Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Glitter Has Ceased to Matter

As I reached the final pages of Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which follow in the wake of President Kennedy's death and the death of Pope John, I learned that Merton weighed the same as I do today--"which," in his view, "is certainly too much."

I have taken of late to identifying myself much with Merton--his cynicism in tension with his faith, his desire to retreat from the world while still loving and feeling drawn toward the world, his impulse to "reform" everything set against his respect for history and concern for seemingly everyone else's disrespect for the same. There are days when I think that Merton could have been my older brother. (Merton's younger brother, it should be noted, died when Merton was thirty-eight--twenty years prior to Conjectures.)

Merton has little to offer in the way of diet tips. Maybe the last five years of his life focus on weight loss; I don't know. But he has much to say about the Christian's posture toward the world. That shouldn't be surprising, given the circumstances in which he found himself:

* The early Nuclear Age, in which most people felt real anxiety over the real possibility of global atomic devastation.
* The theological hangover from World War II, in which people struggled to reconcile the love of God with the human capacity for holocaust.
* The technological boom, in which most people were reconfiguring their whole life-patterns to make room for radio, television and convection ovens.
* The Civil Rights Movement, in which human rights and equal protection under the law for people of color were actually considered by many to be points of debate and worth shedding blood against.
* The death of God/Christless Christianity movement, in which many people tried to reimagine faith inductively, beginning from the point of disillusioned agnosticism or outright atheism, rather than from the biblical revelation and the Great Tradition of the church.
* The assembling of the Second Vatican Council, in which all the great minds of the Catholic Church considered what tone best articulated Christianity's prophetic voice in this particularly beleaguered world.

Merton was well suited to this puzzle, I think. He had a respect for tradition but not a blind, slavish obedience to it; he had an openness to the best logic and habits from outside Christianity without being naively enamored by them; he had a mystical bent that anchored his intellect, and a way of communicating that was simultaneously simple and sophisticated. I've elsewhere referred to him as a punk prophet, and I'll stand by that--happily acknowledging that to be a punk is to make it hard to be a prophet (although to be a prophet can sometimes make it easy to be a punk.)

I should have anticipated this, I suppose, but Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander has a lot to say about one's posture before the world. The title says a lot, of course, but he goes much farther, and as I read the last entry (with its flirtatious forays into Zen), I found myself not only stroking my imaginary beard but feeling my heart strangely warmed by his understanding of God's atoning love for the world and its implications for those of us who occupy that world. Here, in content pulled intermittently from the last twenty pages of the book, is Merton on the world as we have it:

We do not make momentous decisions. They are made for us, and we either accept or not, with good grace or not. The myth of the man of decision, enlightened, determined, calculating the pros and cons, jutting out his jaw and ready to go--this is our consolation for being passive, petulant, confused, ineffectual, dominated by routines. . . .

Only faith is to be taken seriously [here he is reflecting on an idea from Karl Barth] because only the mercy of God is serious. . . . We are judged as men who have taken seriously something other than His infinite mercy. . . .

The real trouble with "the world," in the bad sense which the Gospel condemns, is that it is a complete and systematic sham, and he who follows it ends not by living but by pretending he is alive, and justifying his pretense by an appeal to the general conspiracy of all the others to do the same. . . .

The Father's will did not arbitrarily impose suffering and death on Christ, but sent Him into the world to use His freedom to save man. It is out of love for the Father that Jesus chooses this particular way, the way of humiliation and of the total renunciation of power, in order to save man by love, mercy, and self-sacrifice. . . .

Will the words of the children be lies also, like those of our generation--or worse lies still? When one takes this deeper view he does not have to ask. There is the hope, there is the world that remakes itself at God's command without consulting us. . . . The glitter is false? Well, the light is true. The glitter has ceased to matter. It is even beautiful.

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