Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A song for nobody: remembering Fr. M. Louis

As I have written before, it is difficult for me write about those who have influenced me hugely, be it my dear Wittgenstein, Camus, von Balthasar, or, in this case, Pater Tom- Thomas Merton, known also as Fr. M. Louis, O.C.S.O. Today marks the fortieth anniversary of his death by accidental electrocution while attending a monastic conference in Thailand. Suffice it to say that his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, which, like the Confessions of St. Augustine, will remain a spiritual classic, was hugely influential for me, as it has been and continues to be for many. I read it after completing Cardinal Newman's spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. The combined influence (confluence/comfluence?) of these books, along with regular Mass attendance and a wonderfully welcoming community, are the reasons I finally decided to become Catholic almost twenty years ago.

The book by Merton that I cherish, that I read and re-read, is Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. So, in memory of this spiritual master, who is something of a father and brother to untold thousands, here is an excerpt, an extract that seems to show he had read some Heidegger, especially H's The Question Concerning Technology:
"The central problem of the modern world is the complete emancipation and autonomy of the technological mind at a time when unlimited possibilities lie open to it and all the resources seem to be at hand. Indeed, the mere fact of questioning this emancipation, this autonomy, is the number-one blasphemy, the unforgivable sin in the eyes of modern man, whose faith begins with this: science can do everything, science must be permitted to do everything it likes, science is infallible and impeccable, all that is done by science is right. No matter how monstrous, no matter how criminal an act may be, if is justified by science it is unassailable

"The consequence of this is that technology and science are now responsible to no power and submit to no control other than their own. Needless to say, the demands of ethics no longer have any meaning if they come into conflict with these autonomous powers" (pg 75 Image paperback edition)
While it may seem odd, especially in light the Heideggerian connection, this is a somewhat Ratzingerian point-of-view on science and technology.

Let's not take the easy way out and smugly content ourselves with applying these words externally. Let's look inward, which is what this season is about. I'd like to apply Merton's insight to the realm of our sexuality, namely the contraceptive mindset. As Pope Paul VI tried to teach us in Humanae Vitae, promulgated forty years ago, the contraceptive mindset is nothing less than the de-humanizing intrusion of the technological mind into the most intimate sphere of human relations. This intrusion promises to free us by liberating us sexually. The application of technology to human sexuality, in which sexual gratification is completely severed from procreation, is what makes the production of pornography possible. This false and ideological promise of freedom has resulted in a disastrous reduction of the human person, a reduction we see in the whole Proposition 8 protest, that our sexuality is our identity, that it is the sum total of who and what we are. I am not merely a libido despite the fact that my sexuality is a very transcendental aspect of my humanity.

We are fairly certain that Merton struggled and failed in his vow of celibacy. It is pretty clear that he had an affair with the mysterious M, who apparently was a nurse he met while he was in hospital in Louisville. All indications lead to the conclusion that his relationship with her, which eventually ended, was sexual. While this is serious and seriously wrong, I think it is one reason why many find Merton easy to relate to; he has flaws, like us- big flaws, like us. The lionization of those we deem holy is no doubt what drove Dorothy Day to quip, when told she would be made a saint someday, "I hope they don't dismiss me that easily".

Anything that tries to liberate us from what it is to be human must be rejected, even when it seems attractive, maybe especially when it seems attractive. After all, as Shakespeare observed in The Merchant of Venice, "all that glisters is not gold". This false and ideological kind of liberation tries to bring about utopia, a place found "at the end of another lost highway/signs misleading to nowhere". Of course, utopia means, literally, nowhere. We have a destiny, that is, a destination and it is not nirvana, where the self is annihilated, but the fulfillment of who God, in a pure act of gratuitous love, created us to be. Becoming who we are lovingly made to be is the central theme in the spirituality of Pater Tom. This journey, or pilgrimmage, to ourselves is also captured well in C.S. Lewis' 'Til We Have Faces. Don Giussani's whole pedagogy is about helping us learn, aiding us in knowing, what it truly means to be human, thus teaching us who we are; that one person is no person, that we are companions on a pilgrimmage.

It is too easy to rail against the bulldozers and coal-fired power plants, but we still buy tract homes, drive on roads that destroy wetlands, and use electricity. There are areas where we can make choices that matter, let's focus on those, without giving in on the bigger issues. The take away is that we, too, like Pater Tom, at least to some extent, are guilty bystanders. It is part and parcel of our fallen existence that God seeks to redeem and sanctify. Conversion is a hard word and change is painful. The question, therefore, becomes: What is your confession? This Advent, may our confession also be our hope: Jesus is Christ and Lord!

Another book about Merton that I read and cherish is Song for Nobody: A Memory Vision of Thomas Merton, by his friend, the poet Ron Seitz, whose poetry I also like a great deal.

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