"There is a time to listen, in the active life as everywhere else, and the better part of action is waiting, not knowing what is next, and not having a glib answer."
"At moments one gets a flash of Zen in the midst of the Church! There should, in reality, be much more. But we frustrate it by reasoning too much about everything."
Thomas Merton was a 20th-century Catholic who wrote profusely about social justice, Christian spirituality, and particularly the contemplative life. He died in 1968, having lived the last 26 years of his life as a Trappist Monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
Whatever your opinion may be of Merton's Catholicism, it must be admitted that his work constitutes a profound analysis of the human condition. His ecumenical humility leaves him open to the charge of universalism, but at the same time reminds the attentive soul of the danger in preferring Christianity over Truth. Whatever Christianity is, it's certainly much more than loyalty to dogma.
I am presently reading Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, a loosely organized collection of his thoughts during the early 1960's. The book is arranged in the form of a journal, without any topical structure. Comments on nature, solitude, theology, spiritual literature, and living in a fallen world tumble over one another with all the exuberant ecstasy and inexorable serenity of a waterfall, inspiring and challenging us to step into the current and be washed away - to allow God to unscramble the mess we've made of life. Purity involves purging, and purging involves pain. The Gospel is the greatest dare-double-dare ever.
Writers such as Merton, Mariani, Berry, and Abbey - men who differ enormously in terms of their spiritual outlook - seem to share a common romantic impulse to observe and describe nature fresh, raw, unadorned, uninterpreted; purely for the sake of herself. To put it another way, they understand the joy and beauty in freeing experience from the shackles of explanation. If we are constantly fretting about having something meaningful to say, we will end up squeezing blood from stones and talking nonsense and drivel. Sometimes it is enough to just watch the clouds and absorb the cleansing and concrete abstractness of reality. If we can break the habit of trying to make a metaphor out of every molehill, we may begin to discover meaning in unlikely places.
Merton's work sparkles with this simple beauty, and is packed with the irresistible candor of a human being. Personality is inimitable, and therefore all the more invigorating when you encounter it in its more developed state, as in the case of a man who has voluntarily chosen to lose his life and ends up finding it.
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