On Merton and Yancey

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This note started out as a response in the comment box to this post by Mr. Moffat. I must preface everything by expressing my disagreement with the codicil to the post in which he rejects the good that Yancey has given through his writing by a quibble with his personal life. Yancey's personal life, whatever it may be, will not infect the Catholic reader, but the reader will engage on a journey as one man discovers ways back from alienation with faith. That said, Mr. Moffat brought up a number of points about Thomas Merton (who is far more likely to lead the casual reader astray, even though I have not read anything that I would say was categorically unorthodox, nor, to my knowledge, has the Vatican ever issued any "warnings" against his writings).

On Merton a couple of notes--

(1) I deeply admire Merton and his career. He was a man who sought silence, but who could not reconcile the interior noisiness that gave rise to his prolific writing with the life of silence. The attraction to eastern religion and Zen in particular probably stemmed from the desire for a "technique" to help still the interior noise. What Merton failed to realize, or at least what I seem to hear relatively little of, is that the act of writing was an act of prayer. He wrote because he was writing to God and for him there was no other choice. I tend to view his Asian experience as more an experiment with method than a flirting with ideas. I could be wrong, but he always seemed to return to a very solid Christian center. He never bought the notion of annihilation of self in a literal nothingness. Annihilation of self can be correlative to detachment, but then the self is being more reified than annihilated. That is, in detachment one gives up the false self created for security amongst people and assumes the true identity in Christ. So, as I see the fascination for Zen, I see an attempt to find a "short-cut" or at least a clear route to the center of detachment. (But I haven't read extensively in the later diaries, so I don't know that these speculations are well-grounded.)

(2) It seems that if one were to take exception to Merton, the strongest case for doing so is outlined in Paul Elie's study as well as most of the modern introduction to The Seven Storey Mountain. That would, of course, be the fact that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. However, were we to judge all by this standard, I suspect there are are good many Saints we would have to do without, starting with Augustine and going right up to Charles de Foucauld. We all make stupid mistakes in youth--Merton did so, presumably repented, and that issue was a matter for him and God, not for him to be judged by.

I bring up this lattter to return to the initial point--a single life-shaping mistake or experience neither abrogates nor reinforces with work of an individual. Yancey was raised in a church of racists and taught fundamentally racist doctrine. Mr. Moffat claims that the bitterness of that experience has transformed him into a PC Christian. I do not agree, and I must admit find the judgment thus levied uncharacteristically harsh. I saw nowhere where Yancey compromised the truth encompassed by Scripture in any case of special pleading. He refers once to Mel White and his continued friendship with Mr. White--in no way implying that what Mr. White was presently doing was at all correct. His continued friendship is an instance of love the sinner--hate the sin. So I'm afraid I will have to continue to respectfully disagree with Mr. Moffat on this issue. I stand by my recommendation of Soul Survivor as a book that is most excellent for Christians of any stripe and a nice guide to possible future reading. I also stand by my statement that I have found other works dry or uninteresting, with nothing for me, nor perhaps for many Catholics. It is the nature of Soul Survivor as a kind of religious Literary Appreciation of a number of authors and people that gives it its peculiar viability and power.

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Dear Steven,

Thank you. I very much agree with you. I suspect that questions about Merton's use of Zen can also be addressed to most of the Christians who have attempted that sort of practice. I think that the following quotation from the Presbyterian Frances Adeney implicitly raises the question we should be asking. That is, does the experience of "meditative silence" relativize the other aspects of Christian life, or does it rather - and somewhat paradoxically -allow them to be more fully realized? Here's Adeney:

"During the early 1990s, while living in Indonesia, I frequently visited a Trappist monastery in central Java. The nuns there didn't practice Buddhism, but my spiritual director, a German priest who lived down the mountain, said to me, 'Come and see.' Father Hamma introduced me to sitting in a gentle non-technique-oriented way. He called it 'contemplative prayer.' I took up this practice daily during a difficult time of loss in my life. Spiritual retreats at the monastery up the mountain helped me learn to let go of what I could not hold onto in life. It was there that I began to experience the delight and calm that comes from a practice of meditative silence.

"This silent meditation differed from other practices of silence that I had known in significant ways: (1) It was not focused on an interchange between God and myself. I was not listening for God's voice. I was not bringing my concerns to God. I was simply entering a place of silence. (2) It was not predicated on specific ideas about God or thoughts from writings in the Bible. I did not need to frame this time of silence with religious meanings. (3) It was not focused on an outcome. I neither expected nor did I ask for any changes in myself or the world.

"Yet there were ways in which this practice of meditative silence was framed by my Christian faith. In taking up this practice, I felt I was intentionally entering God's presence. While not looking for spiritual experiences, I was somehow seeking life, and I did believe that God met me in those silent moments. More than once I had experiences that were 'sightings' if not meetings with the Divine. During the seven years that I have practiced entering silence, the space that I enter has grown larger, and the conviction that I am entering and becoming part of God's presence deepens."




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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 2, 2003 7:54 AM.

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