his own joy from his spirit’s tower. He has found a new friend who has taught him the irony of words as well as the value of irony. Like the best of Merton’s words, The Way of Chuang Tzupoints to an experience of contemplation, while it reverently and wisely backs away from providing or insisting upon such an experience. Just as Merton kicks away Chuang Tzu like a ladder after experiencing the unknowing Chuang Tzu describes, Merton invites us to climb his own words and to forget them as well.

Footnotes:
1. Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951), 189.
2. Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions 1968), 46.
3. Id. at 46, 47.
4. Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955), 255.

 

Art & contemplation

Thoughts while reading Merton & Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice, by James Harford

I feel a tension between my devotional life and my love of writing.  I have recognized this tension also in the writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a modern-day contemplative and a gifted writer. I bought Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton and the Vocation of Writing, a 2007 compilation of Merton’s writings on writing, to see how Merton lived with a calling to both writing and devotion.

I’ve always found Merton’s distinction in New Seeds of Contemplation between a poet and a contemplative both true and tough:

The poet enters into himself in order to create.  The contemplative enters into God in order to be created.

I found language in Echoing Silence (from the 1958 essay “Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal”) that expands on the New Seeds aphorism:

Now it is precisely here [a novice contemplative’s tentative experiences of grace, which reflection threatens to spoil] that the aesthetic instinct changes its colors and, from being a precious gift, becomes a real danger.  If the intuition of the poet naturally leads him into the inner sanctuary of his soul, it is for a special purpose in the natural order: when the poet enters into himself it is in order to reflect upon his inspiration and to clothe it with a special and splendid form and then return to display it to those outside.  And here the radical difference between the artist and the mystic begins to be seen.  The artist enters into himself in order to work.  For him, the “superior” soul is a forge where inspiration kindles a fire of white heat, a crucible for the transformation of natural images into new, created forms.  But the mystic enters into himself, not in order to work but to pass through the center of his own soul and lose himself in the mystery and secrecy and infinite, transcendent reality of God living and working within him.

Consequently, if the mystic happens to be, at the same time, an artist, when prayer calls him within himself to the secrecy of God’s presence, his art will be tempted to start working and producing and studying the “creative” possibilities of this experience. . . . The artist will run the risk of losing a gift of tremendous supernatural worth, in order to perform a work of far less value.  He will let go of the deep, spiritual grace which has been granted him, in order to return to the reflection of that grace within his own soul.

(Merton isn’t always so categorical in seeing a contemplative’s role as higher than a poet’s.  In another selection from Echoing Silence, he advises some to accept their vocations as writers – the grace given to them – and to stop pining for a contemplative vocation that God probably did not intend for them.)

Merton fights this writer-versus-contemplative battle less abstractly and more personally in his letters and journal entries.  In one 1948 letter to a friend, he resolves not “to either renounce or to adopt whole ‘blocks’ of activity – cutting out ‘all’ writing or ‘going into solitude for good’ (as I would like to) . . .”  On the other hand, a 1949 journal entry states, “At the moment the writing is the one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude.”  Later on, however, especially in the 1960’s, he sometimes describes his writing as a distraction and an obsession.

[book]When I bought Echoing Silence, I bought a recent biography of Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice at the same time to get free shipping and to learn more about how Merton got along with his Columbia friends – Lax, Rice, and others – once Merton took his vows a couple of years after leaving Columbia with a master’s degree in 1939.  James Harford’s Merton & Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice introduced me to Lax’s poetry.  If Merton’s life and writing have clarified my struggle with writing and devotion, Lax’s life and writing have helped me see how devotion and writing may come together for me.

With regard to Merton, Lax, and Rice’s relationship after Merton entered Gethsemani, they stayed in close contact with one another through their letters and publishing endeavors.  Rice founded and edited Jubilee, an influential and unprofitable American Catholic magazine published from 1953 through 1967, and he relied heavily on his Columbia buddies to supply articles, photos, artwork, and other writers.  Merton was a frequent writer-contributor.  Lax, who published earlier than his Columbia buddies – a few poems in The New Yorker in the 1940’s – was a more sporadic contributor of both photography and writing to Jubilee.  When Lax was in New York, he’d hang out at Jubilee’s modest, crowded office.  Staff members would often find him meditating on the office’s fire escape to escape the commotion.  But Lax spent many of the Jubilee years in France, North Carolina, Connecticut, Greece, and elsewhere.

Lax, Rice, and Merton, along with fellow-Columbia pal and painter Ad Reinhardt, increasingly influenced one another as their fame grew.  Reinhardt’s paintings were moving to purely black canvases about the time Lax’s already spare palette was frequently cleaned of all but six or seven words per poem, words that were repeated in vertical shapes that invite contemplation more than analysis.  Reinhardt’s paintings and ideas influenced Lax a great deal.

But Lax was a gifted copy editor, and he was known for his concision long before he came under the influence of Reinhardt’s minimalist theories. One photographer at Jubilee said, “If you worked with Lax, you didn’t need Strunk and White.  My eight pages of pictures and his forty words caught the whole story.”

Lax’s concision and his quiet spirit seemed to affect his poetry more as the Jubilee years went on.  During the fifties and sixties, Lax’s poetry reflected a more contemplative bent, employing little religious imagery – in fact, little metaphor at all.  Here’s “The Port Was Longing,” an example of his poetry from the early 1960’s:

The port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this ship

not for

that ship

not for

this ship

not for

that ship

the port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this sea

not for

that sea

not for

this sea

not for

that sea

the port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this &

not for

that

not for

this &

not for

that

the port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this &

not for

that

The increasingly spare and simple words in Lax’s poetry and his experiments with vertical forms got Lax labeled as an abstract minimalist.

Lax’s move to Greece was as seemingly impulsive as his earlier moves, but he settled there. Before Greece, Lax made several moves and career changes by jumping in the backs of friends’ cars as they were leaving town.  The Circus of the Sun, published in 1958 and arguably Lax’s best book of poems, was the result of a year he spent as a circus clown and juggler.  His meditation on a picture of John writing the Apocalypse in a cave at Patmos precipitated his move to the Greek islands in 1963, and he lived there until just before his death in 2000.

Lax didn’t move to sparsely inhabited Greek islands to become a hermit, but to become a better poet.  As he explained in his introduction to A Greek Journal, “I thought I needed [a quiet place] for my work, as a photographer needs a darkroom.”  Lax became fascinated with the Greek fisherman and other characters near his modest, rented home, though, and he enjoyed his island contacts.  Nevertheless, he gained an international reputation for being a hermit, much as he had gained a reputation among his coworkers at Jubilee’s offices years before as being a kind of quiet “clown saint.”

At Patmos and the other Greek islands on which he lived, Lax seems to have found the quiet, contemplative place that Merton had hoped to find at Gethsemani.  Merton did move to a hermitage at Gethsemani, but the move never seemed to fit him.  Unauthorized picnics with friends (including, famously, Joan Baez) and a romantic interlude seemed to make some of his Catholic friends feel that his earlier, regular monastic life was a better fit for him.  But much of the distraction came from the chief demand on Merton’s time – his writing. Merton lived under the pressure of constant writing deadlines.  One visitor to Merton’s hermitage described the atmosphere there as a one-man newsroom.

The difference between Lax’s and Merton’s spirituality had something to do with their temperaments.  Lax once described Merton as a “type A” and himself as a “type Z” personality.  Merton’s temperament reminds me of the Apostle Peter – strong and restless, sometimes at home with himself, but more often picking fights.  Lax reminds me of John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the one who leaned on Jesus’ breast at Passover and whose portrait in Marseilles involves him both writing and praying and caused Lax to pick up his tent for the last time until his health declined in old age.  Lax, like John, was one of the last of his crowd of spiritual explorers to die.

Their temperaments also influenced the way they negotiated their vocations as writers with their callings as contemplatives.  Somehow Lax witnessed a more joyful marriage of contemplation and writing than did Merton.  Lax found and arranged shapes and sounds and expressions that, for me, largely bypass the ego and suggest meditation.

Here are some thoughts from James J. Uebbing’s introduction to Lax’s Love Had a Compass (1995) that I think ring true:

[Lax’s] insistence upon patience, upon attention to trivialities is not an incidental element of design, for simplicity – its centrality as a human virtue and the necessity of its cultivation – is at the heart of Lax’s achievement as a poet and as a man.

º º º

With Lax it is necessary to put aside the very notion of interpretation, the expectation – so basic to us that it is barely recognizable as a strategy – that an author’s art will by its nature be linear and syllogistic.

º º º

The elements of his art are the elements of the created world: the sea and the men and the animals and the light.  Like every artist he makes his use of them, but unlike most he acknowledges that they do not belong to him.  They find their origin elsewhere.  It is in this respect that Lax must be acknowledged as a religious man, insofar as for him artistic creation is not a ransacking of the visible world or an assertion of some unfettered consciousness so much as it is a participation in a process that was already in motion long before he arrived on the stage.

Lax’s poetry often feels like a clear reflection of God creating.  It also seems beyond the inspiration and creation that Merton suggests can keep an artist from losing herself in God.

Unlike Merton, who remains one of my favorite writers, Lax was at peace with his art.


Posted April 4, 2008.