Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thomas Merton: Searching the Soul

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
Thomas Merton was a man of solitude, as the attached videos demonstrate. He was also a man in an ever deeper search of the soul.

A prolific writer throughout his adult life, his autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain" is perhaps his most famous work. In the transition from Part One to Part Two, from civilian life as a student at Columbia University to a Trappist novice at the Abbey of Gesthemani in rural Kentucky, Merton shares his deepening search for solitude and an understanding of his inner being.
"If my nature had been more stubborn in clinging to the pleasures that disgusted me," he observes, "if I had refused to admit that I was beaten by this futile search for satisfaction where it could not be found, and if my moral and nervous constitution had not caved under the weight of my own emptiness, who can tell what would eventually have happened to me?  Who could tell where I would have ended?"

"I had come very far, to find myself in this blind alley: but the very anguish and helplessness of my position was something to which I rapidly succumbed. And," he concludes, "it was my defeat that was to be the occasion of my rescue."
Opening Part Two of his autobiography, which details his renunciation of outer life to the cloistered quietude of his beloved Gesthemani, Merton directly addresses the nature of man, and his ultimate affinity for a deeper understanding of his own being.
"There is a paradox that lies in the very heart of human existence," he writes. "It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of a man. The paradox is this: man's nature by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problem.. If we follow nothing but our natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell."

"This would be a depressing thought," he observes, "if it were not purely abstract. Because in the concrete order of things God gave man a nture that was ordered to supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. We were never destined to lead purely natural lives, and therefore we were never destined in God's plan for a purely natural beatitude. Our nature which is a free gift from God, was given to us to be perfected by another free gift that is not due it."

"This free gift is "sanctifying grace." It perfects our nature with the gift of a life, of an intellection, a love, a mode of existence infinitely above its own level. If a man were to arrive even at the abstract pinnacle of natural perfection, God's work would not even be half done: it would be only about to begin, for the real work is the work of grace and the infused gifts of the Holy Ghost."
Merton was headed for the Abbey of Gerthemani, where he would pass 26 years in a quest for an ever increasing quietist solitude, before leaving Gesthemani temporarily (or perhaps permanently), for Asia to pursue his study of Buddhist and Indian contemplative methods. He would die at age 53, electrocuted as a result of a poorly wired household fan in a Bangkok hotel room on the 27th anniversary of his entry into Gesthemani in 1941, leaving behind a treasure trove of some 70 books on the contemplative life.

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