OPENNESS EXEMPLIFIED: THOMAS MERTON
In 1939, two years before he would become a Trappist monk, and one year after he was received into the Catholic Church, Thomas Merton was alone in his apartment in Greenwich Village, “sitting cross-legged on the floor like Gandhi” (O’Connell, 2017, pp. 311-45). There he was reading and meditating on Scripture, a mode of openness through which “engaged readers are . . . enabled to discover otherwise inaccessible dimensions of their deepest selves.” Merton was involved in a “do-it-yourself retreat using the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius” (O’Connell, 2017, p. 312, 314). The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises invite a meditative journey into such horrid biblical scenes as the slaughter of the innocents, drawing readers to a “vivid imaginative engagement with the Scriptures, involving in this process the whole person, the so called three powers of the soul, memory, intellect and will” (O’Connell, 2017, p. 314). Merton would not stop with these exercises in meditation; he would press on in response, transposing the scenes he had observed through his imagination into poetry. The meditation on the slaughter of the innocents, based on Matthew 2:13–18, expands out to the escape from terror: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, being spared by their exile in Egypt. Now a conduit, Merton would transpose these scenes in a contemporary idiom evoking a deeper awareness of both place and time: urban tenements, Hitler’s slaughtering (O’Connell, 2017, p. 316). Merton opened himself. To the Exercises, which invite imaginative participation in the scene, to the scene itself by placing himself in the scene, and to the suffering world, constantly barraged by evil. All this led to the depth of poetic insight. The structure of Ignatian and other “spiritual exercises” are invitations to participate in the synergy between pattern and variability. It’s an invitation we enter, as it were, at our own risk.
There are many of his generation who were attuned deeply to modernity’s violent and turgid crescendo, but few were as articulate, and fewer still were as comprehensive in their scope of analysis and response as Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, writer, poet. I will name some of the conversations he moved forward, shaped, and continues to influence.
- The problem of white racism
- The promise and perils of Marxism
- poetry and literary criticism in general
- ecological consciousness/crisis
- ecclesial and monastic reform
- philosophy of technology
- inter-religious dialogue and pacificism
All of this was pursued in addition to, or grew directly as a result of, his seminal understanding of the ancient Christian contemplative tradition and its tremendous impact on language, literature, and meaning in Western consciousness. This appreciation of diverse Christian traditions of spirituality was in part due to his responsibility as the master (teacher) of novices at the Monastery, Gethsemane: where he lived for half of his life. One must possess and cultivate an intrepid openness in order to penetrate confidently and intelligently all of these topics. Let’s be clear, Merton was not just interested in these matters as some sort of hobby of intelligence; no, he understood them pastorally, in their significance as a sign of human plenitude, and he could articulate clearly and simply that significance. In some sense, Merton must have been able to see how they were all connected. And, working the angles of those connections; conveyed penetrating insight into each part, so that his audience/readers might draw closer to their own capacity for openness, attention, and awareness. This kind of openness, attention, and awareness can also lead us into risky territory. I once interviewed a priest on the anniversary of his ordination, which happened to be the anniversary of the start of Vatican II. I was asking about pastoral love and the capacity of a priest to become open to others in their ministry. He said, “I don’t think a man would be a good priest if he could not fall in love.” The implication is that being open and responding out of love to the needs and presence of others cannot be actualized without the beautiful human tendency to be opened up; opened for the kind of intimacy necessary to care in a mutual encounter authentically.
In 1966, Merton’s openness resulted in his falling in love with a nurse at the Louisville Hospital where he was having back surgery—her name was Margie. The romance was never consummated, but he was captivated with the relationship. It seemed mostly to be mutual delight in conversation. From 1960 on he was reading carefully the journals and writings of Kierkegaard, Jacques and Raissa Maritain (a French married couple who impacted Merton greatly), and Albert Camus, among others. Open to the authentic intellectual and spiritual struggles of those he admired, he made sense of his brief but powerful relationship with Margie, and his resolution to cut it off and remain a committed monk. By way of an open reading of others’ personal struggles, especially Camus’ notion of absurdity, he was able to work out the meaning of his monastic commitment. Specifically, listening carefully to the atheist Camus, but ultimately disagreeing with Camus’ vision, he broke off the romantic relationship. He was also open to American culture. He appreciated the literary movement known as the Beats, particularly Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, those who influenced the likes of the Grateful Dead. He was intrigued with Bob Dylan; he met with pacifist singer and songwriter Joan Baez and dedicated an essay on pacifism to her. At the same time, he was corresponding with young feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, met with a Sufi (Islamic) mystic, and a much younger Dalai Lama. Being genuine encounters, these persons impacted his writing and vocation in special ways. His deep knowledge and incisive writing comes out of relational knowing.
Our minds, saturated as they are with the cult of celebrity, need to interrupt that sometimes-superficial glance of the cause celebre and remember that Merton was a monk, who struggled piously (in the best sense of that word) with speaking out against the war (Merton, 1995) and he also struggled with his love for the young nurse. Obedience to the religious pattern was essential to his identity. He understood that in the complex of his soul, some of what he was struggling with was his ego, just as he understood his earlier struggles with wanting to become a Carthusian or becoming a hermit, a struggle with sin. In that way, he is just like us. But, his awareness and depth of understanding the manifold dimensions of a variety of topics is exemplary and seems particularly graced. Our appreciation of the structure of openness as being able to see the opening in structures certainly can be illuminated by considering the dynamic relation between patterns and variability in the life of a monk. Above I suggested that an open intelligence must not only know by rote, but also learn to appreciate through participation in the pattern before it. Indeed, as the infant learns to appreciate the pattern, they must live within it; only then can they creatively engage and open the pattern in novel ways. Here is the pattern of the monk’s life at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, in the decade of the 1940s; the place of Merton’s intrepid openness (Merton, 1995).
|2:00 a.m. Sung Prayer||11:30 a.m. Dinner|
|2:30 a.m. Meditation||12:15 p.m. Reading/prayer|
|3:00 a.m. Night Office: Scriptural/psalmody||1:30 p.m. Work|
|4:00 a.m. Private Masses/others receive,||3:30 p.m. Reading/private prayer|
|5:30 a.m. First Daylight Prayer/breakfast||4:30 p.m. Evening Prayer|
|6:30 a.m. Reading/study||5:15 p.m. Meditation|
|7:45 a.m. Mass (readings/homily/Eucharist)||5:30 p.m. A light refreshment|
|9:00 a.m. Work||6:10 p.m. Prayers|
|10:45 a.m. Reading/private prayer||7:00 p.m. All retire|
|11:07 a.m. Praying Psalms|
Can we imagine living so methodically and simply? Perhaps we see constraint and the fetters of terse time? But let’s take a closer look. Out of a seventeen-hour day, if we take meditation time and reading times together, a monk could spend four hours and forty-five minutes in thought, meditation, and reading a day. Solitude. And if, like Merton, one “entered the silence” with anticipation, imagination, a searching heart and mind, basically with deep intentionality, this pattern would begin to see many openings, not only in one’s own mind and heart, but in the dynamics of history, the variability in translations and hearings of Scripture, the constancy of a creative grasp of all one encountered. And of course, all these encounters might be infused, at certain times, with an awareness of the very Source of the mind, heart, Scripture, and history.
Praise for Encounters in Thought
“In Encounters in Thought: Beyond Instrumental Reason, Aaron K. Kerr interrogates the effects of contemporary technological culture on how humans think. Stating that we have settled into a pattern of ‘thinking more and more about less and less,’ Kerr asks us to rinse our mind with genuine practices of openness, wonder, receptivity, and contemplation. Kerr provides a rigorous philosophical meditation on the significance of water to human life and an example of contemplative inquiry praxis.”
—Annette M. Holba, Plymouth State University
“We live in a time that’s alluring with its promises and uncertain with its prospects. We find ourselves floating in its currents. Aaron Kerr gently pulls us to firm ground, letting us see where the firm ground is flourishing and that there is a tradition of people who disclose to us the splendor of the simple. At the same time, Kerr’s book is clearly structured and eminently teachable.”
—Albert Borgmann, author of Real American Ethics
“In this wise, wide-ranging book, drawing on models as disparate as Anselm of Canterbury and Malcolm X, Aaron Kerr encourages us to move beyond the passivity of digital distractions and the narrowness of pragmatic, often exploitative technologism to develop a ‘synergy of mind and heart,’ to recover essential qualities of openness, wonder, receptivity, and contemplation that lead both to authentic personal integration and to creative engagement with the critical problems of our time. The invitation to accompany him on these challenging, exhilarating explorations is an opportunity not to be missed!”
—Patrick F. O’Connell, editor, The Merton Seasonal
About the Author
Aaron K. Kerr is associate professor of philosophy at Gannon University and chair of the philosophy department. He teaches environmental ethics and has published in the areas of the philosophy of meaning in music, the sacred, the ethics of technology, and the contemplative life.