Scapegoats, Solitude and Solidarity: Thomas Merton as Quarantine Companion

“We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.” –St. Thomas Aquinas

This gentle reminder came to me by way of Thomas Merton, whom I’ve been reading lately with this great group of people. It’s prompted me to dive deeper into Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings, a collection recommended last year in an interview with Merton expert Greg Hillis in FORMA: Classical Thought for Contemporary Culture.

Merton keeps popping up on my radar and every time he does, I’m richer for it.

I’ve actually been reading Thomas Merton off and on ever since I noticed C.S. Lewis recommending No Man Is an Island to a friend in a collection of his letters.

Now I’m finding Merton to be a perfect quarantine companion, speaking right into the moment we’re living on the necessity of solitude, the truth of human interconnectedness and the need for strengthening community.

Merton is an enigmatic figure whose intense spiritual search challenges comfortable Christianity as it pushes us toward lives of greater authenticity.

Some Christians disqualify his voice because of imperfections in his personal life and his drive to engage spiritual leaders outside Christianity in dialog.

I think they miss opportunity his work offers. Reading Merton exposes my weakness and duplicity but it always leaves me hungry for a more honest quest for Christ.

Like Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor and Wendell Berry, Merton cuts through our cowardice and complacency.

That’s exactly why we need him.

These days, enclosed in our homes doing our isolated best to stop the spread of COVID-19, we may be imbibing alcohol, entertainment and news coverage a bit more than usual. “What else is there to do?” a friend quipped the other day.

Well, without necessarily eliminating any of the above, adding Merton to the mix can stretch us toward a more meaningful self-isolation. Merton, who spent much of his life in monastic solitude, invites us into introspection and contemplation.

If you let Merton be your guide he can change the way you look at yourself and the world around you.

That is, if you’re willing to remain open to what one writer aptly called a “sucker punch to the ego.”

And who couldn’t use a little of that, influenced as we all are by the hallmarks of social media, virtue signaling and self-celebration?

I’m hoping to remain with Merton’s thought and let it peel a few layers of my false self, built of illusion, pretense and a stubborn avoidance of God’s will for me to love my neighbor and my enemy.

Convert, contemplative and social critic, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) had a mostly secular upbringing. Entering university life as a young intellectual, his creed, he says, was “I believe in nothing.”

But Merton’s restless heart, seeking beauty and engaging serious thought wherever he encountered it, opened to consider Christanity as he read Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy for a class at Columbia. His intrepid journey from agnosticism to faith in is told in The Seven Storey Mountain. It’s a book that can be helpful for those whose university experience has them believing that faith is only for the uneducated.

Merton was drawn, even before his baptism, to the Catholic priesthood, influenced by the story of English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like Hopkins, Merton would convert to Catholicism and later become a priest.

Hopkins became a contemplative in action in the Jesuit order, while Merton would pursue Christ as a Trappist in the Abbey of Gethsamani monestery in western Kentucky. He was ordained a priest in 1949 and would gain an international audience as a spiritual writer.

What makes Merton so relevant at this moment?

Merton understands the value of silence and solitude, the very things we’re chafing against as the pandemic has forced them on us.

Solitude, if we don’t drown it in distraction, can open us to consider our false selves. Silence breaks down illusion and helps us confront our inner monologs, riddled with axious doubt.

“Human beings cannot bear too much reality,” wrote T.S. Eliot, another advocate of silence.

Merton would have us consider the contemplative potential in our quarantine restrictions. “There are times,” he writes, “when, in order to keep ourselves in existence at all we simply have to sit back for a while and do nothing.”

This may be the perfect time to begin. And in that beginning we may recognize futility in much of the “busyness” we’ve undertaken in order to validate our lives so they compare favorably to others.

“But,” Merton advises in No Man Is an Island, “we have to cut down on our activity to the point where we can think calmly and reasonably about our actions.”

We do not live more fully by doing more, seeing more, tasting more, and experiencing more than we ever have before. On the contrary, some of us need to discover that we will not begin to live more fully until we have the courage to do and see and taste and experience much less than usual.

Forced to remain “safer at home,” we are freed to “stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in Him and to do whatever He wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of His reality which is all around is in the things and people we live with.”

The people we live with are mirror enough into our weakness and opportunity enough to begin or renew an authentic life of Christian charity.

Obsessing on the news unfolding on our ever-present screens, Merton again would draw us back to ourselves.

The Trappist would invite us into self-examination before we vent all our anger on scapegoats in the culture at large (who at the moment seem to include the president, the governors, the “open-up” protestors, China and the World Health Organization), even though culpablity for some of our problems may certainly found among them.

Merton would have us confront something closer to the root of our division and more painful as well: the false selves we’ve constructed to distinguish ourselves from others.

“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self,” Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation. “We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.”

The Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like other men sounds a lot like me when I fall into the trap of condemning those on the opposite side of the political response to the coronavirus.

His marks of spiritual superiority blinded him from his own false self, and we are equally blinded in this moment as we overfocus on those who are not like us.

On the other hand, the parable’s humble tax collector acknowledged from the outset that he was a sinner in need of mercy. He wasted no breath in condemning others.

“I am my own mistake,” Merton once acknowledged, and this is wisdom.

Yet Merton reminds me that I am also loved. The tax collector and the Pharisee are as well. If I meditate on that truth long enough, I can see with eyes of solidarity and the divisions between myself and those I’ve scapegoated in this (or any) crisis can dissolve. I can call for accountability without melting into the mob who delight in crying “off” with the opponents’ heads.

Self-isolation may be the perfect time to consider Merton’s famous experience of human solidarity on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville Kentucky, now commemorated as Thomas Merton Square.

Merton describes his epiphany, having visited the city to consult with a printer, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

“In the center of the shopping district:

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

“If only we could see each other that way all of the time.”

If only!

Merton relentlessly pursued unity with all people, following the lead of Christ, the Incarnate Lord, the Creator who entered the depths of all human misery and drew it up into his Cross.

Thus Merton speaks into our time when, over half a century ago, he noted the allure and the weaknesses of each side of the political spectrum. “[He] has very strong words about secular consumerist conformity as well as about the lure of totalitariansm,” writes Trappist Bernardo Bonowitz in Reaping Where Merton has Sown: A Retreat for the Merton Centenary:

In both cases, the individual has succumbed in a kind of despairing way to his impotence as a person and has been magnetized by the offer of an identity deriving from being a success in acquiring a large share of what society deems desirable, or an identity that in fact consists in a renunciation of a personal integrity and the submission to a totalitarian ideology and its ‘leader.’

Merton, he continues, “is convinced that at its root this hatred is hatred of oneself in one’s inauthenticity.” To challenge this form of hatred I must challenge my own pretensions and falsehoods, but that requires ego deflation and ‘the capacity to endure the weight of one’s poverty without seeking scapegoats to which one can unconsciously transfer the blame and the pain.'”

A sucker-punch to the ego, but one that could lead me into love.

Spending time in silence, Merton developed a social vision in line with his contemplative spirit. A white monk in a monestery, he rejected the racisim of his culture and wrote trenchantly against it.

Influenced by Thomas Aquinas, who absorbed his opponents’ thinking so well he often summarized their arguments better than they had actually made them, Merton was drawn to the a dialog of humility, as Greg Hillis puts it, “willing to listen totally and completely to the other person.”

Solitude could lead us into solidarity, but we’d have to give up the scapegoating, the habit of forever faultfinding with others’ beliefs about when and where we wear masks, who is “violating” safer at home guidelines and who isn’t, who wants businesses to reopen now and who thinks they should remain closed.

We could begin by understanding that everybody’s behavior makes sense to them. Reaching out with respect is the only way to come to terms with the serious issues we are facing.

Isolation could lead to interconnectedness if we drop the mask of the false self and enter into each others’ misery.

If that seems like a hopeful undertaking, Thomas Merton can be a great quarantine companion.

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There’s a rich Merton conversation between Heidi White and Greg Hillis on the FORMA podcast, the journal’s audio companion. FORMA managing editor Heidi White also delivers a stunning meditation on Merton’s poem, “Elegy for the Monastery Barn” on the Daily Poem Podcast, here.

“I remember Mr. Green and I were walking down a busy street in Louisville/The sign said Merton looked around and all the people passing by were shining like the sun and beautiful/And the wonder of it caught him by surprise/Oh Lord, I want to see the world with those eyes…” Andrew Peterson’s “Every Star Is a Burning Flame” on The Burning Edge of Dawn.

Photos by Yohei Shimomae on Unsplash and W.Marsh on Wikimedia Commons.

7 thoughts on “Scapegoats, Solitude and Solidarity: Thomas Merton as Quarantine Companion

    1. Thanks so much Kristin! I must tell you your mini blog posts on IG really influence me. Truly “no man is an island.” Blessings to you and your family. So glad I “met” you!

    2. Wow! This was very good, insightful, timely, and honorable to one man who was like a shooting star, Thomas Merton accomplished so much in his short life time. over 50 years after his death, his works still ring true, and especially now. Thanks for making the man and his revelation plain and comfortable.

      1. “Like a shooting star” indeed, I love that! Thank you for taking the time to comment, it means a lot and I hope others will be encouraged to read Merton, especially now!

  1. I am no longer surprised by my overwhelming connectedness to your writing; I simply expect it. But, I continue to be astounded by how much literature you consume. Can you please tell me where in Merton’s works a novice would begin, knowing that text would compel me to read the next?

    Love,
    Kristin

  2. So great to hear this and you know it goes both ways. You must remember I didn’t read all of these this year! I really think I’m a slow reader, just steady with the habit. I think you’d like New Seeds of Contemplation. So much on the true and false self in that one. You’ve helped me on the path.

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