Thomas Merton on Advent (and Newtown)

From Thomas Merton’s essay, “Advent: Hope or Delusion?”

“The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectable comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.

“It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent, when the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture so easily harmonize with our tendencey to regard Christmas, consciously or otherwise, as a return to our own innocence and our own infancy. Advent should remind us that the “King Who is to Come” is more than a charming infant smiling (or if you prefer a dolorous spirituality, weeping) in the straw. There is certainly nothing wrong with the traditional family jours of Christmas, nor need we be ashamed to find ourselves still able to anticipate them without too much ambivalence. After all, that in itself is no mean feat.

“But the Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Savior and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer. The advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent…

“In our time, what is lacking is not so much the courage to ask this question as the courage to expect an answer… We may at times be able to show the world Christ in moments when all can clearly discern in history, some confirmation of the Christian message. But the fact remains that our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be. The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will. Our Advent is a celebration of this hope.”

Hat tip: Dating God

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  • turmarion


  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    All of us who grew up with Merton’s spirituality, have a poignant moment in reading such touching words, and assessing the world we have come to live in. The tragic realities he spoke of, just a few decades ago, seem if anything quite a bit more tragic. The hope brought by a Church embracing the world, as the RC church did after Pacem in Terris, has somehow burnt out to a dogged human subset of theological difference. The hope that there really was something beyond this dystopian consumer culture has been swallowed by modern technology, advertising its wares on cable TV as “news”. I am afraid that the “Christ of the burnt men” that Merton described in Seven Storey Mountain in its final words, didi not envision that “burnt men” might become a mere stoner festival in the desert for a burning man. And that that itself might be surpassed by every more charred realities of consumerism. Merton, fine as he was, even with his Zen in the end, was inadequate for what has arrived. Either the friends of meaning and culture band together, or we are are done. Sadly, I would not bet on it.

    • Mark Gordon

      I wouldn’t either. There are two prospects for our immediate future: breakdown or breakthrough. I’m afraid that the momentum is entirely on the side of breakdown.

      • Rodak

        @ Mark — History is the record of serial breakdowns. Societies and civilizations never achieve a permanent “breakthrough.” A few gifted individuals, however, do. We call them saints. The rest of us can only hope for undeserved mercy.

        • Mark Gordon

          Yes, and the United States is not except from either history or human nature, despite what the idolaters of American Exceptionalism believe.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs

          @Rodak & Mark,

          I would not have thought to parse these differences between “breakdown” or “breakthrough” so carefully. But a show I saw not to long ago on — where else!– EWTN has pricked up my ears to the subtleties. For it seems that that one of the hoary tropes of ol’ Chesterton is currently sloshing around in Catholic culture, and I wonder if it is coloring the thinking here a bit. Not sure. Namely, that British poetaster’s notion that not only was the “Dark Ages” not really dark intellectually (an insight roundly accepted by most historians today) , but that in fact those Dark Ages were the “height” of freedom and well-being for the average person. I heard this very contention attested to by Chesterton’s zombie, known as Dale Alquist, who seems like he is trying to raise him from the dead in rather Frankensteinish fashion. He’s alive!!! Anyways, if one thinks that the Middle Ages were some kind of apex, then one cannot assess soberly what actually has gotten better in the modern world. And a lot is better. So much in fact that we are scarcely able to understand it, we just live it. AS I see it, the issue is that we are at risk of losing some of those gains. The danger comes from a new sort of threat. I do not see the “serial breakdown” paradigm as applicable anymore. For the simple reason that there is a lot more money to be made in things not breaking down. It is just that things can get a lot more hollowed -out culturally than they are now. In some sense the “breakdown” metaphor is beholden to a notion that there is some foundational bottom past which people will not put up with things. Yet recent history shows that folks can be so ensorcelled by religious and even regional differences, that they will ignore the rest out of spite. meanwhile, a certain tiny class just keeps on making money, in season and out. Thus, there is really no longer any need of breakdowns culturally. Just one long brave new world of shiny and long
          crap, and mammon to made by it.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Well, great minds think alike now, don’t they?! But more seriously and humbly, though I share your sentiments exactly in this regard, I am analytically suspicious of the Untergang des Abendlandes trope that appeals to so many of our frame of mind on this issue. For though like you I am emotionally drawn to the “breakdown or breakthrough” — perhaps since I am personally acquainted with such and I am not afraid to say it, ’cause it has made me a better more compassionate person ultimately — I do not think that is the way the world proceeds on a macro, as opposed to micro(personal) level.

    I think rather that our future is more realistically seen in a place like Shanghai, which I experienced on a deeply bemused visit. All the complexes of the shallowest and most grotesque consumerism and garish “economic advancement”, are there to be seen like a real-life crystal ball. That is the more likely scenario in my view. And I take the popularity of so many aspects of this modern Chinese “culture” as indicative of this likelihood. The people weaned and bred in this environment are just as nasty as they can be, and rude in every way. Sound familiar? We are are getting there. One almost does not need to say how different this all is from the greatness of that culture in the past, of which I am a great admirer.

    The ultimate indication of course is how those devoted to any kind of real meaning and culture are treated in such an environment. For all my critiques of the RC Church, which you all to your credit somehow allow, I am 100% sure that that same church is a friend of meaning in the world, and perhaps one of its best friends, warts and all. And it says everything how such an organization is treated in a country such as today’s China. It is treated to non-existence. It is not allowed to exist. Beyond the religious liberty issues that are obvious, there is deeper issue on my view. To limn that deeper sense is to really get how “meaning” — transcendent or more attenuated– are a threat to this new order of authoritarian consumerism that has dawned.

    I cannot for the life of me understand how the Catholic Bishops in this country aligned themselves so forcefully with the party that was much more likely to speed this whole process up. But those are more complex questions. For there are many on the other side of the aisle that share the exact same sentiments we do. What is missing in my view is how the horizon is changing. And the literal burning of the planet, with rising average temperatures, is its signal and symbol.. Meantime, all one can really do is get-along in the world. Our answer is that in three years we have decided to move to San Diego for retirement. The East Coast is too hot anymore, and it is better to palliate decline from a place of seventy degrees year-round, average. In a sense, I feel I have already done what I can do to help the world, and one has to be content with the effort one can actually manage.

  • Julia Smucker

    Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent.

    What a refreshing antidote to “Tis the season to be jolly.”