Merton’s Mona Lisa Smile

Merton’s Mona Lisa Smile May 1, 2018


My friend Cassidy Hall is one of those wonderful humans who still write letters, and last week she sent me a card with that famous prayer by Thomas Merton, one of a handful of prayers I can say and really mean:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


She also sent me a picture of Merton, with a sort of knowing half-smile, as though we’d just shared a joke, maybe exchanged a look during a meeting where someone boring was saying something pompous. Merton’s Mona Lisa Smile.

As I sat down at my desk with my jam-jar of gin and lemon and ice, I glanced over at that smile, and thought: Thomas, you owe me one.

There’s a backstory to this, a rather long one, but I’ll keep it brief. Since September of last year, I’ve periodically been attacked and maligned online by right-wing Catholics. Prior to that, I spent eleven years working at a Catholic university where I bounced, exhaustingly, back and forth between elation and rage: elation because I loved my work, rage because of the things that went on there, the abuses, or just the petty stupidity.

Prior to that…well, when I look down the long corridor of my memory, it’s rare for me to see a situation in which the religious people around me weren’t causing me some form of grief. And I’ve been around religious people my entire life. And this is largely the fault of Thomas Merton, since if my father hadn’t read Seven Story Mountain (not even Merton’s best work!) back in the sixties, he would have stayed a wholesome hippie, and we would never have gotten into this tortuous entanglement of Christian utopianism, all these trials and errors, all these people so enflamed with religious fervor – if it ever was, really, religious fervor – that everyone around them got burned.

I could write at length about how religion becomes deadly when it becomes ideological. I could point out how, when people think they are the chosen curators of a special gnosis, they lose sight of reality. I could talk about how losing sight of reality means losing sight of God, and becoming like those whom Dante wrote of, in hell: the ones who have “lost the good of the intellect.” The further down into Inferno you go, the further they go from the good that illumines, so down deep at the bottom all you can do is lie frozen in ice with Satan, chewing on a bishop’s skull.

The question “why do you stay” is one that exhausts me. Yes, I have joked that the reason I stay Catholic is that there are so many people who would rejoice if I left, and it’s great to annoy them, but it’s just a joke. I don’t really live based on the likes and dislikes of others, because it gives others too much power over me.

I’m not an apologist. I’m not interested in convincing anyone that what I am doing is rational – least of all my self. If I were going to be perfectly rational, I would probably follow Spinoza, because his philosophy strikes me as making complete sense, and it also appears to have made him happy, even as he was living in relative poverty, exiled by three different religious communities.

I should ask Spinoza for his secret.

For the moment it could be that I am Catholic because of the people I talk to, living and dead. My friends who send me cards, my friends with whom I bitch and laugh and work and plan.

The communion of saints means I can sit here sipping gin talking to Merton and Spinoza (yes, he gets to be an honorary saint). I might talk to Dorothy Day, too, because it’s also a little bit her fault: when she told my father “oh just go start your own community!” Maybe over time she’ll lend me a bit of her own austere strength. I’ll even talk to Hemingway, which makes me both a bad Catholic and a bad feminist, but never mind that: he got it. He got the way you look at horror, and long for grace.

You will never leave me to face my perils alone….

image from author’s personal collection

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