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What Exactly is a Monk?

According to Thomas Merton


What was a monk according to Merton's point of view? First of all, a monk emphatically was not simply a man who wore a peculiar garb and followed a set of observances. This was part of it, of course, but not all of it, for someone can put on a robe, and following observances can easily become a perfunctory and spiritless proposition. The most important part of a monk's identity is his subscribing unconditionally to the prospect of metanoia, or complete conversion of life. Becoming a monk should be one of the most radical things a man could do with his life, for a monk's constant commitment is to changing himself to the very roots of his being. This total conversion is for a distinct purpose, to remove everything that would stand in the way of his dedication to God.

But it is a little more complicated than that, for the monk should be concerned, not only with changing himself, but, in a sense, with getting rid of himself.

Merton assumes that when a man comes to a monastery he is still saddled with what he called the "empirical self," that is, an illusory idea rather than an existential reality. The "empirical self" is a facade, a shoddy conception of ourselves, rank in its artificiality, which, for whatever variety of reasons, we have built up in order to hide our true selves. Our true self, then, the person whom God intends us to be, is to be found behind the facade of the empirical self, and it is the duty of the monk to try to break down that facade and come to terms with his true self. It is by no means an easy task, and Merton made no attempt to suggest otherwise. The monk's life must, essential- ly, be one of abnegation. He must be prepared to declare ruthless war on his false self so that his true self can emerge victorious. In not at all a superficial way, the monk must be willing to suffer a kind of death, dying to his old self so that his new self might be born. Lest this sound too fantastic in tone, it could be pointed out that the monk is simply taking with the utmost seriousness one of the basic tenets of Christian belief: that if a man wants to gain his life, he must be prepared to lose it.

The monk's quest does not end, however, with the discovery of his true self; this is only the preliminary to that toward which his entire life and energies must incessantly be directed-union with God. We saw that the monk's true self was the self which God, from all eternity, destined him to be. By coming to terms with his true self, far from arriving at a kind of psychological dead-end, he in fact comes in contact with the infinite, for it is in the center of his being, having once discovered who he really is, that the monk discovers God. It is as if, in a manner of speaking, he does not stop at the discovered self but goes right on through it the only route he could have taken, however to meet something infinitely more interesting, the awful presence of the eternal Lord. The ultimate and paradoxical purpose of the monk's concern with himself is that he might become selfless. He seeks to find his true self so that he can forget about it, and lose himself in the eternal reality of God.

Having thus acquainted ourselves with what Merton considered the core identifying qualities of the monk-metanoia and union with God we might imagine that any monk who succeeded in these most difficult accomplishments would be a decidedly distant and impotent fellow, someone who walk- ed around from dawn to dusk in a state of spacey self- absorption, completely unaware of what was going on or, if aware, completely incapable of doing anything about it.

Merton would totally reject this figment of our imagination. A man who has found his true self, and thus God, is one who, if anything, is more rather than less involved in the world about him. The difference is not between action and non-action, but between kinds of motivation for action. The man who has not found his true self acts in accordance with his own, often enfeebled, conceptions of what has to be done. The man in possession of his true self, however, acts in accordance with the divine light that burns within him. If not at all times infallible in what he does, he at least stands considerably less chance of going completely off the falls and acting foolishly. It cannot be expected, though, that the majority of monks will attain the state after which they aspire. There is no fixed schedule for the discovery of one's true self. For some it is a long process; for others and the reason for this is hidden in the mystery of God it is simply something not to be accomplished within the confines of this life at all. Whatever be the case, all monks must take a definite, conscious stance toward the world in which they live. That stance is in a sense taken by them as soon as they enter the monastery , for Merton believed that one of the essential characteristics of the monastic life was that it was a life of protest, protest against a world which is considered fundamentally wrong headed in its commitment to things which are well calculated to do everything but lead a person to a discovery of his true self. The world, which, concretely, meant for Merton American society and culture, with its totally materialistic orientation, provided every possible barrier to prevent a person's ever coming into contact with his true self. In fact, the average person in the world was not even aware of the falsity of his identity. He could easily move through seventy years from birth to death and never once have experienced the exquisite pleasure of being really alive.

It was the monk's function, by leading a life dramatically contrary to such pseudo-life, to protest, to stand in judgment upon the world. For him to be at all effective in this, separateness was critical. He was making the best possible contribution to his society by not becoming lost in it. He must, in other words, maintain his identity as a monk. To emphasize the importance of this, Merton once remarked that "the monk, as such, is actually of no interest to anybody except insofar as he is really a monk." For this reason he had little patience with those who tried to tell him that monasticism was an anachronism, or, worse, that it was irrelevant. Most such criticism came from people who attached primary importance to social action, but Merton had seen enough, and been engaged enough in, social action to realize that some of it was precipitious and some disastrous. It was very important not to allow action to degenerate into mindless activism action just for the sake of action which happened much too often. At any rate, the supreme relevance of monasticism lay in the fact of its being consciously and determinedly irrelevant, that is to say, in its decision not to feel bound to keep up with what the world considers important, and more, continually to call into serious question, by its very existence, the value system of the world. Merton was well aware that this raison d'etre of monasticism was completely unacceptable to many people. He knew that some, who were fairly close to him and whom he respected, thought that he was wasting his time and his talents by living in a monastery and not doing all he could be doing to make this world a better place in which to live. He was personally sorry that they saw things this way, but he did not agree with them for a moment. Ultimately one must face the paradoxical nature of the monastic life. A monk leaves the world for the sake of the world. He stands in judgment of that world not to damn it but to save it. He separates himself from men not to alienate himself from them but rather to seek a condition in which he can discover God, and discover- ing God and loving him he discovers all mankind and loves them in a way he could never have done before.

There were times, toward the end of his life, when he thought that much more important than explaining what it was to be a monk, or apologizing for being a monk, was the need simply to be a monk. Merton did a lot of explaining and very little apologizing. He spent twenty-seven years of his life in the earnest effort of being the best monk he knew how to be. His life in the monastery had its ups and downs. There were some aspects of monasticism which clearly bothered him and, as we saw, he did not hesitate to criticize them. But it is quite evident that this criticism sprang from love. It is impossible to believe, reading the works of Thomas Merton, that one is listening to an unhappy man. Quite the contrary, Merton evidences the contentment common to the man who knows the most important decision of his life was the right one, who writes from home. He fell in love with monasticism the first time he visited the Abbey of Gethsemani, in the spring of 1941, and the affair lasted for the rest of his life. It is not insignificant that the last talk he gave in his life, just a few hours before he died, was on monasticism.