Friday, February 19, 2016

A Misfittian Inspiration from Thomas Merton

The Seven Story Mountain was an excellent book to read before Lent.  We were inspired by Merton’s detachment and aestheticism as we enter this holy season on Ash Wednesday.  However, the book was not without its practical challenges.  Several Misfits confessed to not being able to finish the whole book (the paperback edition is 462 pages), but vowed to do so when it became apparent that most of the meat is served at the end – especially the last 100 thought-provoking pages.  We agreed that it is an excellent source for those searching for God.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Merton’s early life –childhood, travels with his father, education, independence, lapse into sin, and call to conversion.  This narrative could have been judged to be somewhat mundane were it not for Merton’s ability to season it with detailed recollections of key people, places, and events that were the seeds of his eventual conversion as well as his philosophic and theological wisdom sprinkled throughout.  Writing was his true calling.

The tone changed in the second half of the book.  There was less action and more focus on Merton’s thoughts.  He had a close circle of friends during his journey, but he was most influenced by reading poets, philosophers, and theologians.  He had an immense intellect to comprehend dense material, but it was his will that enabled him to apply what he read to his life, which ultimately led to repentance, conversion, and a religious vocation.

There was one passage in particular that reminded me of The Misfits because I think it captures the essence of why we do what we do. The following was paraphrased from Part 2, Chapter 1, Section II (paperback edition page 197).

That course on Shakespeare was the best course I ever had at college.  It was the only place where I ever heard anything really sensible said about any of the things that were really fundamental – life, death, time, love, sorrow, fear, wisdom, suffering, eternity.  The material of literature and especially of drama is chiefly human acts – that is, free acts, moral acts.  Literature, drama, and poetry make certain statements about these acts that can be made in no other way.  You miss the deepest meaning if you reduce the vital and creative statements about life and men to the dry, matter-of-fact terms of history, or ethics, or some other science.  They belong to a different order.  All that year we were, in fact, talking about the deepest springs of human desire and hope and fear.

The final line of the book is an apt summary of Merton’s entire life as an author and seeker.  I also submit that it would make a fine motto for The Misfits.  And it is already translated into Latin for us! 
(This is the end of the book, Not the end of the searching)

The Sign of Jonas was suggested to those who want more Merton.  It covers his life in the monastery.  The final chapter, The Fire Walk, was especially recommended and can be read as a stand-alone piece.  A copy of this book is available from the St. Thomas More Library at the Church of St. Michael.  It is also possible to view a short video of Fr. Louis (Thomas) Merton speaking on YouTube.

Consideration of Merton’s later writings posed questions for us about whether or not he lost his way.  However, instead of focusing on his personal life and celebrity or the subject matter in his later books we gave discussion to the times in which those works were done, namely the early years of Vatican II implementation.  We expressed regret for the Catholic institutions and devotions that were lost almost overnight.  If anyone can recommend a good source or essay explaining the reasons for the rapid decline of religious communities in the United States following Vatican II, The Misfits would like to hear of it.

MARCH  We will read Letters of Flannery O’Connor:  The Habit of Being.  It was suggested that Buzz might highlight selected letters to be discussed at the next meeting.

APRIL  We will re-read The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way.  I believe this is the first time that The Misfits will discuss a book twice, but The Way of the Pilgrim is well worth a second look.  Here is the preview that was posted in March 2009.

We will be reading a very unusual and profoundly spiritual book, The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way.  This is widely regarded as one of the most deeply spiritual and enduring classics to come out of Russia.  It is the tale of a nineteenth-century peasant's quest for the secret of prayer.  It tells the story of an anonymous pilgrim as he travels over the steppes of Russia seeking the answer to this question:  How does one pray constantly?  "Ultimately, he discovers the different meanings and methods of prayer as he travels to his ultimate destination, Jerusalem."  I hope you will be as intrigued by this book as I am.  It is available from Amazon for $9.95 in the edition translated by Helen Bacovcin with a forward by Walter J. Ciszek, S.J.  (Father Ciszek is now deceased and is being considered for canonization by the Church.)  [Update:  The Amazon price for a new copy is up to $12.20.]
Yours in Christ,

Misfit Steve

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