Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Existential Christian

I began this blog by referring to Thomas Merton, who plays a prominent role in the six articles I have published in the past two years, just as he continues to influence my spiritual life.

In reading a recent passage (from The Wisdom of the Desert), I was struck again by his approach, which I call existential. That is, he approaches matters of belief and the inner life through his own experience, in many cases by having encountered what he has read and reflected on it, producing memorable passages like this:

He is referring to his reading of the early desert fathers: "What good will it do us to know merely that such things were once said? The important thing is that they were lived. That they flow from an experience of the deeper levels of life. That they represent a discovery of man, at the term of an inner and spiritual journey that is far more crucial and infinitely more important than any journey to the moon." [He was writing just after JFK's call to land on the moon.]

"What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous."

The idea that we are often strangers to our true selves is a major theme in Merton's extensive writing. As James Finley shows in detail in Merton's Palace of Nowhere, the true self is our essential core or center, the unchanging self known by God, in contrast to the false social masks we tend to wear. Ultimately, the search for the true self is also a search for the presence of God within us.

As Merton wrote elsewhere, "We could not seek God unless He were seeking us....But the mere fact that we seek Him proves that we have already found Him."

This koan-like paradox reflects, I think, the Gospel: "Seek and you shall find..." The one who seeks has already in a sense found what he needs. The asking is itself a discovery. "Knock and it shall be opened to you."

In Merton I find not only an intellectual who read widely but one who also felt deeply and had the gift--almost the obsession--to write as a way of clarifying his ever-growing awareness of the mystery of God and prayer.

All the writing he did may seem narcissistic to some, but I hope my comments have shown that his appeal as a spiritual master is as an existential writer, whose own experience is the ground of his belief and thus a source of continuing inspiration.

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