Doug Bruns

Toward Wisdom #2

In Faith, Religion, Wisdom on April 26, 2020 at 11:56 am
Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Toward Wisdom is a series of thoughts in the age of Covid-19

* * *

I’ve been reading a lot of Merton lately, which is kind of weird frankly. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk (Catholic), a wonderful writer and thinker, a robust contemplative. I say my interest is weird, because there is a lot of talk of God in Merton—talk which used to put be off right out of the box. That aside, the Trappists are known for their vow of silence, their vow of poverty, and deep contemplative lives. These are commitments to a contrarian way of things, a way of things which sometimes reveals doors of insight otherwise difficult to pry open. And right now we are all living a contrarian life, aren’t we? So I guess it’s not all that weird is it?

My great friend Susan, knowing that I’m currently in a Merton phase, recently sent me this Merton quote:

You do not need to know
precisely what is
happening, or exactly
where it is all going. What
you need is to recognize
the possibilities and
challenges offered by the
present moment, and to
embrace them with
courage, faith and hope.

There is much being said here in these few words. There is talk of release (“You do not need to know precisely what is happening…”), talk of being present (”What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment…”), and instruction (“embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”). These are deeply wise words.

I use these daily quotes and passages like a mantra throughout my day. I usually try to boil down the passage’s idea to a few words that I can carry with me throughout the day. For instance, in this case, I simply remember, courage, faith, hope. From there the rest of the idea falls into place. These three words are pretty heady. Courage is an ancient virtue, one of the Stoic’s four cardinal virtues, for example. Faith is a word loaded with religious connotation. That’s fine if that’s the way you lean. But one can also have faith that Spring will come, that there is order to the cosmos, and so on. It is easy to think of hope as something you wish in the future, of desire projected forward. That is one notion of hope, but not a very helpful one. For me, hope is the sense that I can face the unknown, experience the thing out of my control, but will not be mastered by it. It is my sense of comfort with the changing nature of reality, the ability to absorb paradox.

I’m sorry to belabor all this. But I wanted to share how I work with, and find meaning in these phrases and quotes. I talk a lot about a practice. Working in this way with an idea is a fashion of practice. I hope you find it helpful.

Be safe.

  1. I continue to admire your discipline. Bis spater.

  2. interesting as always…my college (St. Bonaventure U) is steeped in Thomas Merton – here’s a little blurb about TM at SBU He’s been gone almost 50 years, but Thomas Merton remains a meaningful figure in the history of St. Bonaventure University, which gets ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth with a Winter Carnival from noon until midnight Saturday, Jan. 31.

    Fr. Francis Di Spigno O.F.M., executive director of University Ministries, said Merton’s journey of self-discovery at St. Bonaventure, where he taught English in the early 1940s, is still worth studying.

    “I think it’s a perfect metaphor for us as an institution with young men and women planning their futures, some with varying degrees of certainty about what they want to do,” he said.

    THE HISTORY OF MERTON AT ST. BONAVENTURE

    Thomas Merton first came to St. Bonaventure University — then St. Bonaventure’s College — in the summer of 1938. At the time, he was studying at Columbia University, where he met one of his closest friends, Robert Lax. Lax, a renowned poet, was an Olean native, and Merton came to visit him during the summer.

    Lax brought Merton to campus, but Merton refused to get out of the car, saying that he initially felt uncomfortable in the presence of so many religious figures. Later that year, Merton converted to Catholicism, and the next summer, he returned to visit Lax in Olean. This time, he visited the campus library where he met Fr. Irenaeus Herscher, O.F.M., who soon became his friend.

    In the latter part of 1939, Merton considered becoming a Franciscan friar. So, when he returned to Olean in the summer of 1940, he stayed on campus in Butler Gymnasium. He later withdrew his request to become a friar, but his connection with the Franciscans and St. Bonaventure did not end.

    Merton was hired as an English professor at St. Bonaventure in the fall of the 1940, and he held the position until his departure in December of 1941. While teaching at the college, he began to discern a calling to the monastic life. In the spring of 1941, while still employed by St. Bonaventure, he travelled to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. This visit led Merton to consider becoming a Trappist Monk, and on December 10, 1941, he left St. Bonaventure and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani.

    Di Spigno said Merton was someone who should be “held up as a role model — as someone who was seeking, and not just to get a job, but asking, ‘What is this about?’”

    After leaving St. Bonaventure and joining the Trappists, Merton would become one of the most polarizing religious figures of his era. He became famous for his written works and was an outspoken peace activist. He publically opposed the Vietnam conflict, and he supported the civil rights movement.

    Merton sought peace among all people, regardless of religious or racial differences. As people today strive to attain these goals, the ideas and writings of Thomas Merton remain as significant today as they did 50 years ago.

    >

    • This is a wonderful footnote to my post. Thank you, Suzanne. I didn’t know of Merton’s relationship with St. Bonaventure. This is fascinating. About a dozen years ago when I became interested in Zen a catholic friend of mine told me about Merton and how he became very interested in Eastern philosophy in general and Zen in particular. One of the books I’m currently reading is his Mystics and Zen Masters. One thing leading to another and I revisited his Seven Story Mountain recently. This time I finished it. The path to the life of contemplation I find very interesting. He was a terrific writer and I appreciate his sensibilities. Thanks for adding to my limited knowledge of Merton. It just makes me thirsty for me.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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