Friday, October 05, 2007

Holy clay

On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.
The first paragraph of Thomas Merton's autobiographical The Seven Storey Mountain, which I read in the twenty-first year of my own life, in 1957, as an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame. It was one of the first serious books I had read -- and it blew me away. It seemed as if it had been written expressly for me, to address my own spiritual struggle. Here was a man, raised by irreligious artist parents, who had arrived after a romantic quest at the place where I had begun, in the Church of Rome. I read the book straight through, hardly putting it down, following Merton's journey across the world until he found his way to baptism in the Catholic faith, then to profession as a Trappist monk. I promptly hitchhiked from northern Indiana to Merton's monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky, and began a retreat of several days in the company of Father Merton and his confreres.

I was a student of science and technology. Our griefs, Merton wrote, lay at the hands of men armed with science and technology but without a rootedness in a mystery deeper than themselves. "Shamans without belief," he called them. He wrote: "The way to find the real 'world' is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self. This 'ground,' this 'world' where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible, objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door."

This philosophy seemed exactly apropos my own situation as a student of science coming to terms with the sacramental tradition of Catholicism. I suppose in other circumstances I might have done the impetuous thing and become a Trappist myself. As Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain: "Is there any man who has ever gone through a whole lifetime without dressing himself up, in his fancy, in the habit of a monk and enclosing himself in a cell where he sits magnificent in heroic austerity and solitude, while all the young ladies who hitherto were cool to his affections in the world come and beat on the gates of the monastery crying, 'Come out, come out!'" Yes, I was susceptible to that fancy, except for the fact that I was already in love, with the woman who would become my wife, and unwilling to give up the promise of lifelong intimacy with another person -- what the novice masters in those days called a "particular friendship" -- to embrace the celibate life.

Rereading The Seven Storey Mountain today, it is clear that it is a young person's book -- for both author and reader. The moral clarity that characterized Merton as he embraced the monastic life turned out for him and for us not to be all it was cracked up to be. God makes a cold bedpartner. Yes, we have an innate longing for self-transcendence, but there is another part of our nature that longs for imperfect human intimacy. The mature Thomas Merton found a brief measure of that intimacy with the student nurse his biographers refer to as S. or M. The middle-aged monk who suddenly found himself head-over-heels in love is a more attractive man than the spiritual prig of The Seven Storey Mountain. He had by then established his true vocation, as a guide and inspiration to a generation of spiritual seekers. His lifelong battles between selflessness and self-love, solitude and sociability, theological orthodoxy and ecumenical doubt made him all the more accessible to those of us who shared so many of his spiritual travails.

I started to say, "We prefer our saints with feet of clay." But, of course, we are all clay, through and through. Merton's great gift was to give voice to clay, to guide us into our deepest selves. Even clay is a living, self-creating mystery, of which each of us is a part, and to which each of us is a unique door.