Friday, December 24, 2010

Readings: Merton and Milosz - a Correspondence

Last night, when I was already starting to think about going to bed, I went upstairs to see if I could find a certain book on the shelves in the family room. What I found instead was a forgotten treasure—a book that I had purchased from a catalog along with several others, put aside, and forgot about until I found it last night—Striving Towards Being: the Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz. I don’t even remember what book it was that I originally went up there to find.

I brought the book downstairs and thought I’d just leaf through it a bit before bed, to see if I really wanted to add it to the stack of books I’m already reading. I ended up reading for well over an hour in my chair, and then bringing the book to bed with me—something I almost never do—to read a little more.

I have thus far read about a third of this little (178 pages) book, which begins with a letter sent cold by Merton to Milosz in December 1958 and ends with Merton’s untimely death a decade later; the last letter being a brief note sent to Milosz by Merton from Darjeeling, dated November 21, 1968. Merton was accidentally electrocuted while stepping out of a bath and touching an electric fan, on December 10, 1968, while traveling in Asia.

Thomas Merton, although a well-known writer, a priest, and a Trappist monk, does not seem to be a man that Catholics tend to brag about. He is, however, one of my favorite Catholic writers; probably for all the same reasons that he is out of favor in his Church: Merton was a mensch.

In my reading last night, I found Merton’s letter of May 21, 1959 to contain some thinking that strikes a responsive chord in me. Here, for instance, he is talking about the place of the Christian in the contemporary world; about how one tends to become a bystander—standing around doing nothing while crimes are being committed:

I am more and more convinced every day that it is a religious as well as a civil obligation to be discontented with ready-made answers—no matter where they may come from. How much longer can the world subsist on institutional slogans?

Later in the same letter, Merton discusses his concept of Providence:

Insofar as we are Christ, we are our own Providence. The thing is then not to struggle to work out the “laws” of a mysterious force alien to us and utterly outside us, but to come to terms with what is inmost in our own selves, the very depth of our own being… (and this inner Providence is not really so directly concerned with the surface of life) what is within, inaccessible to the evil will of others, is always good unless we ourselves deliberately cut ourselves off from it.

He follows this observation up immediately with one that I particularly like:

As for those who are too shattered to do anything about it one way or the other, they are lifted, in pieces, into heaven and find themselves together there with no sense of how it might have been possible.

A bit further on, Merton states:

Even as a Catholic I am a complete lone wolf…I represent my own life… But that is not the kind of thing that is likely to be viewed with favor. …But as far as solidarity with other people goes, I am committed to nothing except a very simple and elemental kind of solidarity, which is perhaps without significance politically, but which is I feel the only kind which works at all. That is to pick out the people whom I recognize in a crowd and hail them and rejoice with them for a moment that we speak the same language. [italics added by me]

Speaking to the Pole, Milosz, on the general topic of the Cold War and East-West relations, Merton makes the following prophetic assessment:

There is, in formation, a whole body of potential “new men” in American universities and even in business circles: men without heads and without imagination, with three or four eyes and iron teeth, who are secretly in love with the concept of a vast managerial society. One day we are going to wake up and find America and Russia in bed together (forgive the unmonastic image) and realize that they were happily married all along. It is then that the rest of us are going to have to sort ourselves out and find out if there remains, for us, a little fresh air somewhere in the universe.

Indeed. As I read on in this slender volume, I find myself much more impressed by Merton than I am by Milosz, who seems to me to be a more conventionally political man. I say this despite the fact that Milosz has cited my ultimate mentor, Simone Weil, in nearly every letter (about which I plan to write at another time.)

Near the end of the letter, Merton writes:

Finally, I think it is eminently good that you [Milosz], especially as a Pole, are not listed as a Catholic writer pure and simple. You can do much more good that way. Categories are of very little use, and often to be clearly labeled is equivalent to being silenced. [italics added by me]

Oh my—what I wouldn’t give to find a letter like this one in my box.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to all my visitors, new and old!