Thomas and his time



Insomnia often afflicts us as we age. Hormonal production levels shift, and as a result it becomes more common to find the animal nature growling and grumbling from inside us at three in the morning.

Sometimes, I get up to read a book, which tires my eyes so I can sleep again. Last night, giving up the fight to resume dormancy around 4.30 am, I pulled George Woodcock’s Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet off the shelf. As a bookmark fell out from the World’s Biggest Bookstore, gone these past three years, I realised I’d not opened this book in ages.

There was a time in my late teens when I idolised Merton. A Christian monk who saw connections between Mahayana Buddhism and Cistercian spirituality, he was a Catholic convert who gradually moved from conventional piety of a type beloved by conservative American Catholics to a socially conscious position as an advocate against the Vietnam War and the brutal racism challenged by the civil rights legislation being passed in the early 1960s. At age 53, on a visit to Thailand in 1968, he was electrocuted, a death many people still find hard to believe was accidental. His going was a minor loss compared to that of Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy, or Malcolm X, but its suddenness was still a blow.

When I discovered him, he was already dead. I found his selection of essays, Mystics and Zen Masters, and read it a dozen times, seeking to settle my own religious fears and mystifications. After a spiritual crisis in 1970, and a diversion into a mad and wondrous community for two years, I ended up reclaiming the book and finding qualified but thoughtful help in it through several years afterwards.

Reading about Merton again in the small hours this morning, I saw a microcosm of what has been lost with the US election. The concept of social struggle is now ugly and brutish. Or, perhaps it just challenges me more than it did before.

Merton’s ideas, however tendentious they might have been, seemed in the pre-dawn darkness to summarise the journey the best of the western world made after WW2. The grand project so loosely and arguably designated ‘liberalism’ has foundered on narrow formulations and increasingly closed-off segmentation into categories of grievance, but within it there was optimism and a desire for greater consciousness. That has left us or, at least, gone underground for now.

I look at my own feeling of deprivation regarding that grand project, trying to work out what might still be valid. Certainly all the special pleading became tiresome. We’re here as humans, and we do what we must to survive and prosper, knowing that age will drain us, and death obliterate us, while Facebook sucks us into ever-widening vortices of irrelevance. Demanding particular attention for ourselves is no solution to the human dilemma, and in fact deflects us from one. Merton, at least, knew this.

Perhaps the project’s culmination was inevitable, and the conservatives are right? That by abandoning the Christian content of western society, we’ve lost an essential core of meaning? And Merton, while fascinating as a man who tried to bridge old and new, was a one-off and a failure, like others who’ve tried to extend late-Christian ideas into our uncertain future?

But it seems to me Christianity itself has reached an end, and has no core, only an encrusted shell of brittle memories. Its inflexibility leads not to mercy and redemption, but to bitterness and self-righteousness.

The promise was there, those fifty years past, and many of us have tried to live some measure of it. I cannot condemn Merton for being a person of his time and its turmoil, just as we are all, now, wrestling, in hope, or in pain, with this seismic shift in externals. The task is to see what shards of truth remain among the rubble.

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