Misc notes from Thomas Merton’s Seasons of Celebration

Liturgy is, in the original and classical sense of the word, a political activity. Leitourgia was a “public work,” a contribution made by a free citizen of the polis to the celebration and manifestation of the visible life of the polis. As such it was distinct from the economic activity or the private and more material concern of making a living and managing the productive enterprises of the “household.”

This is interesting as in the USA, the “religious nonsense” that one does inside the walls of a church are largely lumped in with all things “private” – along with what happens in your kitchen or bedroom. But historically, it’s more clearly delineated as public. Worshipping in public is a public act, but some economic acts that we now would call “public” were considered essentially private – with the end being ones own household. It is curious how some of this has been flipped on it’s head in the modern world.

We must be on our guard against a kind of blind and immature zeal – the zeal of the enthusiast or of the zealot – which represents precisely a frantic compensation for the deeply personal qualities which are lacking to us. The zealot is the man who “loses himself” in his cause in such a way that he can no longer “find himself” at all. Yet paradoxically this “loss” of himself is not the salutary self-forgetfullness commanded by Christ. It is rather an immersion in his own willfulness conceived as the will of an abstract, non-personal force: the force of a project or a program. He is, in other words, alienated by the violence of his own enthusiasm: and by that very violence he tends to produce the same kind of alienation in others. This type of zeal does great harm.

Benedict warns against the same sort of thing in his Rule though Merton is clearer here. To restate, there is a “losing oneself in a cause” that is actually just a selfish magnification of oneself. This must be guarded against when you are a leader or some of your closest and most enthusiastic followers will prove to be rotten eggs in the long run.

Here, Merton does a good job of describing time in a way that turns it from a claustrophobic constraint to an artistic one. Good stuff with a lot of potentially positive implications.

Time for the Christian is then the sphere of his spontaneity, a sacramental gift in which he can allow his freedom to deploy itself in joy, in the creative virtuosity of choice that is always blessed with the full consciousness that God wants His sons to be free, that He is glorified by their freedom. For God takes pleasure not in dictating predetermined solution to providential riddles, but in giving man the opportunity to choose and create for himself solutions that are glorious in their very contingency.

The universe which came into being will some day grow cold, perhaps, and die. What will remain? Such is the view of life and time implied by the Hellenistic mystery religions, with their ontological foundations in Platonism. Time, the realm of matter and of “becoming” is the prison of eternal and divine spirits who have been punished by their descent into bodies, and seek desperately some way to return to the pure spiritual realm which is their “home.” This climate of dualism and myth has, in effect, influence much Christian thought, though it is not found in the Bible.

It’s pretty easy to turn “gnosticism” (the scare quotes are intentional in this case) into the bogeyman in nearly any theological debate today. Nevertheless, the underlying spirit/body divide is a big deal and really has been terribly influential in Christian thought. So much so that one has to consciously examine an idea with it in mind to detect it’s presence since it’s so often assumed in casual discourse.