Thursday, July 29, 2010

Merton on Barth on Mozart

I forget, sometimes, when I settle down to delve into a book by mid-twentieth-century monk Thomas Merton, that he was a man of his times. I unconsciously prepare myself for deep mysticism, the kind of extrarational, nonlinear writing that shocks you into the Spirit like Leo Dicaprio gets shocked awake in Inception. I forget that as mystical as Merton often gets, he's also a man of his times, and certain things tick him off.

For example, as a practicing Protestant with sentimental attachments to the Catholicism of my youth, I take great delight in Merton's occasional salvos against the folly of the Protestantism of his day. Particularly in his Seven Storey Mountain, a memoir of his gradual embrace of Catholicism and later his entry into monastic life, he indulges the occasional rant. I picture not a red face but rather a wry smile as he writes, enjoying the mockery he makes of these earnest evangelicals with no respect for history.

Merton wasn't a bigot, it turns out; he didn't hate Protestants, but thin theology bugged him as much as poor aesthetics and bad writing. Hand him a piece by someone who knew what he was doing, and Merton would show that Protestant some respect.

I've just begun reading Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton's spiritual journals from the late 1950s. I was prepared to read about war, racism, Zen, transcendence, even whooping cranes. I wasn't quite prepared for the opening line: "Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart."

Karl Barth, one of the most important theologians ever--a contemporary of Merton, and as Protestant as they come. Mozart, the child prodigy of the Classical era who dismissed Protestantism as "all in the head."

I've been eager to read Conjectures since I first heard of it; it strikes me as Merton at his sardonic, bemused best. But clearly I didn't know what to expect; leading off with Karl Barth's dreamlife shocked me awake more than the trippiest haiku ever could.

Barth, in his dream, was appointed to examine Mozart in theology. He wanted to make the examination as favorable as possible, and in his questions he alluded pointedly to Mozart's masses.

But Mozart did not answer a word. . . .

The dream concerns his salvation, and Barth perhaps is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology. . . .

Bart says . . . that "it is a child, even a 'divine' child, who speaks in Mozart's music to us." Some, he says, considered Mozart always a child in practical affairs. . . . At the same time, Mozart, the child prodigy, "was never allowed to be a child in the literal meaning of that word." He gave his first concert at the age of six.

Yet he was always a child "in the higher meaning of that word."

Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.


That's from page four. Page one has the title and two quotations; page two is blank. Three hundred and fifty pages to go, but I will remember throughout that Merton's books (and mine) matter less than we might think. And I will do my best throughout to trust in the divine mercy.

2 comments:

Rick said...

I've got a quote from early on in "The Intimate Merton" that's the same way: This is a violent world in which I am not doing nearly enough work, although I appear to be busy all the time. (p. 21) Hard to read much past that one. Feeling your "pain". :)

Dave said...

CGB, one of my favorite Merton volumes for many years.