Merton on our tainted thinking

I think that if there is one truth that people need to learn, in the world, especially today, it is this: the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own absolute infallibility. The desires of the flesh-and by that I mean not only sinful desires, but even the ordinary, normal appetites for comfort and ease and human respect, are fruitful sources of every kind of error and misjudgment, and because we have these yearnings in us, our intellects (which, if they operated all alone in a vacuum, would indeed, register with pure impartiality what they saw) present to us everything distorted and accommodated to the norms of our desire.

And therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions. There are ways that seem to men to be good, the end whereof is in the depths of hell.

The only answer to the problem is grace, grace, docility to grace.

– Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, P. 205

Excellent, excellent observation. I think it would be silly for me to try and add much else at this point.

Doubt as a seed, a story worth retelling

Kathleen Norris tells of a long intellectual battle against the faith of her childhood, finding it impossible for a time to swallow much of Christian doctrine. Later, experiencing problems in her personal life, she felt drawn to a Benedictine abbey where, to her surprise, the monks seemed unconcerned about her weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations. “I was a bit disappointed,” she writes. “I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused and intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow.” Rather than address her doubts one by one, the monks instead instructed her in worship and liturgy.

-Philip Yancy, Reaching for the Invisible God, P. 219

Two things to mention here:

First, you’ve probably heard the phrase “seeds of doubt”. As in “Her friend’s gossip, though she brushed it off initially, planted seeds of doubt in her mind concerning the fidelity of her new boyfriend.” I find the notion described above by the monk to be fascinating and encouraging. A doubt we have may in fact be a seed of faith, ready to grow. This assumes that we come to God as sinners, unbelieving, looking up, wanting to believe. This, in contrast to the idea of being His people and our doubts being something that drag us down and make us fall away from the faith and prevent us from sustaining devotion on our own. I think I like the first idea better!

Secondly, citing the source of this idea presents an obvious problem. Some old and wise man of the Benedictine order taught his novices this encouragement of “doubt being a seed”. A monk down the line passed this on to Kathleen Norris (a poet and novelist I’m not really familiar with). She wrote it down in a book somewhere and it was recounted by Philip Yancy in one of his works.

I think Yancy has largely made a writing career out of compiling pertinent excerpts from other’s writing and then sprinkling in a little bit of his own commentary. There are lots of good one liners and illustrations, but ultimately not much is added to our collective body of literature and understanding. A lot of academic research can end up looking like this too! When your primary motivation for writing a thesis is to gain tenure at your institution, why not just recycle and repackage ideas? It may still take quite a bit of effort to produce, but there is no risk and little burden to be creative. Digging deep into original sources and experiences can be a lot of work with little to offer the casual reader.

Nevertheless, I guess I’ll appreciate Yancy (and other folks like him) for what they doing anyway.

The fool at the table

There’s always some fool who loses. So if you look around the table and you don’t see him, you’re the fool.

-Coy, The Nautical Chart, Arturo Perez-Reverte

I thought of this quote recently when I heard a similar comment during an interview with actor Steve Carell by NPR’s Terry Gross. Steve plays a character in The Office, which if you haven’t seen it, is a TV sitcom about office culture. Think live-action Dilbert. Michael Scott is the name of the clueless (but not evil) boss character in the show.

…that’s basically what Michael is up against. He thinks people think he’s cool. He thinks people like him and think he’s funny and charming but he’s really none of those things. And incidentally, when you say everyone knows a Michael Scott…I guess the rule of thumb…Ricky told me this in regards to the character he plays, David Brent, in the BBC version of The Office, that if you don’t know Michael Scott, then you ARE Michael Scott. So better that you actually have a frame of reference for him!

Light those candles when you pray

It would be surprising to meet a monk or a talmudic scholar or a minister who would say, “yes, we burn the incense or turn down the lights or ring these bells or light these candles as a way of creating a room where people are more likely to believe in their prayers,” but of course that’s exactly what they’re doing. (and you know what? there’s nothing wrong with that.)

-Seth Godin (brilliant marketing author)

Godin is a smart guy and I really enjoy his writing. He is no theologian though so he may not be keen as to what other motivations there could be for this kind of behavior. Obviously there is more to it than what he is describing, but it’s certainly a legitimate side-effect!

The bride is not a child

Wise parents nudge their children away from dependence toward freedom, for their goal is to produce independent adults. Lovers, however, choose a new kind of voluntary dependence: possessing freedom they gladly give it away. In a healthy marriage, one partner yields to the other’s wishes not out of compulsion but out of love. That adult relationship reveals, I believe, what God has always sought from human beings: not the clinging, helpless love of a child who has no real choice, but the mature, freely given commitment of a lover.-Philip Yancy, Reaching for the Invisible God, P. 223

What do Calvinists think of this? I imagine they would pretty much stick with the part about God treating us as children. Certainly much of the language of the bible is like this: God’s relation to the nation of Israel, etc. However, some of it really isn’t. The church as the bride of Christ. Do you treat your bride like a child? Not unless you’re an ass. So why does God use that imagery over and over again if he still means to treat us as children in all our relating? I don’t think that’s what the Lord is looking for in the church, as mentioned above.

What large amplifiers are best for

In his autobiography, Thomas Merton recounts a scene from his early college years:

Two attempts where made to convert me to less shocking tastes. The music master lent me a set of records of Bach’s B Minor Mass, which I liked, and sometimes played on my portable gramophone, which I had with me in the big airy room looking out on the Headmaster’s garden. But most of the time I played the hottest and loudest records, turning the Vic towards the classroom building, eighty yards away across the flowerbeds, hoping that my companions, grinding out the syntax of Virgil’s Georgics, would be very envious of me.

-Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, P. 99

I clearly remember my first week in college, living in the “scholar’s residence” which was on old Greek row with all the frats and sororities. Most of the houses had procured large, Van Halen-roadshow-sized speaker systems from which they blasted ACDC and Snoop Dog at volumes that would ricochet off the sides of the football stadium a mile away. I remember walking by them and casting a look of scorn in their direction while secretly wishing I might blast a few of my own tunes back. Our professor of early music history suggested Verdi’s Dies Erie. Very good choice. Love that bass drum solo right before the first repeat.

On receiving praise

How can he be puffed up with vain words, whose heart is truly subject to God? Not all the world can lift him up, whom the truth hath subjected unto itself; neither shall he, who hath firmly settled his whole hope in God, be moved with the tongues of any who praise him.

– Tomas A’ Kemis, The Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chapter 14

Can you think of a celebrity who isn’t puffed up (at least to some degree) by the attention they receive? There are some I imagine. If what man wants is money, sex and power (and he does), then receiving praise falls under the fame category, which is a subset of power. Once again, the meek inherit the earth and the praise of God while the man who desires it the much is the most easily deceived by it. He can be more easily moved by the words of others. He has subjected himself to other men.

I think you can take this the wrong way though. Some of us have trouble receiving praise. We write off any compliment we receive. I think this is often a symptom of the dreaded “nice-guy syndrome”. Unfortunately, this is NOT the same as the man who is subject to God. We may not be so subject to the words of other men, but we have replaced it with being subject to our own selves. This can harden us against correction and (more commonly I think) rob us of the joy of encouragement.

Realizing this condition exists doesn’t seem to make it feel any easier!

A lament on passing over the heart

We ask how much a man has done, but from what degree of virtuous principle he acts, is not so studiously considered.We inquire whether he be courageous, rich, handsom, skillful, a good writer, a good singer, or a good laborer; but how poor he is in spirit, how patient and meek, how devout and spiritual, is seldom spoken of.

-Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chapter 31

I often ask this myself. Both of men and peers in church and in the world. I have admired the courageous. I have certainly been jealous of the rich. Cynical of the handsome, especially when riches seem to come to them as a result. I know I have some fine skills. I wish I had others too. I could be a good writer if I wasn’t so slow. I could have been a good singer had I invested more time into it. My labors are a mixed bag: some good examples, some lousy.

“Man looks on the outside, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Too bad that outside success still holds such social capital, even within the church community. Even largely in my own heart.