I am in a rustic lodge of some kind, giving a talk on Thomas Merton to a group of people which includes Merton scholar Lawrence S. Cunningham, whose anthology, Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master (New York: Paulist, 1992) I regularly recommend to beginning readers of Merton. I become conscious that I have been talking too long, and since I want to impress LSC, I feel embarrassed. So I do a wrap-up by saying that Merton models for us the contemporary spiritual journey by being simultaneously attached to and detached from (or non-attached to: is there a difference?) Christianity/the Church, society, the monastic institution (of which he was a part) and himself. For simple attachment without non-attachment that only leaves God, of course, although it needs to be said that the attachment-non-attachment rubric also applies to ideas *about* God. Alternatively, we can say that we can know ourselves as being held by God (God in us, we in God) rather than needing to hold on to God.
Waking up, I decide to follow up on this dream by re-reading part of an article by Merton scholar Roger Corless: “Fire on the Seven Storey Mountain: Why are Catholics looking East?” in Basil Pennington’s anthology, Toward an Integrated Humanity: Thomas Merton’s Journey (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1988). Corless very helpfully names four stages to help us understand both Merton’s life and the life of the contemporary Christian community, or what he calls “the wandering church,” and they are these:
*Modernity as alienation / romantic medievalism / romantic orientalism / an open future
Readers of Merton will have no difficulty applying these terms to Merton’s life: the young intellectual who experiences himself as among T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men”; the monk on his monastic honeymoon, vividly described in The Sign of Jonas (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956); the student of Asian religion, notably Zen; and the hermit who at the end of his life counselled his Asian audiences not to rely on structures, but to stand on their own feet. Manifestly, the conclusion of my Merton talk in the dream connects with Corless’s stage four.
I share this dream because it has strong autobiographical resonance for me. Really, this is where I have ended up myself, partly, without doubt, as a result of Merton’s influence, but partly also just by being alive in my own historical moment. The dream, as with so many dreams, simply mirrors to us the obvious: in this passing world, God alone (which is what it said over the front door when Merton arrived at his monastery in 1941) remains; or, as Teresa of Avila writes in her little song “Nade te turbe,” “Dios solo basta“–“God alone fills us.”