Friday, November 30, 2007

Just being there is enough

In a diary entry for "M.", near the end of his too-short life, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote some words that evoke the Stevens poem I posted yesterday.
I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realization that just being there is enough.
I have sometimes referred to myself in these postings as a "Catholic agnostic." Merton was what I would call an "agnostic Catholic." He was not hung up on giving a name or human characteristics to God. The natural world was for him the primary revelation. He listened. He felt a presence in his heart, an awareness of the ineffable Mystery that permeates creation. It was this that drew him to the mystical tradition of Christianity, especially to the Celtic tradition of creation spirituality that I wrote about in Climbing Brandon. It was this that attracted him to Zen.

Merton remained within the Church. Why he continued to identify with an institution so radically misaligned to everything he felt sacred is a bit of a mystery to me. The Church is triumphalistic; he was ecumenical. The Church is misogynistic; he embraced the feminine divine. The Church is a trader in miracles; for him, all that existed was miraculous. The Church is defined by an eschatological notion of redemption; he saw our task as redeeming the here and now.

Certainly, Merton's commitment to his monastic vows -- and to Cistercian silence and solitude, work and prayer -- took precedence over the formalities of creed. Blessedly, his life and work released creative and transforming energies within the Church. His decision to stay may turn out to have been the most important work of his life.

Perhaps my training as a scientist compelled my leaving. I too wanted to walk the clean and airy shore between knowledge and mystery, but could not bear to drag along all that institutional baggage of prescientific miracles and philosophical dualism. I too wanted to listen to the primary revelation of nature, but could not hear in the cacophony of theological mumbo-jumbo. I too wanted to celebrate the holiness of the here and now, within the tradition into which I was born, but could not find a liturgy that was not locked in neolithic magic. I know many Catholics who look past these things to the essential core of mystery, and I am one with them in spirit, but I cannot bring myself to ignore the commonly accepted meaning of words.

For Merton, "Catholic" took precedence over "agnostic." For me, it is the other way round.