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Thinking Out Loud

Thomas Merton and the Cure for "Rhinoceritis"

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 02, 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!

Rhinoceritis"Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Jesus of Nazareth, St. Matthew's Gospel 11:28.)

On one of my first visits to Gethsemani Abbey some years ago, during the Friday evening talk for those on retreat, the guestmaster went through a list of things we might "do" while at the abbey. He finished by saying, "Or you can just sit and pray and meditate in the silence. We've always got lots of that around here."

Indeed they do. In fact, I've never been anywhere that has a more abundant supply of silence and solitude. As it says on the signs posted all around, "Silence Spoken Here."

There are birds calling. You may hear the occasional fox in the hills or the lowing of cattle in their fields. From time to time you're bound to notice the sound of a truck or a tractor rumbling along the farm road. Far away, you may hear a plane cutting through the clouds, though that's rare. Each season has its own sounds at the abbey, from summer's insects clicking to the mute cloak of winter snow. But when it comes to the human sounds of chatter and rush, these are mercifully absent. I suppose I had never noticed how loud our modern world of hustle and bustle sounds until being in a place that just doesn't value it.

So much of what we do in the world has nothing to do with simple human labor. Almost all that we do is activity predicated on self-advancement, self-promotion, even the production of a self which others will admire or at least not successfully attack. Merton referred to such activity, not as labor, but as "unnatural, frantic, anxious work." He spoke of it as the kind of work that is "done under the pressure of greed or fear" or some other "inordinate passion," adding that such work "cannot properly be dedicated to God." [Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 2007), p. 19.]

Even our talk often has more to do with compulsions, anxieties and greed than with either communication or the promotion of community. Chatter multiplies meaninglessly, reinforcing false selves, stoking fires of envy, anger, power, lust or other forms of violence, mistaking conspiracy for community, confusing a malignant spirit of gossip for real compassion and concern.

In solitude, we notice. In silence, we hear. Without the din of distractions, without the controversies blaring from television and radio and the self-promotion around whatever metaphorical "water coolers" we gather, we are able to see and hear and recognize what's going on. In and around the abbey, the piles and drifts of silence, the sanctuaries, hallways and gardens heaped with stillness have a way of inviting and encouraging "being" over doing, "reflecting" over reacting, cultivating among us a habit of humanity rather than the headlong pursuit of ephemeral goals that are anything but "proper ends of our humanity."

Thomas Merton understood what it means to inhabit a stillness and solitude that allow us to notice and to name the relentless mindless charge of distracted humanity. Commenting on a play by Eugene Ionesco, Merton named a spiritual malady many of us will recognize in ourselves: "Rhinoceritis."

In Merton's essay, "Rain and the Rhinoceros," he quotes Ionesco:

"'In all the cities of the world, it is the same,' says Ionesco, 'The universal and modern man is the man in a rush (i.e., the rhinoceros), a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots....' Rhinoceritis, he adds, is the sickness that lies in wait 'for those who have lost the sense and the taste for solitude'." [Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), p. 21.]

There is no easy, painless cure for Rhinoceritis. Apparently, we almost have to die of the disease before we seek healing. It is significant, I think, although ironic, that in contemporary society, it is sometimes the arts and philosophy, rather than religious faith that offer a cure from this illness. For example, the epigraph which Merton selected for his book Raids on the Unspeakable, in which this essay appears, is by a philosopher who was also a playwright, Gabriel Marcel, who wrote:

"Today the first and perhaps the only duty of the philosopher is to defend man against himself; to defend man against that extraordinary temptation toward inhumanity to which - almost without being aware of it - so many human beings today have yielded."

As much as I hate to say it, if one were merely to listen to many of the most popular spokespersons for Christianity these days, one would be led to believe that Rhinoceritis is not a disease at all, but a Christian virtue. We tend to bless and baptize the frenzied busy-ness of our age, to praise it even while we complain about its negative effects.

We rush from goal to goal, without the benefit of peripheral vision, without evaluating whether the goals of our lives are worth what we sacrifice to attain them. Our worship, where sacrifices should be assessed and properly made, offers little or no help. Congregants find, not so much a place of solitude and silence, reflection, prayer and meditation in Christian worship, as a loud weekly pep rally between quarters of that boisterous sweaty contest we call contemporary life. Such worship sadly provides just another form of distraction to prevent us from being quiet so we might hear the still small scratching of God at the window of our souls. Our liturgical cheerleaders select texts and songs that provoke effort, that tell the rhino to run faster. How odd and unnecessary, and ultimately deadly.

Except, of course, it isn't odd, is it?

Christians are, after all, not distinguished by our wisdom, our strength or righteousness, but merely by knowing we are sinners forgiven by God. And sinners are subject to every disease of the soul, including Rhinoceritis.

Perhaps the most powerful line I've ever read in all of Merton's oeuvre appears in the essay on Rhinoceritis. Merton writes:

"Because we live in a womb of collective illusion, our freedom remains abortive. Our capacities for joy, peace, and truth are never liberated. They can never be used. We are prisoners of a process, a dialectic of false promises and real deceptions ending in futility." (Merton, Raids, p. 17).

So, in the memorable words of Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof: "As the Good Book says, Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed. In other words, send us the cure, we've got the sickness already."

But what is the cure?

In a variety of his writings, Merton describes a quality of life and spirit that represents the very opposite of Rhinoceritis, and he points the way toward a cure from the disease.

Merton's exquisite little introduction to selected sayings of the Desert Fathers, for instance, describes a "purity of heart" that is "a clear unobstructed vision of the true state of affairs, an intuitive grasp of one's inner reality as anchored, or rather lost, in God through Christ." This purity of heart requires slowing down, being alone, listening through the silence for the voice of God, being willing for God to speak to us about who we really are, and waiting for God's grace to comfort our broken hearts when we hear the truth. The fruit of this purity of heart is "rest," not merely "rest of the body," but rest that is a kind of "sanity and poise." Such "rest" has "lost all preoccupation with a false or limited 'self'." [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960), p. 8.]

In Merton's version of the writings of Chuang Tzu, he speaks of the wise person who has found rest in the eternal place; there he is hidden "in his own unfathomable secret." "His nature sinks to its root in the One. His vitality, his power hide in the Tao." Merton, himself, unwraps these cryptic poetic words from Chuang Tzu with moving eloquence: he explains that Chuang Tzu's whole teaching "is characteristic of a mentality ... a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push and the self-importance which one must display in order to get along in society." [Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New York: New Directions, 1965/1997), pp. 105-106 and 11.] The way of the Rhinoceros, in other words, is the polar opposite of the eternal Way.

But I think it is again in Rain and the Rhinoceros where we get a feeling for how we can cultivate in ourselves this rest and sanity, this poise and equanimity, the hiddenness that liberates us merely to be. It is awaiting us in a particular kind of solitude, it is there for us already in a particular form of silence. As Merton tells us in the opening of the essay, in his long, lyrical reflection on the rain, in a passage that, it seems to me, could have been written by Wendell Berry. Merton writes:

"I came up here [to his hermitage] from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows. ... Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen." (Merton, Raids, pp.9-10.)

What voices, within and without, drive those afflicted by Rhinoceritis to charge on and on? What messages speak, threaten, cajole, ridicule, excite and make anxious the poor creatures who run headlong in attack or flee in terror from every hint of threat? Armored and horned and harried, the creatures react. However fearsome, they know no rest.

It need not be so. But rhinos don't learn to slow down, it seems, until they stop altogether and are quiet.

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