I am preparing for a series of lectures and some of that will focus on my favorite 20th century monk, Thomas Merton. Of course, I realize he is the favorite monk of a huge number of people. Merton is an interesting figure for so many different reasons. His rather short life (accidentally died at 53) was a full and sometimes tumultuous life. He was an atheist, a Communist and, finally, a Catholic. But he was no ordinary Catholic. He moved right to the margin by joining a rigorous monastic order, the Trappists. He also became a priest.
With his conversion to Catholicism, he became super-Catholic. As so often is the case, a convert is zealous. This is certainly not wrong, but sometimes it can be limiting. And of course, this was still the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. This was the period when Merton penned the still famous, Seven Storey Mountain. It is a great book, but ultimately not one he felt deserved the praise it received---and still receives. The thing I like about Merton is the fact that he kept seeking deeper and deeper the God who called him into more amazing things. Merton appreciated the breathe of fresh air that came with Vatican II in the early ‘60s. He embraced the vibrancy of the same decade as issues such as racism, war and feminism were tackled.
Merton became more involved with the ecumenical movement and the interfaith dialogue. In fact Merton’s untimely death came very far from his Kentucky home. He was in Bangkok, Thailand at an interfaith monastic dialogue with some Buddhist monks when he died one afternoon in 1968. It makes for fascinating speculation to ponder where Merton would have gone spiritually and theologically had he lived into his ripe old years.
Merton is a favorite of so many people because he had thoughts on such a wide array of subjects. And he wrote prolifically. Furthermore, he is so quotable. He had that knack to put something so effectively, that he spoke to the spiritual condition of countless souls. I had just such an encounter with a section of his book from the late ‘60s, Confessions of a Guilty Bystander. For me, this is Merton at his provocatively best.
At one place Merton quips, “…it is not humanly possible to live a life without significance and remain healthy.” (118) When I read that sentence, I could only nod my head in agreement. It would be difficult for me to imagine anyone who would not like to live a life of significance. For Merton that significant life is a pre-requisite for being healthy. I am not so sure Merton means healthy in the physical sense. Ultimately all of us will be unhealthy and will die.
I think he probably means “healthy” in the sense of being whole. People who are physically sick can be healthy in this sense. And they can maintain that health by having lives of significance. It is more important to figure out what a “significant” life is than to dwell on the issue of health.
I think the next sentence in the Merton text gives us a clue. Merton says that “A human life has to have a human meaning, or else it becomes morally corrupt.” Again, this seems so true to me. It seems clear to me that Merton thinks a life with meaning is a significant life. Meaning makes the significance. Without meaning, we become morally corrupt. And without meaning, there is no significance and, hence, it is impossible to be healthy. With this logic, the real key to health is meaning. My own experience would bear out this truth.
Of course, there are many different ways human beings make meaning. But one of the key ways meaning comes to people is by becoming spiritual. To become spiritual is to experience life at a deeper level of connection with the Spirit (God) and with other people. Spiritual is not doctrine, although it sometimes is articulated with doctrine. Doctrine is not bad; it is just insufficient. Spiritual is life experienced. Doctrine is experience explained.
Authentic spirituality connects us to God and other people in such a way that we know who we are and whose we are. We become clear who we are (identity) and why we are (purpose). To have a sense of identity and purpose is inherently meaningful. And if we have discovered some meaning in life, then we have been given significance and that leads to health.
It is all fairly simple, but many of us proceed to make it too complicated. Too often we fabricated false selves by chasing after worldly things (fame, fortune, folly) and ultimately founder on the rocks of disappointment and disillusion. A fabricated self is not a real self and can have no authentic purpose. Hence there can be no real meaning. The end result is a spiritual sickness.
If we continue in this kind of spiritual sickness, we will become spiritual invalids. A healthy life will seem a faint hope and mire us deeper into despair. But there is hope; there is always hope in the Spirit. It’s never too late. It’s your choice: to your health!