Amid New Age nonsense, there's new life in faith Writing on deeply intellectual religious belief sets aside 'scientific' skepticism and pious sentimentalities.


August 30, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun staff

In June of 1968, six months before his death, Thomas Merton - Trappist monk, poet and one of the best-known spiritual writers of his time - sat in the woods on a steamy afternoon near his hermitage at the Gethsemani Abbey and jotted in his journal. "What a fool I have been, in the literal and biblical sense of the word: thoughtless, impulsive, lazy, self-interested, yet alien to myself, untrue to myself, following the most stupid fantasies, guided by the most idiotic emotions and needs," he wrote.

Merton had been a monk and spiritual seeker for more than a quarter century. Perhaps because of the approach of the end of the millennium, there is a flurry of books dealing with the inner life. Much of what passes for spiritual writing these days is New Age nonsense; homespun wisdom, like the cottage industry revolving around the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books; or pious sentimentality such as seen in the popular writing and ornament peddling of angels.

But contrary to any notion that discourse on spirituality is simply bubbleheaded blathering, there is much religious writing that is rational, literate and meets every standard of intellectual integrity. It just doesn't get as much notice as the volumes that get prominent display in the corporate chain bookstores.

Some of the best of those books deal with the inner struggle, the frustrations and distractions that mark an authentic life of faith. Others go straight to the ostensible conflicts between belief and science.

One is the last of the seven volumes of Merton's journals, "The Other Side of the Mountain" (HarperSanFrancisco, 329 pages, $30). Here are the musings of a holy man who is human, who embodies the notion that faith is a commitment that must be made and wrestled with constantly.

After all, that is the way most of us experience the journey of faith, isn't it?

Merton is author of perhaps the most widely read spiritual autobiography of the 20th century, "The Seven Storey Mountain," published in 1948, which chronicled his Bohemian intellectual life as a student and budding literary talent, his conversion to Catholicism and his entry into the Trappist order.

This volume of Merton's journals covers the period from October 1967 until December 1968. Three years earlier, Merton, who was dissatisfied in his life of solitude and prayer, had been allowed to move into a hermitage on the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey, near Louisville.

In his writings, despite his longing for solitude, which is constantly interrupted, he reflects a restlessness as he prepares for a sojourn to Asia, where he will share contemplative wisdom with Buddhist monks, meet with the Dalai Lama and attend a conference of religious contemplatives in Bangkok.

Merton's writings also show a man who, although he had "left the world" for life in a monastery in the extremely ascetic Trappist order, was thoroughly engaged with the world. His journal shows his preoccupation with the Vietnam War, the 1968 presidential election and the race riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as his on-going literary work, both sacred and secular (mostly poetry).

Merton left for Asia with a sense of destiny that he would find something in the wisdom of the East that would feed the spiritual hunger pangs he felt. After consulting lamas and monks, after seeing the shocking poverty of Calcutta and the beauty of the Himalayas, he seemed to come to some sense of peace, even as he was contemplating moving his hermitage to California, Alaska or a desert in New Mexico. "I do not think I ought to separate myself completely from Gethsemani, even while maintaining an official residence there, legally only. I suppose I ought eventually to end my days there. I do, in many ways, miss it."

Less than a month after writing that, he delivered a paper on "Marxism and Monastic Perspectives" to the gathering of Christian and Buddhist monks in Bangkok. After retiring to his cottage for a short nap, he was electrocuted when he grasped a fan with an electrical short.

Merton would recognize as fellow travelers the scientists who discuss their beliefs in God and religion in "Spiritual Evolution" (Templeton Foundation Press, 134 pages, $18.95). In this book, 10 international scientists in the areas of astronomy, biology, chemistry, genetics, medicine, physics and zoology relate how they reconcile their vocations that rely on empirical evidence with their belief in a supreme being.

No mere emotionalism here, these are people whose faith has been thoroughly examined, because, as many relate, their disciplines and colleagues were openly dismissive of and hostile to religion.

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