I discovered the writings of Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist Catholic monk, after spending two hours in an enormous “chain” bookstore turning countless volumes of religious and philosophical thought over in my hands, and concluding that what I needed was something absolutely new. Two miniscule volumes of selections from Merton attracted me because together they weighed less than a pound, and they both began with paragraphs railing against the corpulent society that allowed the existence of massive and impersonal bookstores such as the one in which I stood.
I took the books home and learned that Merton was more than just an angry Catholic monk. He was a champion of the Individual—and of any means a person required, be it Christian or otherwise, to realize the True Self. I delighted in his other writings after that, and hope that you, too, will find inspiration in his story and works.
One morning in the first half of the 1960s, Thomas Merton sat alone in his cabin, reading the sixth-century Syrian theologian Philoxenos by lamplight, and listening to the cold Kentucky rain that Elvis would make famous in a song. Whether or not Merton, who had entered the monastery in 1941, had ever heard of Elvis, he certainly understood the society that made Elvis the idol and the icon that he was—that made him “the King.” It was a nagging revulsion with popular culture and its idols of plaster and gold that chased Merton to the seclusion of the Abbey of Gethsemani. And later—when his own writings became so famous that the abbey was flooded with new novitiates—drove him to his hermit’s cabin in the neighboring forest, where he sought even greater solitude. He considered the writing of a bestseller (the autobiographical The Seven-Storey Mountain, which sold over a million copies) one of his greatest mistakes. As one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century, he would have recoiled in disbelief at the notion that Gethsemani might have become some manner of Catholic Graceland on account of his fame—had the dignity of its vocation not zealously preserved it.
Merton reveled in his aloneness: He found the apex of his own humanity in the reality that the rain could not be stopped, could not be controlled nor manipulated, nor commanded, nor even used in any direct sense by him or any other person. And since Merton could not go very long without writing something, he wrote about this. He wrote: “The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.”
So what—or whom—was Merton at this moment? He was a man, in a cabin, in the rain. He was writing, but that didn’t necessarily make him a writer. He was wearing the heavy woolen robe of his Cisterian order, but that didn’t necessarily make him a monk. And he was doing his best to run away from society, although in no way did this make him a misanthrope. At this moment he would not admit to being anything but a man, in a cabin, in the rain. If it were any other way, he would have run the risk of being useful, and therefore marketable, and therefore something that society could adopt for the furtherance of its own falseness—its great, life-consuming mask-making industry. The words that he was writing would eventually become an essay, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” in a book of essays called Raids on the Unspeakable (1966).
One of the things that Thomas Merton liked most about Zen was that it could no longer retain its purity after it ceased to be “just” Zen, and became instead Zen Buddhism. Naturally, he found the idea of Zen Catholicism to be just as untenable. One could be a Buddhist or a Catholic (or any kind of Christian) and align themselves to the ideas associated with or defined as “Zen”—but the instant one regarded oneself as a member of a school of thought or a religious faction, one acted in betrayal of Zen. In a paradox that is typical of Zen (and really, of most advanced religious thought), to be truly oneself is to be simultaneously as much and as little as possible. Or, in Taoist terms, to become great in one’s smallness. For, as Jesus of Nazareth said, “the last shall come first,” and “the meek shall inherit the Earth.”
Merton was like any of us in his pursuit of his own central being, his desire to know who he really was. We read in The Seven-Storey Mountain that his youth was spent in this struggle for self-definition, in trying to be a vagabond, a bohemian, a libertine, a communist, a novelist, later a Catholic, and later a monk. In none of these states was he able to find the happiness that was advertised, although there is little question that the contemplative life agreed with him, or he agreed with it. It was at the moment that he stopped striving for self-definition that self-definition came, in the form of a “yes.” In his Confessions of a Guilty Bystander (1966), he says, “Basically…my being is not an affirmation of a limited self, but the ‘yes’ of Being itself, irrespective of my own choices. Where do ‘I’ come in? Simply in uniting the ‘yes’ of my own freedom with the ‘yes’ of being that already is before I have the chance to choose.” In the same book, he writes, “The more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes’ to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am.”
Merton believed in solitude, because he believed—along with many mystics before him—that it is only when one is alone (and preferably alone in nature) that one is truly oneself. One’s sense of being is no longer directly informed by the world of magazines, billboards, television, the Internet, and the self-destructively self-interested machine of advertisements, consumption, and obligatory dissatisfaction that drive the whole system.
He believed that in some sense, we must all embrace a life of solitude – not by becoming hermits or abandoning society – but by acknowledging that there is nothing anybody else can do to help us understand who we are. We must come to know ourselves as the Divine knows us—as a mother knows her child—as something perfectly unique, something absolutely true, regardless of external circumstance.
“This,” says Merton in No Man is an Island, “is a difficult job. It can only really be done by a lifetime of genuine humility. But sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is.”
What lies beneath the “cheap and showy garment” is what we actually are: the parts of us that were not found in advertisements and cannot themselves be marketed—our absolute love for friends and family, our capacity for goodness and generosity, our sense of beauty, our desire to find the truth and represent it in ourselves, and, most importantly, our solitary and unique relationship with the Divine, which neither began at our births nor will end with our deaths, but was constant and unbroken from the beginning. You are, at this moment, what the Divine sees you to be: a being of love and truth and eternal reality—reading a magazine.
Damien Tavis Toman is a journalist, singer-songwriter, and student. He lives in Kingston with his wife and young daughter.