¡§As to the world, let me become totally obscure to it forever. Thus, through this darkness, my I come to Your brightness at last. Having become insignificant to the world, may I reach out to the infinite meanings contained in Your peace and glory.
¡§I cannot explain to anyone¡Kthe loss which is the possession of You, nor the distance from all things which is the arrival in You, nor the death which is the birth in You, because I do not know anything about it myself.¡¨ (Dialogues with Silence, 5, 15)
John Wu, Jr.
During the early years of his monastic life, Thomas Merton seemed to have consciously indulged in a ¡§world-denying¡¨ plan, a consensus among Merton scholars. I myself have a different take on it. I see those years as part of his ordinary formation as a monk. Had Merton not practiced self-abnegation or world-denial, he might not have become as intensely ¡§world-affirming¡¨ as he did in his later years. We see an explosion in his thought, driven by a fearlessness that resulted in encounters with those of all races and colors, and philosophies and religions. We see this unquenchable craving for experience in everything he wrote.
As Christians, we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who could better serve as a paradigm for combining 20th century intellectual and spiritual life. This is most unexpected seeing that Merton loved well-established traditions¡Xforemost being the Rule of St. Benedict and Carmelite spirituality¡Xand that apparently he had entered a cloistered environment as a way to escape the world. Yet, few Christians¡Xmonks or otherwise¡Xunderstood modernity as well as he did. Perhaps the reason was that he saw the 20th century clearly reflected in his scriptural readings, and together with his fellow monks recited and lived the Psalms liturgically. He used Holy Scripture as a touchstone to critique his own failings and our mostly barbaric century.
Being a mystic, Merton grew through the daily living out of paradoxes.
In the above Merton selection, which combines parts of two separate prayers, we are confronted with polarities of darkness and brightness, insignificance and meaning, loss and possession, distance and arrival, death and birth. And as is so characteristic of him, Merton surprises. When everyone else is trying to bolster and magnify the self, to give the self the importance we think it deserves¡Xas most today would think to shrink the self would psychologically bring us to depression or nothingness, or both¡XMerton goes to the other extreme by expressing the hope for himself to become ¡§obscure from the world forever.¡¨ How clearly he seems to understand the necessity of becoming ¡§insignificant to the world¡¨ as a prelude to deeper faith and experience so that we may ¡§come to Your brightness at last.¡¨ He contrasts our darkness to God¡¦s brightness whereby, in our forgetting the self, which is apt to obstruct God¡¦s Light, the self¡Xnow being with Being¡Xis granted ¡§infinite meanings¡¨ when bathed in God¡¦s peace and glory.
The polarities of darkness and brightness remind me of Christmas, of the darkness over Bethlehem before the coming of the Child Who lit up the whole world. Out of the barrenness of Bethlehem¡Xan insignificant city¡Xarose Fecundity itself to renew all of life. In fact, the beginning of Fecundity is the darkness, from which springs brightness and without which even the most enlightened among us would still live the illusion that our dim lights¡Xno matter how glitzy¡Xare a substitute for Eternal Light. Obviously, to confuse the two¡Xthe dim lights for eternal brightness, and eternal brightness for our dim lights¡Xwould strike a death knell for the soul. It is the difference between the unenlightened self and the self informed and graced by God¡¦s mercy and love, the difference between night and day.
As Christians, we free ourselves from the world by being ¡§totally obscure from it,¡¨ and when we are no longer obsessed with nor burdened by the self or in search of a self that cannot really be ¡§found¡¨. For the self is not, after all, an object or something that can be possessed; it is, rather, an ¡§ontological mystery¡¨ that resonates with the very Life and Mystery of the Creator Himself. In fact, if I read Merton correctly, he tells us the more obscure we become the more we find ourselves in Christ and the greater clarity we have as to who we are. But this clarity is no object to be grasped. One large burden we modernists impose on our lives is trying to know ourselves through means that can never work. We use methods towards self-discovery that reminds us of an anecdote in Chuang Tzu of one attempting to fathom the depths of the ocean with a six-foot pole. How laughable and futile that is! Not to mention it is both an insult to both being and Being.
To become ¡§at home in the world¡¨ suggests proper proportionality, an adjustment of values in which we come to understand at least the basic difference between the ephemeral and the eternal, the profane and the sacred, and something very close to the hearts of the Chinese, the ¡§nameable tao¡¨ and the ¡§Eternal Tao.¡¨ Is it not true that the genuinely happy are those able to cross from one world to the other and back again without skipping a beat, without foolishly tripping over themselves? Is it not wisdom to look at oneself and say, ¡§Father, save me from myself!¡¨