Monday, June 28, 2010

Thomas Merton, and how the devil holds you back

The priest's story in my last post, about the unreasonable fears the devil uses to hold us back from religious life, reminds me of Thomas Merton's struggle as recounted in The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton lived quite a reprobate life until his radical conversion to Catholicism as an adult. Then he felt strongly called to religious life, but the Franciscans who initially accepted him ended up rescinding their acceptance when they learned the full story of his past. He was crushed by this but told himself he had to put the possibility out of his mind, and he feared to speak of his longing to anyone lest he be rejected again. He started teaching at a Franciscan college, and tried to be content just with living as much like the friars as possible. But the idea of religious life wouldn't go away, and eventually the possibility reopened, and he arrived at a crisis:

Finally, on the Thursday of that week, in the evening, I suddenly found myself filled with a vivid conviction:

"The time has come for me to go and be a Trappist."

Where had the thought come from? All I knew was that it was suddenly there. And it was something powerful, irresistible, clear.

I picked up a little book called The Cistercian Life, which I had bought at Gethsemani, and turned over the pages, as if they had something more to tell me. They seemed to me to be all written in words of flame and fire.

I went to supper, and came back and looked at the book again. My mind was literally full of this conviction. And yet, in the way, stood hesitation: that old business. But now there could be no delaying. I must finish with that, once and for all, and get an answer. I must talk to somebody who would settle it. It could be done in five minutes. And now was the time. Now.

Whom should I ask? Father Philotheus was probably in his room downstairs. I went downstairs, and out into the court. Yes, there was a light in Father Philotheus' room. All right. Go in and see what he has to say.

But instead of that, I bolted out into the darkness and made for the grove.

It was a Thursday night. The Alumni Hall was beginning to fill. They were going to have a movie. But I hardly noticed it: it did not occur to me that perhaps Father Philotheus might go to the movie with the rest. In the silence of the grove my feet were loud on the gravel. I walked and prayed. It was very, very dark by the shrine of the Little Flower. "For Heaven's sake, help me!" I said.

I started back towards the buildings. "All right. Now I am really going to go in there and ask him. Here's the situation, Father. What do you think? Should I go and be a Trappist?"

There was still a light in Father Philotheus' room. I walked bravely into the hall, but when I got within about six feet of his door it was almost as if someone had stopped me and held me where I was with physical hands. Something jammed in my will. I couldn't walk a step further, even though I wanted to. I made a kind of a push at the obstacle, which was perhaps a devil, and then turned around and ran out of the place once more.

And again I headed for the grove. The Alumni Hall was nearly full. My feet were loud on the gravel. I was in the silence of the grove, among the wet trees.

I don't think there was ever a moment in my life when my soul felt so urgent and so special an anguish. I had been praying all the time, so I cannot say that I began to pray when I arrived there where the shrine was: but things became more definite.

"Please help me. What am I going to do? I can't go on like this. You can see that! Look at the state I am in. What ought I to do? Show me the way." As if I needed more information or some kind of a sign!

But I said this time to the Little Flower: "You show me what to do." And I added, "If I get into the monastery, I will be your monk. Now show me what to do."

It was getting to be precariously near the wrong way to pray-- making indefinite promises that I did not quite understand and asking for some sort of a sign.

Suddenly, as soon as I had made that prayer, I became aware of the wood, the trees, the dark hills, the wet night wind, and then, clearer than any of these obvious realities, in my imagination, I started to hear the great bell of Gethsemani ringing in the night-- the bell in the big grey tower, ringing and ringing, as if it were just behind the first hill. The impression made me breathless, and I had to think twice to realize that it was only in the my imaginination that I was hearing the bell of the Trappist Abbey ringing in the dark. Yet, as I afterwards calculated, it was just about that time that the bell is rung every night for the Salve Regina, towards the end of Compline.

The bell seemed to be telling me where I belonged-- as if it were calling me home.

This fancy put such determination into me that I immediately started back for the monastery-- going the long way 'round, past the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes and the far end of the football field. And with every step I took my mind became more and more firmly made up that now I would have done with all these doubts and hesitations and questions and all the rest, and get this thing settled, and go to the Trappists where I belonged.

When I came into the courtyard, I saw that the light in Father Philotheus' room was out. In fact, practically all the lights were out. Everobdy had gone to the movies. My heart sank.

Yet there was one hope. I went right on through the door and into the corridor, and turned to the Friars' common room. I had never even gone near that door before. I had never dared. But now I went up and knocked on the glass panel and opened the door and looked inside.

There was nobody there except one Friar alone, Father Philotheus.

I asked if I could speak with him and we went to his room.

That was the end of all my anxiety, all my hesitation.

As soon as I proposed all my hesitations and questions to him, Father Philotheus said that he could see no reason why I shouldn't want to enter a monastery and become a priest.

It may seem irrational, but at that moment, it was as if scales fell off my own eyes, and looking back on all my worries and questions, I could see clearly how empty and futile they had been. Yes, it was obvious that I was called to the monastic life: and all my doubts about it had been mostly shadows. Where had they gained such a deceptive appearance of substance and reality? Accident and circumstance had all contributed to exaggerate and distort things in my mind. But now everything was straight again. And already I was full of peace and assurance-- the consciousness that everything was right, and that a straight road had opened out, clear and smooth, ahead of me.

Father Philotheus had only one question:

"Are you sure you want to be a Trappist?" he asked me.

"Father," I answered, "I want to give God everything."

I could see by the expression on his face that he was satisfied.

I went upstairs like somebody who had been called back from the dead. Never had I experienced the calm, untroubled peace and certainty that now filled my heart. There was only one more question: would the Trappists agree with Father Philotheus, and accept my application?


Answer: yes, they did. :)

The fact that he finally conquered through the intercession of St. Thérèse ("the Little Flower") resonates with me too. On those rare occasions when I find myself up against the same obstacle-- some strange and very powerful unwillingness in my own mind to do what I know is God's will-- I pull out the big guns: "All you angels and saints in Heaven, please pray for me!" Then I find strength in my soul I didn't have before, and I manage to do whatever it is I know I'm supposed to do, and it's such a straightforward simple thing that I don't understand how it seemed so confusing and difficult. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and they are not indifferent. They want to help us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Merton's autobiography was an unexpected joy. I didn't think I had anything in common with this man who was born in 1915 and lived a completely different kind of life, and indeed the first half of the book was alien to me. But when he started moving towards becoming a Catholic monk, it all became delightfully familiar. I don't know much about his later career; apparently he studied Eastern mysticism and some seem to think that he fell away from the orthodox faith, but I haven't looked into it-- I just know that Seven Storey Mountain is awesome.

5 comments:

Lee Gilbert said...

As you know from reading the Seven Story Mountain, Merton wanted to disappear into religious life and never be thought of again. However, religious life can be full of surprises. Out of obedience to his superiors he wrote...and became world famous.

Again, out of obedience to his superiors he pursued an interest in eastern monasticism and in fact was at a conference between western monks and Bhuddist monks in Bangkok when he died. This interest of his superiors was in response to a declaration of Vatican II, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, which wrote (after a long preamble), "The Church, therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions." The Cistercians, primarily through Merton, did that.

This legitimate interest is the source of the unfounded assertions that he left the faith or became heterodox.

There was one major glitch in his religious life that has set tongues wagging- never to cease. He was in a hospital in Louisville- for major surgery as I recall. He was sleeping. When he opened his eyes a nurse was looking at him. They fell in love there and then. He became known as the monk with a girlfriend, and realized at some point he was in trouble with his vow of chastity. As he said later, "I must have been crazy." Such is Eros. The difference between him and about 40,000 other priests that left the priesthood in the wake of VII is that he repented and resumed his vowed life. When he resumed rationality he was faithful, for he had been caught at a vulnerable moment. Anyone can fall in love- there is no commanding the heart. The moral question comes in with the choice to be faithful or unfaithful to ones vows. Under the context of circumstance and the times, he was a hero of chastity in my book.

When I was at Holy Cross Monastery in Berryville, VA for six weeks seeking to enter, I ran across mimeographed copies of his writings on the Viet Nam War that were circulating within the order. They should have been written on asbestos. There was some notation on the folders that these were strictly for circulation within the order. For obvious reasons his superiors would not permit publication, probably at the instance of bishops, because believe me, if those writings had seen print Catholics would have been fiercely against the war in 1966, and the Church would have been very much in the political spotlight. But we wanted above all to blend in, to be good Americans.

Here again, it is like our Lord's temptations in the desert, the temptation to power and influence. He could have struck a prophetic stance, left the order, published his anti-war writings and been both a hero and a wealthy man. He remained quietly in his monastery.

On the 10th of December 1968 in Bangkok he steped out of the shower and grabbed a large fan for balance. They found him some time later lying on the floor dead with the fan on top of him and burn marks on his chest.

When a friend of mine and I heard of the manner of his death we looked at one another with amazement and awe, as did everyone familiar with his writings, for we recalled immediately the passage where he expresses his wish "to know the Christ of the burnt men."

Thomas Merton, pray for us.

Athanasius contra mundum said...

Seven Storey Mountain was a great book. My favorite part was he was having a conversation with his friend about what he wanted in regards to his faith. He said, "I want to be a good Catholic." His friend told him he should "want to be a saint" and that God's grace would do the hard work. If I remember nothing else, I will remember that to the day I die. I have to want it and to submit to God's will, He will do the heavy lifting. After all, I cannot hope to do it on my own anyways.

Rachel Gray said...

Thanks Lee. Athanasius, that's good... I think St. Teresa of Avila said what you need to become a saint is "a determined determination" to become one. Actually wanting it is the first step. Another time I heard in a sermon that a man was praying for his family to make it into Heaven, and he was asked, "Is that all you want for them? Why not pray that they become saints in this life?" Talk about asking for big things!

Christine Pennacchio said...

Rachel, great post on Thomas Merton! Keep up the good work.

Lee, thank you for the info about his post-Seven-Story-Mountain life. I'd been curious about how he got involved in discourse with Eastern religions. Do you recommend any particular books of/about him during this time?

Rachel Gray said...

Thanks Christine!