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Compare our monastery and the General Electric plant in Louisville. Which one is the more serious and more ‘religious’ institution? One might be tempted to say ‘the monastery,’ out of sheer habit. But, in fact, the religious seriousness of the monastery is like sandlot baseball compared with the big-league seriousness of General Electric. It may in fact occur to many, including the monks, to doubt the monastery and what it represents. Who doubts G.E.?”
The year 2015 is the centennial of Thomas Merton’s birth. Above is another quote from Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Today he might have written instead, “Who doubts Google?” Or: “Who doubts Facebook?” Or started the paragraph:
Compare our monastery and the Apple store in Louisville…the religious seriousness of the monastery is like no-contact peewee football compared with the NFL seriousness of Cupertino….
ON THE LAST DAY OF JANUARY 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the border of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.
Many online appreciations for Thomas Merton, on the centenary of his birth, start with the above quote. It’s the opening to The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s landmark spiritual autobiography.
One of my favorite Merton books is Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which is an edited version of his journals. Conjectures contains Merton’s famous Louisville sidewalk revelation entry. But I want to post another quote here, a different but still very personal, reflective quote about his life. Merton rarely mentioned his family in his writing. His parents died when Merton was young and his only sibling, a brother, John Paul, was killed in action during World War II. Here is Merton nearly two decades later, all of which was spent living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky:
The flow of events: our youngest postulant, from Canada, is busy today with a wrecking bar, smashing up the partitions of the room in the old guesthouse, on the third floor, where, twenty years ago, I first came on retreat, that silent, moonlit night at the end of Lent. I remember the spiritual awe of that night! And now, in the clear light of a summer day, the plaster crashes to the floor and sunlit clouds of dust float out the window where I wrote that poem about the abbey and Matins. This kid was not even born then. He is the son of an airman who married an English girl, as my brother did, during the war. He was born in the Blitz, in England. And now he is tearing down that room and my own history – a fact which I gladly accept, but with this sense of loss nevertheless!
Eighteen years since the three survivors in John Paul’s crew dropped his body off the lifeboat into the North Sea. His back was broken when the plane hit the surface.
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While searching for something else I stumbled upon an essay* Thomas Merton wrote in 1968, and this quote. It still applies today – only a thousandfold:
“Modern literature is by and large a literature of alienation, not only because we are painfully living through the collapse of a culture but because today we have more culture and more civilization than we know what to do with. There are not only the simple, beautiful, wild, honest ceremonial masks once affected but the Kwakiutl Indians…but today we smother under an overproduction of masks and myths and personae. We all have to try to be fifty different people. We all can refuse some of the more absurd and unacceptable roles, but not many can refuse as much as they would like to, and no one can refuse them all.”
Later on Merton states:
“The culture built on death: the convergence of affluence and death wish, the root of our tragedy.”
*The title of the essay is “Why alienation is for everybody.”