Thomas Merton’s fuga mundi, or “flight from the world,” was a complex and multi-faceted thing. When I envisioned this series back in the fall I had to idea it would end where it did. I didn’t ever think that Star Wars would factor into my fuga mundi reflections. But there it was, right at the center of Star Wars story–and in the new Force Awakens movie as well.
Thomas Merton, at his hermitage
So it was too with my thoughts on Thomas Merton and fuga mundi. I figured I’d say something about the Seven Storey Mountain and perhaps that would be it. However, I began reading–for the first time–his collection of essays titled Contemplation in a World of Action. I can’t recall the last time I read something of Merton’s for the first time–but what a treat! The discovery of something new from an author you love is a rare thrill. However, this collection of essays isn’t just a “rewarding treat:” it represents Merton’s most mature thought on a range of contemporary problems still relevant to us today.
Contemplation in a World of Action has 14 essays that all grapple in various ways with the Catholic Church’s engagement with the world. Many of the essays focus on Merton’s vocation as a monk and the renewal of the monasticism to which he had committed his life. Each of the essays were written in the 1960s and they cover a range of topics that include ecumenism, atheism, vocation, identity, education, the role of the contemplative, among others.
Contemplation in a World of Action by Thomas Merton
The other turn I didn’t expect this new engagement with Merton to take is how relevant one essay in particular is for the Benedict Option. The essay titled “Is the World a Problem?” addresses many of the themes that Rod Dreher and others are contemplating with the Benedict Option. More on that below….
Thomas Merton & Fuga Mundi, Part I
Merton’s fuga mundi was a two-phase process. First, his more traditional fuga mundi took place with his reception into the Catholic Church and entrance into the Trappist monastery. But it didn’t end there. In my post on St. Benedict’s Fuga Mundi I introduced this notion of the “little world” that is created within the monastic enclosure. As Merton lived his monastic life, he gradually began to realize that the monastery isn’t a perfect society of men walking on water. There are “worldly” elements that can creep into even the most isolated of monasteries. Merton’s own broad and deep reading of Scripture, the Church Fathers, Theology, Philosophy, and the Monastic Fathers, led him to realize that a monastic community could be just as mechanistic and dehumanizing as any bureaucratic multi-national corporation.
This first phase of Merton’s fuga mundi is recounted in the Seven Storey Mountain. I won’t say too much about it here, as many are familiar with the story. For those that aren’t, Merton is a famous Catholic convert from no religious faith whatsoever who eventually became a Trappist monk. He lived a painful and unsettled early life with his bohemian-painter father, his younger brother John Paul, and artist mother, who died of stomach cancer when Thomas was only six years old. The young Merton bounced between France, the United States, and England throughout his schooling, living in boarding schools, with his father, his grandparents in the U.S., and an aunt and uncle in London. At the age of 16 his father, Owen, died of a brain tumor. Following his father’s death, he entered Cambridge University at age 18. It was short-lived, and due to a difficult freshman year of drinking, and, by some accounts, fairly free relationships with women, Merton enrolled in Columbia University in New York for his sophomore year. It was in New York that Merton began to have more serious encounters with the Catholic faith. His interest in Catholicism continued while at Columbia, and at age 24, while pursuing a Master’s degree in English, he was Baptized and Confirmed in the Catholic Church. Merton’s faith deepened and his study of the Catholic faith continued. Upon completing his Master’s degree, he took a teaching job at St. Bonaventure University. Merton felt he was being called to become a Franciscan friar, but a Franciscan priest, with whom Merton had expressed this interest, felt his youthful indiscretions and worldly past wouldn’t be a good fit for the Order. Fortunately, God had other plans. Merton had booked a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in anticipation of Easter in 1941. He felt an enormous pull to the Trappist life he found there. Later that year, he applied for admission to the order and was accepted as a Postulant in December 1941 and later as a Novice in March of 1942 at age 27. To learn more about Merton’s life and conversion, check out his Wikipedia article.
Merton’s conversion to the Catholic faith and embrace of the Trappist monastic life mark one of the most famous fuga mundi stories of the 20th century. In classic form, similar to the fuga mundi of St. Antony the Great and St. Benedict, he renounced worldly pleasures and aspirations and followed the call of God into solitude and silence. Yet as Merton’s monastic vocation grew and matured, he began to face the “little world” within the monastery and the “worldly” elements in his own personality. Merton’s most mature reflection on the fuga mundi comes in an essay originally published in America magazine in June 1966 titled “Is the World a Problem?” and later included as a part of the posthumously published book Contemplation in a Word of Action. Merton is considering this question not only in light of his 20+ years as a Trappist monk, but also in light the then-recent Second Vatican Council document on the Church and the world titled Gaudium et Spes.
Okay, now to Merton’s essay. Right from the start, Merton posits a kind of confusion that has prompted him to write:
First of all, the whole question of the world, the secular world, has become extremely ambiguous. It becomes ever more ambiguous when it is set up over against another entity, the world of the sacred. The old duality of time-eternity, matter-spirit, natural-supernatural and so on (which makes sense in a very limited and definite context) is suddenly transposed into a totally different context in which it creates nothing but confusion. This confusion is certainly a problem. Whether or not “the world” is a problem, a confused idea of what the world might possibly be is quite definitely a problem. So what I want to talk about is this confusion, and what I myself think about it at the moment.
A similar confusion exists around discussions of the Benedict Option today. The fact that so many confuse it with “giving up on the world and heading for the hills” reveals such a fundamental ignorance of essential aspects of Church history, particularly that aspect of Church history that has Christians renouncing worldly values and striving to live a life more dedicated to Christ. This is precisely what St. Benedict did, not to mention many others before and after in the monastic tradition. Many other saints have also done something similar (St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross)
Merton then let’s us know that this isn’t going to be more of the Seven Storey Mountain:
I want to make clear that I speak not as the author of the Seven Storey Mountain, which seemingly a lot of people have read, but as the author of more recent essays and poems which apparently very few people have read. This is not the official voice of Trappist silence, the monk with his hood up and his back to the camera, brooding over the waters of an artificial lake. This is not the petulant and uncanonizable modern Jerome who never got over the fact that he could give up beer. (I drink beer whenever I can lay hands on any. I love beer, and, by that very fact, the world.).
I am, in other words, a man in the modern world. In fact, I am the world just as you are! Where am I going to look for the world first of all if not in myself?
Merton cuts to the chase quickly. He acknowledges the fuga mundi of his younger days recounted in the Seven Storey Mountain, but also very clearly prepares the reader for a very different reflection on the fuga mundi:
As long as I assume that the world is something I discover by turning on the radio or looking out the window I am deceived from the start. As long as I imagine that the world is something to be “escaped” in a monastery—that wearing a special costume and following a quaint observance takes me “out of this world,” I am dedicating my life to an illusion.
This is a classic Merton move: cut through the exterior BS and realize the interior root of the problem in all of its spiritual, psychological, and religious aspects. He goes on to clarify the confusion he mentions earlier and gets to the essence of his topic of the “problem of the world.”
The confusion lies in this; on one hand there is a primitive Christian conception of the world as an object of choice. On the other there is the obvious fact that the world is also something about which there is and can be no choice. And, historically, these notions have sometimes got mixed up, so that what is simply “given” appears to have been chosen, and what is there to be chosen, decided for or against, is simply evaded as if no decision were licit or even possible.
That I should have been born in 1915, that I should be the contemporary of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam and the Watts riots, are things about which I was not first consulted. Yet they are also events in which, whether I like it or not, I am deeply and personally involved. The “world” is not just a physical space traversed by jet planes and full of people running in all directions. It is a complex of responsibilities and options made out of the loves, the hates, the fears, the joys, the hopes, the greed, the cruelty, the kindness, the faith, the trust, the suspicion of all. In the last analysis, if there is a stupid war in Vietnam because nobody trusts anybody, this is in part because I myself am defensive, suspicious, untrusting, and intent on making other people conform themselves to my particular brand of deathwish.
Put in these terms, the world both is and is not a problem. The world is a “problem” in so far as everybody in it is a problem to himself. The world is a problem in so far as we all add up to a big collective question. Starting then from this concept of a world which is essentially problematic because it is full of problematic and selfdoubting freedoms, there have been various suggestions made as to what to do about it.
Wow, just wow. Next, Merton’s reflection starts touching some very Benedict Option themes:
At present the Church is outgrowing what one might call the Carolingian suggestion. This is a worldview which was rooted in the official acceptance of the Church into the world of imperial Rome, the world of Constantine and of Augustine, of Charlemagne in the west and of Byzantium in the east. In crude, simple strokes, this worldview can be sketched as follows: We are living in the last age of salvation history. A world radically evil and doomed to hell has been ransomed from the devil by the Cross of Christ and is now simply marking time until the message of salvation can be preached to everyone. Then will come the judgment. Meanwhile, men being evil and prone to sin at every moment, must be prevented by authority from following their base instincts and getting lost.
They cannot be left to their own freedom or even to God’s loving grace. They have to have their freedom taken away from them because it is their greatest peril. They have to be told at every step what to do, and it is better if what they are told to do is displeasing to their corrupt natures, for this will keep them out of further subtle forms of mischief. Meanwhile the Empire has become, provisionally at least, holy. As figure of the eschatological kingdom, worldly power consecrated to Christ becomes Christ’s reign on earth. In spite of its human limitations the authority of the Christian prince is a guarantee against complete chaos and disorder and must be submitted to—to resist established authority is equivalent to resisting Christ. War on behalf of the Christian prince and his power becomes a holy war for Christ against the devil. War becomesa sacred duty.
The dark strokes in the picture have their historical explanation in the crisis of the Barbarian invasions. But there are also brighter strokes, and we find in the thought of Aquinas, Scotus, Bonaventure, Dante, a basically world-affirming and optimistic view of man, of his world and his work, in the perspective of the Christian redemption. The created world itself is an epiphany of divine wisdom and love, and, redeemed in and by Christ, will return to God with all its beauty restored by the transforming power of grace, which reaches down to material creation through man and his work. However, this view too is static rather than dynamic, hierarchic, layer upon layer, rather than on-going and self-creating, the fulfillment of a predetermined intellectual plan rather than the creative project of a free and self-building love.
This “Carolingian Suggestion” is nearly identical to what Stanley Hauerwas and others have dubbed Constantinianism, an unholy marriage of the church with the state. Hauerwas has also contended that Americans particularly have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing their Christianity from the U.S. citizenship. Many Americans seem to see being American and being a Christian as being synonymous. Wrong. This is a fundamental confusion of priority, and, as Merton, notes, has deep roots beyond that of the U.S. The more recent surge in popularity of the Benedict Option seems to have been fueled by the Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court, which is easy enough to understand, but the decision and its aftermath also reveals a crisis in discipleship and formation. St. Benedict himself was born into a world of Barbarian invasion and chaos around 480. He was the dutiful son who went to Rome to study, and in all likelihood to follow in his father’s footsteps in Roman civil government. But Benedict had different ideas and, by all accounts, simply up and walked away from it all to seek God in the quiet and solitude in the hills outside of Rome. We too are still laboring with this “Carolingian Suggestion.” The response of St. Benedict, Thomas Merton, and so many others was to “up and walk away”–fuga mundi– which is fundamentally what the Benedict Option is all about. We do this not to ignore or abandon the world, but to unplug from the influence and formation by the world and to tune in and be formed by the deeper currents of the Holy Spirit through the deepest spiritual and liturgical traditions of Christianity.
Now that Merton has stated the breadth and depth of the confusion and the “problem” of the world, he addresses where we go from here. He is cautiously optimistic about the future, but still sees an unwillingness to grapple with the essence of the problem:
One of the essential tasks of aggiornamento is that of renewing the whole perspective of theology in such a way that our ideas of God, man and the world are no longer dominated by the Carolingian-medieval imagery of the sacred and hierarchical cosmos, in which everything is decided beforehand and in which the only choice is to accept gladly what is imposed as part of an immobile and established social structure.
In “turning to the world” the contemporary Church is, first of all, admitting that the world can once again become an object of choice. Not only can it be chosen, but in fact it must be chosen. How? If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living ongoing events. To choose the world is not then merely a pious admission that the world is acceptable because it comes from the hand of God. It is first of all an acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world, in history and in time. To choose the world is to choose to do the work I am capable of doing, in collaboration with my brother, to make the world better, more free, more just, more livable, more human. And it has now become transparently obvious that mere automatic “rejection of the world” and “contempt for the world” is in fact not a choice but the evasion of choice.
On the other hand the stereotype of world-rejection is now being firmly replaced by a collection of equally empty stereotypes of world affirmation in which I, for one, have very little confidence. They often seem to be gestures, charades, mummery designed to make those participating in them feel secure, to make them feel precisely that they are “like participating” and really doing something. So precisely at the moment when it becomes vitally important for the destiny of man that man should learn to choose for himself a peaceful, equitable, sane and humane world the whole question of choice itself becomes a stark and dreadful one. We talk about choosing, yet everything seems more grimly determined than ever before. We are caught in an enormous web of consequences, a net of erroneous and even pathological effects of other men’s decisions. After Hitler, how can Germany be anything but a danger to world peace? To choose the world therefore is to choose the anguish of being hampered and frustrated in a situation fraught with frightful difficulties. We can joyously affirm the world and its secular values all we like, but the complexity of events responds too often with a cold negation of our hopes.
In the old days when everyone compulsively rejected the world it was really not hard at all to secretly make quite a few healthy and positive affirmations of a worldly existence in the best sense of the word, in praise of God and for the good of all men. Nowadays when we talk so muchof freedom, commitment, “engagement” and so on, it becomes imperative to ask whether the choices we are making have any meaning whatever. Do they change anything? Do they get us anywhere? Do we really choose to alter the direction of our lives or do we simply comfort ourselves with the choice of making another choice? Can we really decide effectively for a better world?
Not the most hopeful note on which to end, and Merton does not end there, thankfully, but here:
There remains a profound wisdom in the traditional Christian approach to the world as to an object of choice. But we have to admit that the habitual and mechanical compulsions of a certain limited type of Christian thought have falsified the true value-perspective in which the world can be discovered and chosen as it is. To treat the world merely as an agglomeration of material goods and objects outside ourselves, and to reject these goods and objects in order to seek others which are “interior” and “spiritual” is in fact to miss the whole point of the challenging confrontation of the world and Christ.
Do we really choose between the world and Christ as between two conflicting realities absolutely opposed? Or do we choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him, that is to say created and redeemed by Him, and encountered in the ground of our own personal freedom and of our love? Do we really renounce ourselves and the world in order to find Christ, or do we renounce our alienated and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time? [emphasis added] If the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love itself and nowhere else will I find myself, and the world, and my brother and Christ. It is not a question of either/or but of all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivism and “purity” but of wholeness, wholeheartedness, unity and Meister Eckhart’s Gleichheit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything.
The world cannot be a problem to anyone who sees that ultimately Christ, the world, his brother and his own inmost ground are made one and the same in grace and redemptive love. If all the current talk about the world helps people to discover this, then it is fine. But if it produces nothing but a whole new divisive gamut of obligatory positions and “contemporary answers” we might as well forget it. The world itself is no problem, but we are a problem to ourselves because we are alienated from ourselves, and this alienation is due precisely to an inveterate habit of division by which we break reality into pieces and then wonder why, after we have manipulated the pieces until they fall apart, we find ourselves out of touch with life, with reality, with the world and most of all with ourselves. [emphasis added]
Amen! Read the whole thing here. May the Benedict Option lead us all to a renewal of the monastic and contemplative dimension of Christianity, both inside and outside of the cloister.