A guest post by Chris Green
Last summer, I read a collection of Thomas Merton’s letters, The Hidden Ground of Love (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985). I was affected most deeply by some of Merton’s responses to the letters of then up-and-coming feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, exchanges that took place in 1966 and ’67, near the end of Merton’s life—he died in December ’68—and at the beginning of Reuther’s career.
The correspondence begins with Ruether’s letter of August 12, 1966. She is grateful to have heard of Merton’s appreciation for an article she had recently published, and wonders if she might send him the manuscript of her work, The Church Against Itself. Their earliest letters are warm if lively exchanges, the friendly back-and-forth of kindred spirits. He’s direct about his struggles with Catholic hierarchy—“I do wonder at times if the Church is real at all … Am I part of a great big hoax?”—and he always writes under the assumption that she shares his vision and his experience. Early in 1967, however, Ruether delivered a few stinging criticisms of the monastic life. In the following few letters, he writes with an edge, attempting to correct what he takes to be her fundamental misapprehension of his vocation. At points he stops just short of out-and-out rebuke. Still, he never hides the fact that her criticisms open old wounds in him, wounds that obviously have not healed and are not healing.
For example, in a letter dated 19 March, Merton remarks how he finds himself wanting to shake off his monastic orders, to make his way out to the “big-time struggle” in the world beyond his hermitage. Bluntly put, he wants to be “more effective” in real-world matters. He nonetheless insists that he cannot abandon his given way of life. To do so, he insists, would mark a “real betrayal of the Kingdom.” In his experience, most if not all of the monks who abandon the monastery in hopes of making a more significant impact in the wider world soon lose their way entirely. So, in spite of himself, he knows he’s not going to up and leave his post.
A few weeks after (in a letter from 9 April), Merton seems to reach a kind of resolution, writing that he’s convinced he must pursue his own way, “marginal and lost” as it is, without any rationale or apology. The monk’s life, he says, is not supposed to be explained, only lived.
But judging by the letters that follow, he hadn’t really convinced himself.
Taken as a whole, these letters suggest that even after a quarter century of immersion in the monastic life, Merton could not rest in his calling. We sense, in and under his words, an agonizing unsettledness. If just for a moment he seems to have found his footing—some surety about what he’s bound to do and why it’s good for him to do it—the very next moment the ground drops out from under him. What troubles him most, it seems, is a nagging sense that he’s not living truthfully, that somehow he’s been deceived and so is deceiving others. In one of the March letters, Merton had admitted to Reuther that his previous responses weren’t adequately honest, and that her criticisms, inaccurate as they may have been on some points, had nevertheless struck a nerve. He acknowledges the depth of his uncertainty:
Problem: unrecognized assumption of my own that I have to get out of here. Below that: recognition that life here is to some extent (not entirely) a lie and that I can no longer just say the community lies and I don’t. With that: sense of being totally unable to do anything about it that is not a feeble gesture. But the genuine realization that this is my vocation, but that I have not yet found the way of being really true to it. Rock bottom: I don’t know what is down there. I just don’t know.
The monastic life, he acknowledges bluntly, is “an idol.” Not that he despises his fellow monks. They are “idiots,” he knows, but they remain nonetheless God’s idiots—and just so are his brothers, his responsibility. He recognizes that it’s his vanity that aches to belong to “a really groovy worldly in-group,” and he knows better than to surrender to such temptation. The solidarity required of him begins with loving these very idiots, many of whom have given themselves over to what he can see as this idolatrous form of the monastic life. Such a life, which he cannot but experience as “exile, humiliation, desperation,” he knows is nonetheless the chosen way for him—and better than whatever alternatives he might find for himself.
Again, however, Merton’s resolution, such as it is, holds only for a little while. After a few months, the language of despair surfaces again:
I hang on in desperation to what I think I have been called to, trusting not in it but in the mercy of Christ, who knows better than I that it isn’t real, but that it is at least a choice. And there don’t seem to be more meaningful ones around, for me, all things considered.
What sustained Merton through all of this “exile, humiliation, desperation”? Not mere resignation—although he certainly sounds fatalistic at times. No, I think he had in his depths some small but lively hope that God was in fact using his unsettledness somehow for his (and others’) good. He trusted, even against hope, that through this disquiet God was working to deliver him from damning fantasies and pretentions, saving him from delusions about the effectiveness of his work and from “wish-dreams” about the community to which he was called. He wanted to live free of such idolatries. And I think he tried at least to offer that kind of hope as a cry for mercy.
Maybe there is a kairos coming, but I have no notion where or when. I am in the most uncomfortable and unenviable position of waiting without any justification, without a convincing explanation, and without any assurance except that it seems to be what God wants of me and that this kind of desperation is what it means for me to be without idols—I hope.
Frederick Buechner has said that we find our vocation just at the point that our “deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” For some people, perhaps, that turns out to be true. But at least for a few of us, vocation is not nearly so gladdening or fulfilling. For some of us, finding and living our calling feels at least at times like protracted martyrdom.
If that seems unnecessarily dire—or “unhealthy,” as we are wont to say—we should perhaps recall the Lord’s response to Paul’s desire to have his “thorn” removed (2 Cor 12.7). I suspect that some of us simply cannot remain true to the gospel in any serious sense if we do not at least at times find ourselves “thorned” into desperation, if we are not riled by a sanctified and sanctifying discomfort. Like Merton, we won’t be free to find the truth of our calling—or to learn how to be true to it—without also facing how untrue it all feels to us. Maybe we’re never going to move into our vocation until we learn what it means to wait without justification or assurance in the fires of idol-destroying desperation? Perhaps such endurance becomes possible only as we’re wasting away on the margins of what seems most important? Maybe it’s only in exile that we find our way?