Maggie Ross on Scholarship and the Contemplative Life

I am honored, although also humbled, to have been mentioned in the blog of Anglican solitary Maggie Ross, author of a truly wonderful book on the spirituality of priesthood, Pillars of Flame. Ross is taking me to task for recommending Carmen Butcher’s translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. Although she is gracious in the tone of her criticism, her overall message is that anyone who seeks to learn from the great contemplatives of the past must be careful in his or her scholarship, or else the wisdom of the contemplatives could too easily be misconstrued. She says,

Carl McColman is very well-intentioned but there is a difference between feeling good and scholarship and/or the work of the spirit. Just because someone has a feel-good message does not mean either that they understand the work of silence or the classic texts that describe it. There is a lot of wishful thinking going on.

Ouch. Of course, she also has this to say about Thomas Merton: “we tend to forget that Merton was diagnosed by Dr Gregory Zilboorg as a narcissist and a megalomaniac, and that he was probably an alcoholic and certainly at times a sexual predator.” So I suppose if I’m merely guilty of peddling feel-good spirituality, I should be thankful!

Normally I would just dismiss this kind of criticism, but coming from someone I admire as much as Maggie Ross, I felt it deserved consideration — and a response. Here is what I’ve written to her; hopefully she will be kind enough to respond.

Dear Maggie Ross,

First of all, I’m honored even to be mentioned in your blog. I read Pillars of Flame years ago and was impressed by its eloquence, the force of its argument, and its spiritual depth. I still consult both appendices regularly.

Now, as to my unlikely appearance in your blog: I’m humbled by your words. As someone who freely admits I am not a scholar, and who because of family commitments probably will never be one, I find your perspective frankly rather discouraging. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that reading bad translations of historic contemplative texts is worse than not reading such works at all. Without the scholarly credentials (on my part or on the part of my spiritual director, who is a Trappist monk) to guide the way, I am left wondering if, in some way or another, all translations are “bad.” And even if I were to immerse myself in the study of Middle English to the point that I could profitably read the Cloud, Julian, and Hilton in the original, the same problem reasserts itself when I seek to read Ruusbroec, or Eckhart, or the Spanish Carmelites. Must I surrender my thirst for the wisdom of my ancestors on the altar of my own lack of academic training?

I understand your criticism of Merton, and, working as I do alongside Trappists many of whom knew him, none of what you say surprises me. Still, in a culture that worships the likes of Miley Cyrus and Sarah Palin, can we really afford simply to dismiss Merton for his flaws? And if so, then what hope is there for those of us who lack your erudition — or even access to competent guides with a similar level of scholarship?

And frankly, I could care less about Merton’s narcissism, but I am bothered by his modernist assumptions concerning experience. But how many other errors are there in Merton’s work? In mine? In yours?

I ask these questions not to challenge you, but to share with you my dilemma as someone keenly aware of my lack of knowledge, and at a loss as how to rectify that (or even if such correction is possible at this stage of my life). I hope and pray that my work conveys something more than just a “feel good” message, although your comments give me pause. As I writer, I have long been aware that my words always seem to be misunderstood, no matter how carefully I craft them. If, at the end of the day, writing an admittedly un-scholarly blog to encourage the exploration of silent prayer actually harms the contemplative life, then I would be the first to delete my blog. But here I must trust the grace of God to carry my readers beyond my many mistakes.

Carl McColman

Read the original post to which I am responding here, which in turn is a response to an interesting post about The Cloud of Unknowing.

Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • oakabbey

    Dear Carl,
    I am reminded of this quote, which speaks to my own experience: “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
    I believe the gift you offer to the world, aside from your obvious love and devotion to your family and friends, which in my opinion is far loftier spiritually than any literary contribution, is that you are helping to make the mystical path more accessible to those who may be intimidated, or even “turned off” by the likes of Maggie Ross. We are not all great scholars; most are not great scholars. Some are simply passionate lovers of the Holy, seeking only to love more. If what I know serves to fill my head more so than my heart, then it is a waste.
    I am not familiar enough with Maggie Ross as a person or a writer to pass any sort of judgment, but I have been reading your work in various forms for several years now. I have seen you squeeze at least a little goodness out of everything you’ve read. It’s easy to dismiss a work in whole. It requires much more spirit and grace to seek out a glimmer of goodness; be it in a book, or a religion, or a human being. But isn’t this precisely what God does with each of us? So, no…we cannot toss out Merton, or any other flawed contributor. Heavens, we would have none left! We would have no scripture for that matter. I have great respect for any writer/spiritual teacher who looks for the gift, even in a seemingly empty package, or one which is tattered or difficult to open.
    “You will know them by their fruits.” Your work is bearing good fruit Carl. I have friends who are reading your latest book who have never before read a work of mysticism. They are exploring because you have gently cleared the way. I am personally thankful that you are tending to the filling of hungry hearts, and the advancement of sacred moments.
    Deep Peace and Every Blessing,
    Cheryl Anne

  • fraterminor

    When I read Maggie Ross’ comments about Merton, I couldn’t help thinking of G. K. Chesterton’s statement that “a saint is someone who knows that he is a sinner.” From my reading of Merton, it seems that he would be the last person to say that he did not have “feet of clay” or to call himself a “saint.” Does her judgement of him mean that the Spirit of God cannot speak through him? I hardly think so. “Above all things, put on love….” All the scholarship and expertise in the world does not hold a candle to the
    totally self-giving love (agape) that is God (1 John). I was offended by her comments on Merton.
    A question, Carl: what is a good translation of “The Cloud of Unknowing”? Is the one with the Introduction by Johnston a reliable one, in your estimation? By the way, thanks for pointing out Laird’s “Into the Silent Way.” I’m reading it now … and growing.

  • Carl McColman

    I’m not sure that attacking Merton’s character is a particularly useful way to assess his contribution. That’s why I said that I could care less if he were a narcissist (or not). I do agree with Maggie Ross that his writing about experience may not always be useful, but that’s hardly the only criticism one could level at Merton.

    As for The Cloud: I like Butcher’s translation because I find it fresh and accessible. She tried to render the text in a contemporary voice, which of course means her version is more interpretive than literal. This is like paraphrase translations of the Bible: think The Living Bible or The Message. Those who are scandalized by such “creative” translations will probably also be unhappy with Butcher’s version of The Cloud. The monks in Conyers prefer the William Johnston translation. But really, you should pose your question to Maggie Ross: she’s the scholar, not me!

  • Ellen N. Duell

    I hope that all readers will approach your new book with the prayerful request that God will guide their thinking and their responses, and that they may learn what God knows they need to learn. You have done what the call was for you–you wrote the book. The rest is in God’s hands. I think your response to the Maggie Ross was gracious and truthful…I did not know of Merton’s “flaws”–to learn of them was startling to me–but I have read little about him. I pray that all of us may be forgiven 70 x 7, and may forgive even what we do not know, about others. There is still light shed on our paths by Thomas Merton and all. And “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”. It is not up to us to blame, only to love with awareness, unconditionally.

  • suzanne kurtz

    This comment is a bit off message, but I couldn’t help thinking of Brother Lawrence in with the pots and pans, not having many scholarly bones in his kitchen, yet how much he loved God, lived the gospel. As much as I always look at the credentials of the author of a book I pick up, I do believe that “scholarship” can become yet another golden calf. I’m reminded of a workshop with Cynthia Bourgeault, where she pointed out that many of the Eastern paths to awakening, meditation, are done for clarity of mind. The Christian forms of contemplative prayer and practices, Bourgeault said were done with the aim of purity of heart.
    Thus it seems to me, should we err ourselves, or not have in had the book with the most exacting scholarship, we might anyway be led on the way of purity of heart, which apparently is what leads to the “kingdom” of God, of Heaven.
    One more point, somethimes wordsmiths can begin to believe their own rhetoric, and get themselves in a tangle, leading away from the kingdom.
    All blessings on your great efforts and work. Also , I have been acquainted with Maggie, and she speaks very endearingly of you, Carl.

  • Carl McColman

    Everyone is being so kind, and I appreciate your thoughtful words. I really don’t want this conversation to take on a “Carl vs. Maggie” feel, though — as I’ve said, I really respect Maggie Ross, and I agree with her that careful scholarship is an important part of contemplative studies. And Suzanne, your words about her speaking “very endearingly” is quite a compliment, so thank you.

    About Merton: while I’m not entirely convinced that Zilboorg is the most unbiased witness to Merton’s psyche, his comments about Merton’s narcissism and megalomania are by no means obscure. Merton in all likelihood had an affair late in his life with a nurse half his age, which I assume is what Maggie Ross was alluding to in suggesting he may have been a predator. I don’t have any evidence about his being an alcoholic, but knowing what I know about religious life, let’s just say he would not be unique in that regard. Once again, though, I must emphasize that the man’s flawed character, in whatever form it may have taken, is simply yet another affirmation of the truth of Romans 3:23. We are wise to judge Merton’s words on their own merits rather than on the author’s flaws — as I believe we should do with anyone else’s writing, as well.

  • Berny Desroches

    Your response to Ms Ross was well written and extremely thoughtful. You are becoming one of my favorite spiritual writers. I have never pretended to be a scholar yet I still read books about mysticism and spirituality to improve my knowledge of these very important subjects. I hope that in my limited way I can understand what the authors had to convey to us. Merton was my spiritual guide in the 1960′s when I almost gave up religion as not having any meaning for the “modern man.” I know he had faults just like to rest of us. ” We are spiritual beings encased in a human body” is a bumper sticker quote that agree with completely. If we were perfect, what need would we have for spirituality and mysticism and any other form of contemplative action. We sin therefore we need God’s loving grace to bring us back from the precipice. Certain people were placed in this world to provide roadmaps for us to find our way back to God’s kingdom. Please keep up the good work. We all need you flawed and human characters who dare to put pen to paper to try to explain what life is really about.
    Berny Desroches

  • Leslie Hershberger

    One of the challenges in writing about matters of Spirit is holding the tension between careful scholarship and accessibility to a general audience. Bringing this conversation forward allows us to engage this tension. Thank you, Carl.

    Regarding Merton: While I’ve read many of his works, my favorites were his private journals as they revealed a man struggling with messy human foibles. We long to idealize our spiritual heroes and project all of our gifts upon them when in doing so, we resist and demonize the other side of the coin. We can’t know humility unless we experience hubris and pride, we can’t know non-attachment unless we experience avarice, can’t know equanimity without envy. We are two sides of the same coin and unless we can love this in self and other, we will push these traits to shadow and project them onto the world. Love scaffolds our goodness and our brokenness. The beauty of Merton is that out of his dance with messiness and struggle with authenticity, profound spiritual insights were born.

  • AM

    “and to imply that excessus mentis is something that can be “experienced” in the rather pathological narcissistic sense of the word that Merton is primarily responsible for, and which has spread through secular language as well as sacred, is absurd”

    This is what i wrote on Maggie Ross’s blog: “Just a bit shock over your take on Merton. Then i began thinking how in an early stage in his monastic life could he spend time immortalizing his personal life through his Seven Storey Mountain when even the Master have no self-referential writing at all except a wind-swept, never been deciphered one on the sand.”

    Lest this exchange of ideas could turn into a scholar/non-scholar scuffle, what i’m getting after reading Carl’s letter and Ross’s response is that even scholarship has to be subjected into the very truth and demand of what a spiritual life is, the price it costs: self-forgetfulness.

  • pelicann

    Thanks for writing, Carl; the response is posted on my website. I don’t want this to turn into a Maggie vs Carl situation either; as I say in my post, I know you serve a lot of people and that what you are doing is extremely valuable. But the narcissistic spin on “experience” that did not originate with Merton but certainly achieved wider commerce through him has corrupted the way we read the texts and ultimately how readers at every level understand the spiritual life. As I say at the end of the post, it’s not necessary to be a scholar, but ruthless honesty is necessary, and a hefty dose of common sense! In May of next year I’m publishing a book “Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding”, which expands at a popular level the concerns I have sketched out recently in my blog if your readers are interested in pursuing this matter. At the moment the book is only being published in the UK but will be available through Amazon UK. Blessings. Maggie

  • pelicann

    Carl, if you want to post my response on your blog (it’s too long for a comment) you are free to do so. Blessings. Maggie

    • Carl McColman

      Thanks, Maggie. I was thinking about posting excerpts, but with your permission I’ll post it in its entirety.

  • Christine (Blisschick) Reed

    Carl, Wow.

    I have already read her response, which I actually got a lot out of and tended to agree with much of.

    But her Merton criticisms leave me cold. Labeling people with psychological illnesses goes against everything I believe about human beings — primarily that each of us is a unique creation of God’s and that each is perfect in their imperfections for that reason. God intended those messages to come through this particular vessel.

    Mother Theresa could be a closed minded tyrant, but that does not, in any way, diminish the importance of the work she did.

    If I am only to uphold Perfect Gurus as my models for living, then we are all truly left to live in lonely, isolated despair.

    As to her criticisms of your work…We live in a time when most Catholics going to mass do not understand the first thing about transubstantiation, for only one example. We live in a time when most people do not think about God or their own spirits unless there is a crisis. We live in a time when people like Sam Harris are best selling authors.

    It is dark out here and any amount of Light is welcomed. Any thought provoking work is welcome. Any THINKING is welcome.

    So keep doing what you do…we ALL need it.