Merton on social change

From Thomas Merton’s autobiographical Seven Storey Mountain:

So now [about to enter Columbia as an undergraduate, after two failed years at Cambridge], when the time came for me to take spiritual stock of myself, it was natural that I should do so by projecting my whole spiritual condition into the sphere of economic history and the class-struggle.  In other words, the conclusion I came to was that it was not so much I myself that was to blame for my unhappiness, but the society in which I lived.

I considered the person that I now was, the person that I had been at Cambridge, and that I had made of myself, and I saw clearly enough that I was the product of my times, my society, and my class.  I was something that had been spawned by the selfishness and irresponsibility of the materialistic century in which I lived.  However, what I did not see was that my own age and class only had an accidental part to play in this.  They gave my egoism and pride and my other sins a peculaiar chatacter of weak and supercilious flippancy proper to this particular century: but that was only on the surface.  Underneath, it was the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called ‘the world,’ in every age, in every class. [From part one, chapter four, “Children of the Marketplace,” p. 147 of the Harvest Books edition, 1999]

 

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  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    One the curious things about Merton’s trajectory is that after this early thoroughgoing critique of societal genesis of religious depth, he was later rather taken in by the very fashionable Zen tropes of the sixties in the United States. And even his fans, of which I am one, see that those books on Zen are not his best books, and not even particularly good guides to the Zen point of view. And that his revision of Seeds of Contemplation, done under this enthusiasm, was not even a very good revision. I had the early one, bound in burlap.

    • WJ

      Ah yes, poor Tom Merton. I never did understand why he was so taken by the Zen fads, since the Seven Story Mountain seems already so “beyond” all that stuff. I wonder if it had something to do with his special status at his monastery, and the pressure he felt under to produce more and more writing. I am a fan of his, but am at times a bit embarrassed; it is said that when Walker Percy visited him (or vice versa) later in life, “they had nothing to talk about,” so Zen had Merton gone. I don’t think Percy had much patience for that sort of thing.
      Odd, though, that both Merton’s and Percy’s first major works were arguably their best.

      • http://frank.muennemann.com Frank M.

        If you think The Seven Story Mountain is beyond Zen, you probably need a better spiritual director (or Zen teacher). If you think Zen is beyond The Seven Story Mountain, you probably need a better Zen teacher (or spiritual director).

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        WJ,

        That is a very interesting anecdote from Percy, quite telling. Merton’s Zen books, but especially the Zen and the Birds of Appetite, seem in retrospect about his way of dealing with the theological conundrums inherent in Catholic theology for a long time, as well as the existential ones. this lead to a somewhat fanciful notion of Zen on his part. And I can’t help but feel that when he finally made it to Asia to encounter the reality of Buddhism there, it was more than he could take. Many later attracted to Zen from Catholicism had more little encounters with historical reality to confront. I initially got interested in the Kyoto School of Zen because the books were being sold at the Catholic University bookstore, right around the corner from Colonel Brooks Tavern, the favorite watering-hole of CUA kids in those days. I bought my copy of Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness there. Later I found that the CUA library, which was ironically a disaster when it came to doing cutting edge theological research, did have a complete collection of the (then) very rare books of Kitaro Nishida, founder of the Kyoto school of Zen. Ponder that contradiction for cultural complexity!

        I later became friendly with Masao Abe, a famous disciple of Nishitani’s, and he opened my eyes to the true contours of Zen culture. Of course one of the strange things in the West is that Zen was always part of a liberal mindset. It has only become truly clear in the last couple of decades just how embedded Zen always was in extreme right-wing culture in Japan. The revelations of several researches in the 90’s bringing to light the truly terrible ultra-nationalistic rants of Nishitani in the olden days was quite the revelation indeed. (I never discussed this sort of thing with Masao Abe, but he certainly could not have seemed more distant from it.)

        The oddest thing culturally about the whole Zen infatuation in the West is the way that it was cobbled together with a great cultural blandness as well. This is a part of it that never ever attracted me, as I was always convinced of the utter greatness of Western art and music. Trance music hardly seemed the road to any sort of Enlightenment, in the Western or Eastern meaning. Further, while Zen was often aligned in Japan with a sort of philosophical energy, in the West it was a bit blah. And eventually washed-out. Even the National Gallery of Art has gotten rid of its Zen rock garden, from their I.M Pei building. Lastly, the contiguity of Nishitani with his erstwhile teacher Heidegger posed the same sort of problems for Zen as it did — coming full circle here! — for all the Catholic theologians influenced by the author of Being and Time. Heidegger’s Nazi associations make the Kyoto School and the vast Rahnerian expanse of Catholic theology seem in need of some sort of interpretative matrix to say the least. You would think that the very least one would draw from it is the the lesson of the danger of reactionary politics. But if contemporary Catholic trends are any measure people prefer repeating the past, with Zen or not.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    One the curious things about Merton’s trajectory is that after this early thoroughgoing critique of societal genesis of religious depth, he was later rather taken in by the very fashionable Zen tropes of the sixties in the United States. And even his fans, of which I am one, see that those books on Zen are not his best books, and not even particularly good guides to the Zen point of view. And that his revision of Seeds of Contemplation, done under this enthusiasm, was not even a very good revision. I had the early one, bound in burlap.

  • http://frank.muennemann.com Frank M.

    As a society, we’ve made such progress since 1948,…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9eNDSGYtji8

  • Anne

    Many of the best minds lost their way in the sixties. Unfortunately, writers like Merton left a record for all the world to see. And then there were the witnesses who also wrote: Joan Baez, for one, tells in one of her memoirs of traveling to “sit at Merton’s feet and imbibe the mysteries of the universe.” Instead, she met a rather oridinary, if somewhat naive, middle-aged gentleman who shared some whiskey and ended the evening a little tipsy, begging his guests to take him to see a woman he knew. That apparently was the woman he almost gave it all up for, but, like other fortunate souls who survived the sixties, Merton eventually pulled himself together and went on where he’d left off before the zeitgeist had its way with him.

    • http://www.bannonoceanart.com bill bannon

      Jean Paul Sartre also late in life was involved with much younger females. That syndrome is partly about the temptation to live twice instead of our limitation of living only once. The man becomes young in the mirror which is the young woman being interested in him at all. Other cultures try to solve that urge with reincarnation. Imagine how Bathsheba felt about this interlude of David, her elderly husband:

      I King 1:1
      Now King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm.
      1Ki 1:2 Therefore his servants said to him, “Let a young maiden be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait upon the king, and be his nurse; let her lie in your bosom, that my lord the king may be warm.”
      1Ki 1:3 So they sought for a beautiful maiden throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Ab’ishag the Shu’nammite, and brought her to the king.
      1Ki 1:4 The maiden was very beautiful; and she became the king’s nurse and ministered to him; but the king knew her not.

      The lesson for wives is that if hubby complains about being chilly, tell him there’s a down comforter sale at Kohl’s or Macy’s. Word.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs

      Anne,

      You speak of the Zeitgeist as if there were some un-zeitgeisted continuity in evidence somewhere by which one could inoculate oneself from it. This is the dream of reactionaries in every age, and they learn again and again and again that they have inherited the wind. There are of course better and worse cultures per se and with that cultural moments and beliefs that can be preserved actively and with effort. That is real conservatism, something that takes active conservation, not dreams of the past that really never was. That does require being against the zeitgeist to some extent, but one can never be apart from it, even in opposing it we do obeisance. Far from exhibiting a vaunted continuity, Catholic Church history is one of the best examples of a savvy engagement with zeitgeist at many points. They have gotten it significantly wrong at times, as they are surely doing now in very fatuous reactionary blandishments.

      The whole Zen attraction for Catholics will hardly just be seen as just “surviving the sixties.” As I said, the very same Heideggarian/ Eckhartian/Zen strains were taught in virtually ALL seminaries of the Roman Church (even in Rome!!!) for decades by way of Rahner. Thye are in a conceptual pickle, and reactionary politics is just a way of averting their eyes for a while. That’s all.

  • Rodak

    Paul–It has been my understanding that it was the revival of the indigenous Shinto religion, rather than the undercurrent of imported Zen, that gave rise to Japanese radical nationalism. Japanese fascist nationalism use of emperor worship and Shinto was more analogous to the Nazi’s use of pagan Nordic symbolism in their “pure Aryan” propaganda. Zen is, after all, the result of the effect of Chinese Taoism on Indian Buddhism.

  • Rodak

    And in the West, fascism always arises in Catholic countries–Austria, Italy, Spain, Latin America. This is because even if the dictatorship outlaws the Church and all religion, it remains a population of people who have been drilled from the cradle not to think for themselves and to be absolutely obedient to authority and to the word of authority figures. The Pope for Mussolini is an even trade, socio-politically.