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Thinking Out Loud

Merton and the Importance of Not Being Ernest

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 03, 2017

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!

stained glassEarnestness can be the enemy of honesty.

Merton learned this lesson early on, and, like most of us, he had to keep re-learning it throughout his life.

In January of 1948 we find Merton reflecting in his journal:

"I just read some of the notes I wrote in the journal a year ago, and I am wondering what I thought I was talking about. The first thing that impresses me is that practically all I wrote about myself and my trials was stupid because I was trying to express what I thought I ought to think, and not for any especially good reason, rather than what I actually did think. I couldn't very well know what I meant when I hardly meant it at all.

"What was painfully artificial in that diary was that I was trying so much to write it like every other pious diary that was ever written: 'I resolve this' - 'I pray that.' Well I am very slow to learn what is useless in my life! I keep thinking that I have to conform to a lot of artificial standards, to things external and fragmentary that tend to keep my interior life on the surface, where it is easily scattered and blown away."
(Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals. Edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1999, p. 48.)

As Merton demonstrates, earnestness can undercut our attempts to be honest, even with ourselves. Earnestness also can become the enemy of faith.

"Good Lord, deliver us from sour-faced saints," Saint Teresa of Avila is believed to have said. She, Merton and a whole host of other saints remind us that life is too serious to be taken too seriously.

And we are such comical beasts (really, we are), we can't afford to take ourselves seriously at all.

Trying to sound like someone more serious than I, certainly smarter and more profound than myself, nearly ruined me as a young preacher. I listened to Carlyle Marney's sermons on tape. I read them in print. I admired them, prayed over them, and tried to imitate them. Nobody, I should have known, could preach like Carlyle Marney, a man whose deep bass voice could make the rafters quiver, a man who could melt his listeners' stony hearts just reading the fine print of the Federal tax code. One Sunday evening, it is said that Marney held his Baptist congregation in Austin, Texas, spellbound reading T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he didn't have several conversions that night, at least two or three of them finance majors converting to English Lit.

When I - a second tenor of no great profundity - tried as a young preacher to "do Marney," the result was a disaster. My sermons grew tedious, even more tedious than usual. Long, much longer than ever before. Bigger and bigger words crept in and hid themselves in vast, sprawling, needlessly elaborate, labyrinthine sentences. (One sermon in that period was ponderously titled, "Dwelling in the Land of Nod." And, yes, it was a sleeper.) It all came to a head one Sunday morning when I preached a sermon titled, "Betting Losers and Folding Winners." An elder came up to me afterward in the fellowship hall and said, "You know, kid, sometimes winners don't know to stop when they're winning, that's when they lose us."

As painful as that moment was, it helped me realize that I had to find my own voice if I ever wanted to be the preacher I was called to be.

We have to find our own "voices" in life, too. Merton's experience as a writer in search of his true voice serves as a wonderful example for finding our way in faith.

When he shed his earnestness and stopped trying to sound like a pious monk ought to sound, God's light would shine through Merton's words in whole new ways. Merton's mischievous (and sometimes wicked) sense of humor is woven through his reflections making him more authentically human because he was more authentically himself. He chides himself for whining and self-pity. He warns himself against academic jargon and pious expressions. Even when he writes a line that sounds more like Hemingway than Hemingway did ("So I drank the wine and it was good and it gave me back my appetite."), this echo from contemporary literature only adds more layers of irony to a story that is all the more poignant for the rich veins of ironic humor Merton mines in it.*

We laugh with him, and wince perhaps, when Merton mentions that a visitor he has named "Humble George" is visiting the Abbey:

"Humble George is here again. He goes around praying with a medal in his mouth. The other day he was kneeling in church with a book, and he had a rosary around his neck and the cross of the rosary in his mouth. I think Humble George needs a little spiritual direction." (Merton, Intimate, p. 50.)

Listening to the sermon of another monk in Chapter, Merton guiltily confesses that he made "funny faces" when the preacher said that Abraham was born 1,959 years after the creation of the world.

"Nor can I figure out why he imagines that this event should be commemorated next year, 1949. But he says things like that; they come into his head and he says them." (Merton, Intimate, p. 52.)

One can only imagine the faces Merton might make now that Kentucky has a Creation Museum featuring displays of cowboys and dinosaurs and recently built its own "life-size" Ark. How amusing can an amusement park be taking its theme from an event in which God apparently slew everybody on earth but one fellow's family and a smattering of animals?

For me at least, there's something about Merton's lightheartedness that ushers me into and enlightens the passages that are more somber. Perhaps this is because there is sometimes something dark and deep even about his humor that reminds me how powerful his intelligence is in the service of God. Walker Percy's dark and darkly comic apocalyptic vision comes to mind when I read Merton's reflections on the possibilities of the fiery end of the universe.

"Sooner or later the world must burn and all things in it - all the books, the cloister together with the brothel, Fra Angelico together with the Lucky Strike ads, which I haven't seen for seven years because I don't remember seeing one in Louisville. Sooner or later it will all be consumed by fire and nobody will be left, for by that time the last man in the universe will have discovered the bomb capable of destroying the universe and will have been unable to resist the temptation to throw the thing and get it over with.

"And here I sit writing a diary.

"But Love laughs at the end of the world because Love is the door to eternity. He who loves is playing on the doorstep of eternity, and before anything can happen, Love will have drawn him over the sill and closed the door. He won't bother about the world burning because he will know nothing but Love."
(Merton, Intimate, p. 60.)

Like so many pastors and priests, I have said the words so often, perhaps, that I hardly hear them anymore: "Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in the sure and certain hope of resurrection of the dead in Christ Jesus."

We've probably all wept at one time or another hearing these words; maybe, sometimes, the faithful response is to laugh. Because, as Merton taught us, love laughs on the threshold of eternity.

*This is the story of his stay in the abbey infirmary in March of 1948. He had the flu. Yet, during his time in the infirmary, he was able to say, "It has been one of the most wonderful days I have ever known in my life." All references in this blog are drawn from The Intimate Merton, edited by Brother Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo. This book is one of the most beautifully edited and lovingly crafted I have ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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