solitude with thomas merton

Thomas-Merton2In Christian tradition, classic texts are those which occupy a privileged place in the community’s memory, response to and reception of the Gospel. They are committed texts with a specific ‘take’ on revelation and invite the reader to engage with this same commitment in the context of their own personal understanding and experience of faith. Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation is such a text and I’ve been revisiting it over these past few days here in Japan. It was among the first Christian texts that I ever read and remains a touchstone in the tradition.

For those new to his work and person, Merton was one of the great spiritual masters of the twentieth century, an American who came to Catholic faith in his twenties. Not long after, Merton entered a Cistercian monastery, Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, and then, almost by accident, penned a best-selling autobiography Seven Storey Mountain which brought him into a limelight he could not have anticipated and did not seek out (Merton would reflect, “The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real”).

Merton would go on to assume the role of novice master for his Order, publish widely on prayer, contemplation, monasticism and social issues, and became a prolific correspondent with intellectual and spiritual luminaries within the Church and beyond it. He died in Bangkok on the 10th December, 1968, at the age of 53, electrocuted by a faulty fan while attending a monastic conference. His body was flown home with those of dead U.S. servicemen.

Published in 1962, New Seeds of Contemplation is the coalescence of Merton’s ever-maturing reflection on the contemplative experience of God as the realisation and ground of identity. Commenting on previous drafts of the work, Merton would remark,

When the book was first written, the author had no experience in confronting the needs and problems of other men (sic). The book was written in a kind of isolation… the author’s solitude has been modified by contact with other solitudes; with the loneliness, the simplicity, the perplexity of novices and scholastics of his monastic community; with the loneliness of people outside any monastery; with the loneliness of people outside the Church. (New Seeds, ix-x)

New-Seeds-of-Contemplation-9780811217248In New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton gives voice to themes that he elaborated and refined throughout his life’s work, particularly the identity of the ‘true self’ hidden in God and the profundity and need of solitude.

According to Merton’s spiritual itinerary, the discovery of authenticity in Christ begins not with an awareness of what lies at the end of the road but with a recognition of the obstacles that block its very beginnings. He describes the fundamental obstacle to maturity as the dominance of the ‘false self’, also described in New Seeds as the “the smoke self”, “the empirical ego” or the “routine self” which takes itself seriously but does not even exist (New Seeds, 38, 281, 16).

This illusory self is the product of our own pride and self-determination, for unlike animals and trees which give glory to God in being themselves, we are at liberty to be real or to be unreal, “We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face” (New Seeds, 32). Layered with selfish desire and defensive mechanisms, we can be imprisoned within fictions of our own making:

I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. (New Seeds, 34-35).

This propensity to construct and find assurance in superficialities includes the caricature of the ‘good Catholic’ and a heroic sense of spiritual achievement. In this critique, Merton was ever conscious of the ability of the false self to appropriate even religion or ‘spirituality’ as a secret means of control and separateness.

mertonMoving to the discovery of the true self, Merton identifies solitude as the pathway to true identity. As theologian David Ranson underlines, Merton would maintain that within each one of us is a solitary dimension, a dimension not to be afraid of or done away with but entered into for this is the monastic ‘cell’ in which God is most deeply encountered. There is a need for this solitude in our lives, not as a rejection of others or the world, but as a school in which we learn to be ourselves before God. Only then can we embrace and relate to others clear of the selfishness, need for possession and validation which characterises our insecure times. It is solitude that is the doorway to the contemplative experience in which God discovers Himself alone in us, not crowded out by idols on which our hearts have become set.

What is more, the experience of authentic solitude is for Merton fundamentally Trinitarian, for God “infinitely transcends every shadow of selfishness… He is at once infinite solitude (one nature) and perfect society (Three Persons). One Infinite Love in three subsistent relations” (New Seeds, 68). By this Trinitarian focus, Merton implies that the true solitary is not an individual, imprisoned in a dream of separateness, but a person deeply related to others.

Contemplative solitude, then, is not our own, and leads the pilgrim beyond all limitation and division: “He has advanced beyond all horizons. There are no directions in which he can travel. This is a country whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” (New Seeds, 81). Even the monk or hermit does not enter into solitude for his own purposes but in relationship to and for the good of others, for the Church and the world in which he remains embedded, inseparable and even necessary.

In the depths of solitude, often experienced in prayer, the movement toward authenticity comes by way of a self-emptying or kenosis: “a man cannot enter into the deepest centre of himself and pass through that centre into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love” (New Seeds, 64). This selflessness, however, is only possible to the extent to which we are enjoined to Christ as it is he who first gave himself for humanity and makes that kind of self-giving love possible, “I become a ‘new man’ and this new man, spiritually and mystically one identity, is at once Christ and myself… This spiritual union of my being with Christ in one ‘new man’ is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Christ” (New Seeds, 158).

candleMerton concludes that as long as there is an “I” aware of itself and its contemplation, an “I” that can possess a certain “degree of spirituality” then we have not yet passed into the fullness of contemplation, the fullness of Christian life itself (New Seeds, 292). Ultimately, the mature Christian has no psychological individuality or even self-conscious biography; all the shadows of self-assertion end at an interior death which, paradoxically, and in the light of the paschal mystery, emerges as the very beginning of a real, authentic life.

We can see that there is little sentimentalism in Merton’s writing and much challenge. In texts such as New Seeds of Contemplation we hear a robust call to purify our desires and to meet head on the ‘spiritual deaths’ that lower the ego and allow the emergence of the true self to take place. In this respect, the Christian life unfolds as ‘revolutionary’ though not in the sense of accelerated progress or an aggressive, suprahuman evolution. As Merton affirms,

… the burden of Christ’s Cross, that is Christ’s humility and poverty and obedience and renunciation… this is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached; in fact it is the only true revolution, because all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the [person] who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self. (New Seeds, 144).

Merton reminds the Christian that the gift of faith is not an escape or an evasion but a project of deepening integration in our identity in Christ, one which carries with it a greater responsibility for the world and not less.

shibuyaOur life in Christ is not any more abstract or comfortable than life as we now know it, nor is it found in the sublime stories, private or collective, we tell about ourselves. The inheritance we receive from the writings of Merton is the decisive possibility of freedom and authenticity in faith, being who we have been made to be. It is an existential summons to unlock ourselves from the inside, from the imprisonment of our own private illusions and the masks that operate, as it were, ‘behind the Gospel’s back’. The path back to ourselves begins with an interior solitude that can be found even among the exterior noise and din that fills the world. Writing from Tokyo, a city of fourteen million, among the machines, lights, and appeals of the salesman, this pilgrimage seems more important than ever.

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social media in the Church

social-mediaIn the light of two conferences of significance for the Australian Church this week – the inaugural Catholic New Media Conference and that of the Australasian Catholic Press Association – I thought I would offer a few remarks about the role of social media within the Church’s mission.

Many Catholics, including older generations, would readily agree that the Church’s embrace of social media is important, even necessary. Consulting 2,000 Catholics last year, there was a palpable enthusiasm and agreement that the Church as a whole commit itself to this technology. However, I suspect there is not always a great degree of clarity on why this is so other than reference to motives that are ambiguous to say the least (e.g. ‘relevance’).

It is important to articulate the reasons for social media as a normal part of the Church’s mission because diocesan bishops, parish priests, parish councils, heads of religious institutes, boards of management and other forms of Church leadership need to be convinced of its value if they are going to make an investment in that direction (our own Diocese of Parramatta has employed a Social Media Coordinator, @socialmediaparra, and I am aware that other dioceses are on the way to doing the same or similar).

And it is an investment. Consider your typical dioceses with its various church agencies – adult education centres, liturgical office, youth ministries and the like. While a Facebook page or a Twitter account is not difficult to establish with appropriate disclaimers, considerable thought needs to be given to message, audience and integration of that media within the ordinary work of that agency and the diocese or parish as a whole. This often requires the training of staff in the effective use of this media and time dedicated to the maintenance and driving of its message in public space. Unfortunately in the province of the profane, ‘time is money’ and so churches and agencies need to budget for that time and work if it is to be an ongoing concern. Helpfully, budgeting for the use of such media sends a signal to stewards of church finance that ‘this things matters’.

As well, my learning from a past life as a media buyer for Mitchell & Partners is that content is expensive to generate and it is important for the Church to recognise time and resources are needed to deliver this proclamation and foster dialogue in the digital realm.

542379_lowWhile the ‘content’ of Catholic media is perennial and freely given – the revelation of Jesus Christ made known by Scripture and Tradition and declared by Church teaching, liturgy, and the Church Fathers – it is not sufficient for Church media to tweet from Proverbs or even the Gospel alone. Social media in the Church, indeed communications more generally, consists not only in the confession of faith – that basic affirmation of St Peter at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29) – it also calls for testimony that communicates the witness of Christian lives.

The reason to consider the role of social media in the Church in the context of testimony is this. Most of people’s beliefs about the world depend on the testimony of others. For instance, I have never been to South America but trust that it exists on the basis of the testimony of others who have. In fact, most of our beliefs of the world are formed on the basis of testimony because our experience of the world is inevitably limited. However, it is testimony that may draw us to travel to Rio de Janeiro if we believe in the credibility of the pilgrim that has returned from that destination.

pewsThe testimony of discipleship is what social media offers the Church’s mission. As Sherry Weddell recognises in her fine work Forming Intentional Disciples, it is not merely a curiosity but truly frightening to acknowledge that Catholics have come to regard it as normal (even deeply Catholic!) not to talk about discipleship. Indeed, for too long the cultural pressure within our parishes and communities works against the overt expression of discipleship, including an account of a personal relationship with Jesus, which can be viewed, absurdly, as Protestant rather than the foundation stone of Catholic identity (see pages 56-70). For existing and new generations of Catholic believers, social media is one vehicle that provides for Christian testimony with credibility, an opportunity to give witness to a journey travelled.

While we have come some way in past decades – moved past the prayer card, sent by email and complete with kittens, butterflies and trivial uplifting thoughts – there is some way to go to embed social media within the ordinary life of the Church’s mission and outreach. The very fact of separate conferences in Melbourne this week – one for new media and one for press – speaks to the integration that still awaits to take place in the Church’s communications effort and its self-understanding and organisation as bearer of the Word.

Of course, there is a risk that individuals and organisations, in their embrace of new media, develop an obsession with novelty which distracts rather than deepens. In a populist and throwaway culture, and given the Church’s insecurity amid current challenges and a devastating loss of public credibility, we can risk becoming eccentric faddists who are in love with anything just because it is new.

gospel of markHowever, it is the work of those leaders in social media who are emerging in the Church to school themselves not only in algorithms of rank and filter but the theology of revelation, missiology, and ecclesiology that will underpin, extend and even challenge their work. Documents such as Dei Verbum (1965), Inter Mirifica (1963), Redemptoris Missio (1990), and Pope Benedict XVI’s messages for World Communications Day in 2010, 2011 and 2013 are good starting points in this direction, underscoring that the authentic development of humanity and human culture is not a technological achievement but one that stands in relation to what has been revealed, the one who, in revealing God, has revealed us to ourselves.