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Thinking Out Loud

Thomas Merton: The Patron Saint of Seekers

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 07, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Saint of Seekers"One day, in the month of February 1937, I happened to have five or ten loose dollars burning a hole in my pocket. I was on Fifth Avenue, for some reason or other, and was attracted by the window of Scribner's bookstore, all full of bright new books." [Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: HBJ, 1948/1976), p. 171]

Among the books on display in the window was Etienne Gilson's The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy. Merton had just signed up for a course in French Medieval Literature, so he decided to buy the book which consisted of a series of lectures Gilson had delivered at the University of Aberdeen.

It was not until Merton was on his way home on the Long Island train that he noticed, on the first page of the book, words in small print, "Nihil Obstat ... Imprimatur" indicating that the book contained, as Merton put it, "safe doctrine," teachings approved and sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church. He writes:

"The feeling of disgust and deception struck me like a knife in the pit of my stomach. I felt I had been cheated! They should have warned me that it was a Catholic book! Then I would never have bought it. As it was, I was tempted to throw the thing out of the window at the houses of Woodside - to get rid of something dangerous and unclean. Such is the terror that is aroused in the enlightened mind by a little innocent Latin and the signature of a priest." (Merton, Mountain, p. 171)

Merton didn't, however, throw the book out the train window. Drawn by his interest in what he termed the "Catholic culture" which suffused medieval Europe, and resisting the disgust he felt as a thoroughly enlightened thinker, he read on. Merton writes:

"Now in the light of all this, I consider that it was surely a real grace that, instead of getting rid of the book, I actually read it. ... And the one big concept I got out of its pages was something that was to revolutionize my whole life." (Merton, Mountain, p. 172)

What shall we call it? That strange sense of serendipity, of happenstance, that seems to leap out at you when reading Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiographical reflections that culminate in his entering Gethsemani Abbey?

I've used relatively neutral terms above: "serendipity" and "happenstance." You could add, perhaps, "chance" if you want to try to remain neutral, although John Calvin would certainly hasten to differ. In Calvin's book, to say "chance" is to miss the theological point. "Fate," of course, is the deliberately pagan word for it, and a loaded word it is. But "providence" is the no less loaded Christian word: apparent chance, but with a divine purpose unapparent until the retrospect of faith kicks in.

Merton simply calls it "grace." We know (and Merton knew) that grace is not an abstract quality free floating in the atmosphere. Grace signifies the active presence of God. When Merton says, it was "a real grace," he is saying, in effect, that God was present in his life at that moment. The Holy Spirit was at work in him in that bookstore on Fifth Avenue and in that rail car on the Long Island line.

The force that brought creation from chaos worked its way into the heart of a most enlightened young man, transforming him from a potential literary star into a saint, arguably the patron saint of seekers, especially of those of us for whom the aesthetic is the primary threshold to transcendence.

And what did the Holy Spirit disclose to Thomas Merton that was to "revolutionize" his whole life? It was a teaching of the church which on its surface looked as dusty as an ancient vestry neglected by brooms for a hundred years, the doctrine of divine aseity. Merton himself explains: aseity means "the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist." This idea impressed Merton so profoundly that he made a pencil note in the margin of the text: "Aseity of God - God is being per se." (Merton, Mountain, pp. 172-173).

With an imagination ignited by grace, Merton moved from insight to insight with Gilson, as one after another voice from the ancient and medieval Christian world weighed in - Thomas Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, St. Bonaventure, St. Jerome - until finally Merton began to see the implications of the doctrine of divine aseity: God is being itself, uncaused, without need. God does not need creation. God does not need us. God did not create because of some necessity, some aching void that yearned to be filled. God creates because God is love. God's love is not based on need, but flows from an overflowing abundance of God's pure being.

Gilson, Merton writes, described "the concrete and real Infinite Being, Who, Himself, transcends all our conceptions." And Merton found himself captivated by an intellectual encounter with divine transcendence ("a notion of God that was at the same time deep, precise, simple, and accurate") that upended his entire worldview ("charged with implications which I could not even begin to appreciate").

"I think the reason why these statements, and others like them, made such a profound impression on me," writes Merton, "lay deep in my own soul. And it was this: I had never had an adequate notion of what Christians meant by God. I had simply taken it for granted that the God in Whom religious people believed, and to Whom they attributed the creation and government of all things, was a noisy and dramatic and passionate character, a vague, jealous, hidden being, the objectification of all their own desires and strivings and subjective ideals." (Merton, Mountain, pp. 172-174)

Merton had resisted Christianity, not only because of intellectual pride on his part, and certainly not just because he carried an anti-Catholic or even anti-Christian bias, but also because of the smallness, sentimentality and reductionism he had seen in some expressions of Christianity. Merton takes upon himself so much of the responsibility for not understanding well Catholic and Christian thought. However, it should also be admitted that there existed and that there exists today Christianity whose God is "the objectification of their own desires and strivings and subjective ideals." Christianity, we would do well to remember, caricatures and stereotypes itself as thinly and falsely as any of its cultured despisers have done.

Merton's encounter with the Christian thought exemplified by Etienne Gilson liberated him from his own prejudices about Christian faith, but also from the beliefs and practices of many actual Christians (Catholic and Protestant) for whom God is as small, noisy and jealous as they are. Merton's personal reflections are at once moving and convicting for any of us who have (intentionality or inadvertently) reduced God to something as small as we are.

"What a relief it was for me, now, to discover not only that no idea of ours, let alone any image, could adequately represent God, but also that we should not allow ourselves to be satisfied with any such knowledge of Him." (Merton, Mountain, 174-175)

What a relief! And what a challenge!

Merton reminds us of something particularly important to remember today when churches are anxious about the shrinking numbers in pews, and when, in desperation, they are searching for ways to attract new adherents (or to "re-brand" themselves for a new "market"!).

Merton reminds us that people are not hungering for something they can understand. A comprehensible god who simply reflects our own "desires and strivings and subjective ideals" is not God enough. Such a god is merely an idol made with our own hands. In our anxiety for the future of the church, as people who love the church, we too often focus on "delivery systems" and "technologies" and the "programmatic aspects" of our "religious organizations," not seeming to notice that the spiritual hunger of contemporary people is as great as ever, that their hunger is not for penultimate matters but for that Ultimate Concern which is none other than a living God. We should be savvy about the various technological and programmatic "how's" (of course!) but never is the How a substitute for the eternal Who!

Merton speaks a prophetic word to the church of his time, and it remains prophetic today. Those people who search for meaning often do so with a diligence and depth, a curiosity and sophistication that puts the churchly to shame. Sometimes the things that prevent seekers from entering the church (metaphorically or literally) are the things we do to attract them, our attempts to make God relevant, understandable, more relatable, our attempts to evangelize, educate and entertain them.

Perhaps Merton was speaking most autobiographically when he articulated the plight of those who will not enter the church because their seeking seems more serious than what is going on behind the church's doors. People like him stand outside looking in. "They stand and starve in the doors of the banquet," Merton writes, "the banquet to which they surely realize that they are invited," while others who take the feast for granted and even trivialize its riches, stuff themselves "at those tremendous tables." (Merton, Mountain, p. 175)

The patron saint of seekers remains as prophetic today as when he first wrote those words.

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