"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, November 21, 2016

For the time being

I was so hard to please....

Something from a then-frequent reader which, ten years on, needs to be considered again:

Almost from the time of his entry in 1941 into the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (the Trappists) at the Monastery of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, Merton was obsessed with retreat from "the World," and from about 1952 onward he pressed for permission, heretofore unknown in the Order, to become a hermit with only limited contact with the monastic community; instead, in 1955 he was appointed Master of Novices, a position he held for the next nine years.

Merton, who has been described as "never having a thought he didn't write down," tended during this time to use the texts of his regular sessions within the novitiate as the basis for his later literary output, and it’s important to note that the temper of both his Introduction to as well as his selection from the writings of the Desert Fathers very probably had their basis in his sessions with his novices.

Wisdom of the Desert was published in 1960; in December of that year he was finally granted limited permission to reside in a small building on the monastery grounds, but was still required to sleep in the monastery and to participate in the activities of the community, including remaining Master of Novices. It wasn’t until 1964, just four years before his untimely death, that he was relieved of his position as novice master and permitted to remain exclusively in his hermitage.

From the fall of 1966 until early 1968, he had a remarkable exchange of correspondence (At Home in the World: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Rosemary Radford Reuther, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y. 1995). Reuther is a Catholic feminist theologian, then with a freshly minted Ph.D. In this exchange he attempted (in my view, ultimately unsuccessfully) to defend monastic solitude – the retreat from “the World” - as a necessary and viable alternative to active response to the challenges of contemporary secular society.

In her Introduction, written almost 30 years after the letters, Reuther says,

What I was looking for in initiating this conversation was neither a confessor, nor to be his confessor, but a genuine Catholic intellectual peer, one who would treat me as a peer, and with whom I could be ruthlessly honest about my own questions of intellectual and existential integrity. I was trying to test in this correspondence what was the crucial issue, for me, at that time: whether it was, in fact, actually possible to be a Roman Catholic and a person of integrity…. Could Catholics speak the truth and be Catholics? That Christians err, and even create monstrous idolatries, was in itself not scandalous to me. That would be only human. What was scandalous and insupportable was to be unable to admit error, to be incapable of repentance because you cannot entertain the possibility that you might be wrong. Worse still, to make such incapacity for self-questioning a dogma! That for me was the crux of the Catholic dilemma. [pp. xvi ff.]

Merton’s early response was to say,

“I do wonder at times if the Church is real at all. I believe it, you know. But I wonder if I am nuts to do so. Am I part of a great big hoax? I don’t explain myself as well as I would like to: there is a real sense of and confidence in an underlying reality, the presence of Christ in the world which I don’t doubt for an instant. But is that presence where we are all saying it is? We are all pointing (in various directions), and my dreadful feeling is that we are all pointing wrong. Could you point someplace for me, maybe? Thanks, and I am sorry to bother you. I have to write a book on monasticism, and I wonder if I can make it relevant – or may any sense with it at all. (I have no problem with my vocation.)[pp.17-18]

Never one to shirk a challenge, Reuther replied,
"You say you have no trouble with your vocation, but, if that is really true, maybe you should be having some trouble with your vocation. I love the monastic life dearly (I am a Third Order Benedictine) but today it is no longer the eschatological sign and witness in the church. For those who wish to be at the “kingdom” frontier of history, it is the steaming ghetto of the big city, not the countryside that is the place of the radical overcoming of this world, the place where one renews creation, disposes of oneself and does hand to hand combat with the demons. I don’t see how anyone who is tuck in the old moribund (once eschatological) structures and is at the same time alive to the times cannot be having some trouble with his vocation. But perhaps for you more important: more reading and thinking about Word and Church will not help. I think you will have to find some new way of having Word and Church happening for you….” [p.20]
Merton spends the rest of his time in this correspondence trying to explain his attitude toward his own solitude, and Reuther keeps shooting down his arguments. Finally, as the conversation begins to wind down, he writes,

"I don’t think I am rationalizing or evading when I say I think I owe it to you to pursue my own way and stand on my own in this sort of marginal and lost position I have. I am sometimes terribly hit by its meaning which is something I just cannot explain, because it is something you are not supposed to explain and must get along without explaining.” [p.62]

A rapprochement of sorts is reached in a concluding exchange. In December, 1967 Reuther writes,

"Dear Brother: You are really a shocking and dissolute fellow. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that the one thing a good son of the church never, never does, especially in ecclesiastical assemblies, is to state the bald and unregenerate truth? Surely someone must must have pointed this elementary fact out to you sometime during your novitiate.

She then quotes a fragment of a friend’s poem, applicable, she says, to Merton:

I suppose that with such views I shall be
left quite alone
To mumble plain truths like a dog
mumbling a bone… [pp.94-95]

Merton responds, 'Dear Rosemary: Ah, yes, I have become very wicked. This is due in great part to my hanging around with these women theologians. What a downfall. Let others be warned in time. Young priests can never be too careful. Tsk. Tsk.' [p. 96]

On December 10, 1968, at a conference of Asian monastic orders in Bombay, Merton finished his morning presentation with these words:

'I will conclude on that note. I believe the plan is to have all the questions for this morning’s lectures this evening at the panel. So I will disappear.'

"So he went to his room, and while taking a shower, was accidentally electrocuted."

It puts me in mind of Bonhoeffer's Christianity without religion, and my own spiritual....well, what to call it?  Every noun that makes it a metaphor makes it all sound too grand, too much about me, when the point, the goal, the telos of any spiritual effort is to negate "me,"  Oh, well, that, too, can be a point of discussion.

This long quote can be the springboard.


Blogger June Butler said...

“I do wonder at times if the Church is real at all. I believe it, you know. But I wonder if I am nuts to do so. Am I part of a great big hoax? I don’t explain myself as well as I would like to: there is a real sense of and confidence in an underlying reality, the presence of Christ in the world which I don’t doubt for an instant. But is that presence where we are all saying it is? We are all pointing (in various directions), and my dreadful feeling is that we are all pointing wrong."

Yes, I suspect we are getting it wrong. This past April, I stopped going to church altogether, because of pain due to a bad back which limited my activity. I've been a lifelong churchgoer, though I changed denominations, but I found I didn't miss church attendance, which surprised me greatly.

Looking back now, I remember thinking at times about church, "What are we doing, and why are we doing this?" Now I'm wondering if it was habit more than anything else that kept me going. Also, when I was involved in several ministries, it all seemed to make more sense, but as my health deteriorated, and I gradually eased out of all ministry, I began questioning. As long as I was busy in the church, it seemed fine.

Having said all that, I have no idea how to get church right, except an vague idea that perhaps the Christian church ought to be poor and on the fringes of society and not so much about elaborate buildings. It appears churches may get to such a place by force, as attendance drops and funding dries up.

10:36 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

This puts me in mind of a passage from Walker Percy's "The Thanatos Syndrome":

"MY TWO OLD FRIENDS, ex-Jesuit Kev Kevin and ex Maryknoller Debbie Boudreaux, who had long since abandoned belief in God, Jesus, the Devil, the Church, and suchlike in favor of belief in community, relevance, growth, and interpersonal relations, have now abandoned these beliefs as well."

I am increasingly convinced that the neglect of the "irrelevant" foundations that we call "religious" will soon enough undermine what we wanted to build upon them.

At least with the old Religious Right one could ask, "What about what Jesus says here?" or "What about what the Bible says there?" Protest today that a policy or act is wrong, or oppressive, or harmful to the "least of these," the new Irreligious Right simply shrugs and asks, "So what?"

Religious practice is far from perfect. But I think it's better world where some significant portion of the population is brought up praying the Lord's Prayer and reciting the Beatitudes.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Well, I would point out Bonhoeffer's concern was the relevance of the message of Christianity in an age no longer dominated by the Church, or where the Church is even a "pillar" of the community.

And Merton's answer was to retreat into a hermitage inside the Monastery grounds, which are already closed to female visitors, and only open in some areas to male visitors.

And it's not that we can do without the Church, but can we look to the Church as the substitute for, say, discipleship? Because there is the problem of "CINO" (Christian In Name Only).

My seminary education put a log to emphasis on community, growth, and interpersonal relationships (no surprise; they were training pastors), but I've abandoned those "beliefs" myself. I'm sticking with God and Jesus and even the Church (though not the Church as Percy would define it, he being Catholic, me being Protestant). And I still agree with Kurt Vonnegut: rather than put the Ten Commandments in courtrooms (or other public spaces), we should post Luke's version of the Beatitudes (to be fair, Kurt didn't specify version, but I would).

Still, there is a tension between God and the individual and the individual and the community (the prophets can speak to the tension between the community and God), a necessary tension to keep you from believing in what Percy criticizes, but also to keep you from believing the community, in the end, has the goods.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

And to be fair and balanced, a response to June, too:

As we age (and I mean simply as time passes, not that "old age" is a special case) , our interests change, our needs, even our abilities to relate. Children relate in one way, teenagers another, young adults still another, and so on.

At times over my life I've needed the church, resented the church, rejected the church, been seriously damaged by the church, blessed the church, cursed the church....and now what is my relationship to the church? (yes, that's more a rhetorical question than not.)

It serves our needs; that is inescapable. But do we serve it, too? That can be a burdensome question, if we think service has very specific duties; or it can be too glib, if we think our "service" is to gossip about others (to take an extreme, but I've seen lots of that).

On one side, that's an issue for pastoral care; on the other, it's a matter of avoiding judgment (who am I to judge?, as the Pope wisely asked once). I am certain that without the church, the gospel message fades away in a few years (memory is that short, especially corporate memory).

On the other hand, who am I without the church? Merton? Bonhoeffer? Or just a crank with internet access?

One of these things is not like the others....but it seems closer to me....

12:21 PM  
Blogger June Butler said...

"Religious practice is far from perfect. But I think it's better world where some significant portion of the population is brought up praying the Lord's Prayer and reciting the Beatitudes."

Rick, I'm enormously grateful for my religious upbringing. Being brought up in the church seems not to be what it once was. All my grown grandchildren who attended Catholic schools from an early age do not attend church. Their families were not especially devout, but the family I grew up in was not especially devout, either. Somehow the teachings in my schools stuck with me.

I say my prayers at home, and I'm beyond grateful for the "Book of Common Prayer" of the Episcopal Church. The 1979 version in modern English retains some of the grandeur and flavor of Thomas Cranmer's exquisite language and includes at least some prayers in the old language.

My faith in the teachings of Jesus as a way to live my life remains firm, as does my faith in God, although my concept of who God is and how God relates to me is much less certain. My one true certainty is God is love, or God is not my God.

12:46 PM  
Blogger June Butler said...

"I am certain that without the church, the gospel message fades away in a few years (memory is that short, especially corporate memory)."

Perhaps that's true. With a number of church-going Christians of today, the Gospel message seems not to apply, so we're back to what is the Christian church? (Not sure whether to end the sentence with a period or a question mark, professor.)

Also the aged are perhaps entitled to a time of rest from the busyness of the church. ;-)

12:54 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I meant to add, and remembered belatedly, that I agree with you about the Church becoming a more fringe element, even one without buildings.

That's been tried, more than once in recent times (past several decades="recent"), and seldom has it worked. But the institution, with dedicated buildings and even dedicated staff, is going the way of the dodo. Most small churches (and most churches are small) do all they can to raise enough money to pay for a pastor and maintain the building they use once a week. It's a model for looking inward and being satisfied with what you have and who you are and what little, if any, you do for others. I know small churches that thrive this way (by keeping upkeep low and the pastor part-time), so it doesn't mean all church buildings must be razed or abandoned.

But the concept of the mega-church, or even the large church bulging with well-heeled members, is a dinosaur. My grandparents were Primitive Baptists, as are most of their adult children (my aunts and uncles). I returned to their church for birthday party for an uncle recently. It's a modest building that's really just a large room, where they worship on Sunday and have lunch afterwards (always; a potluck. Some of the best food memories I have are around those churches). The pastor is usually a lay person, who works during the week. It's tiny, it's modest, they serve it by serving each other: it's a model of endurance and piety. I'm not sure we can all do that, but there are ways of doing that aren't the, pardon the comparison, "Roman" model.

And it's the "busyness" of the church which can be its worst feature. I'll try to expand on that at some point, in a way I hope isn't too pointed and cynical (my usual demeanor).

4:31 PM  
Blogger June Butler said...

I don't know if you read comments from your posts after this much time has passed, but here is my late comment anyway.

I was able to find a used (like new) copy of the letters of Merton and Reuther at a reasonable price. The correspondence continued until it was cut off by Merton's untimely death.

Reuther was considered an extreme radical Catholic in the 1960s, and yet many of the ideas and questions that she wished to discuss are accepted by mainstream Christians today. Here's a quote from one of her letters.

In the mid-1960s the Second Vatican Council began to break open the repressed doubts and questions of Catholics and allowed a much freer and more open conversation to take place. Many of the questions that I had been asking as a college student and that seemed beyond the pale of discussion, now were open to debate. I increasingly was able to raise my sights and to engage in conversation with persons who were shaping the new conversation of Catholicism, such as Daniel Berrigan and Gregory Baum.

Yet even with conversations with such persons I felt a deep sense of disappointment, a feeling that the critical questions of integrity were easily glossed over, even by reforming Catholics. Could Catholics, for example, really face the question that was apparent to those who studied critical New Testament exegesis, namely, that Jesus probably didn't intend to found any separate Christian religion at all, much less any institution with the structure of the Roman Catholic Church? In the face of such radical need to question foundations, the pretense of papal infallibility appeared like a bad joke.

11:33 AM  

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