Thomas Merton’s Desolation

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted here.  I thought it’s about time to get back into it.  All apologies.

Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) was a Trappist monk who wrote inspirational essays on spirituality and literature, poetry, and a classic autobiography which critics aptly compare to St. Augustine’s Confessions.  If you haven’t yet read Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, then you’re in for a treat.  By fits and turns it reads like a modern  Bildungsroman.  The young Merton can be overconfident, cocky, skeptical, angry, and offensively brash.  As he matures, his path of adventure and misadventure eventually leads him to God and Christianity.  His story resonates with us because through it we can recognize our own failures and redemptive lessons.  As we empathize with Merton’s enduring curiosity in search of the truth, his weaknesses and misjudgments, and decisive missteps, we can recognize God’s infinite love for him, and so too become witnesses of the creator God’s infinite patience with those who He made in His own image.

I recently read Merton’s classic spiritual autobiography on a discernment retreat.  In silence and in the quiet peace of a late evening at the Jesuit La Storta Chapel in Portland, I came across familiar pages of insight and profound depth.  In the excerpt that follows, Merton is seventeen years old and on his sick bed due to blood-poisoning from a bad tooth infection.  The ailing young man experiences what St. Ignatius of Loyola calls desolation.  See whether the following thoughts and feelings are also familiar to you.  Feeling alone and desolate, Merton says:

Sick, weary, half asleep, I felt the throbbing of the wound in my mouth. Blood-poisoning.

The room was very quiet. It was rather dark, too. And as I lay in bed, in my weariness and pain and disgust, I felt for a moment the shadow of another visitor pass into the room.

It was death, that came to stand by my bed.

I kept my eyes closed, more out of apathy than anything else. But anyway, there was no need to open one’s eyes to see the visitor, to see death. Death is someone you see very clearly with eyes in the center of your heart: eyes that see not by reacting to light, but by reacting to a kind of a chill from within the marrow of your own life.

And, with those eyes, those interior eyes, open upon that coldness, I lay half asleep and looked at the visitor, death.

What did I think? All I remember was that I was filled with a deep and tremendous apathy. I felt so sick and disgusted that I did not very much care whether I died or lived. Perhaps death did not come very close to me, or give me a good look at the nearness of his coldness and darkness, or I would have been more afraid.

But at any rate, I lay there in a kind of torpor and said: “Come on, I don’t care.” And then I fell asleep.

What a tremendous mercy it was that death did not take me at my word, that day, when I was still only seventeen years old. What a thing it would have been if the trapdoors that were prepared for me had yawned and opened their blackness and swallowed me down in the middle of that sleep! Oh, I tell you, it is a blessing beyond calculation that I woke up again, that day, or the following night, or in the week or two that came after.

And I lay there with nothing in my heart but apathy–there was a kind of pride and spite in it: as if it was life’s fault that I had to suffer a little discomfort, and for that I would show my scorn and hatred of life, and die, as if that were a revenge of some sort. Revenge upon what? What was life? Something existing apart from me, and separate from myself? Don’t worry, I did not enter into any speculations. I only thought: “If I have to die–what of it. What do I care? Let me die, then, and I’m finished.”

Religious people, those who have faith and love God and realize what life is and what death means, and know what it is to have an immortal soul, do not understand how it is with the ones who have no faith, and who have already thrown away their souls. They find it hard to conceive that anyone could enter into the presence of death without some kind of compunction. But they should realize that millions of men die the way I was then prepared to die, the way I then might have died.

They might say to me: “Surely you thought of God, and you wanted to pray to Him for mercy.”

No. As far as I remember, the thought of God, the thought of prayer did not even enter my mind, either that day, or all the rest of the time that I was ill, or that whole year, for that matter. Or if the thought did come to me, it was only as an occasion for its denial and rejection. I remember that in that year, when we stood in the chapel and recited the Apostles’ Creed, I used to keep my lips tight shut, with full deliberation and of set purpose, by way of declaring my own creed which was: “I believe in nothing.” Or at least I thought I believed in nothing. Actually, I had only exchanged a certain faith, faith in God, Who is Truth, for a vague uncertain faith in the opinions and authority of men and pamphlets and newspapers–wavering and varying and contradictory opinions which I did not even clearly understand.

I wish I could give those who believe in God some kind of an idea of the state of a soul like mine was in then. But it is impossible to do it in sober, straight, measured, prose terms. And, in a sense, image and analogy would be even more misleading, by the very fact that they would have life in them, and convey the notion of some real entity, some kind of energy, some sort of activity. But my soul was simply dead. It was a blank, a nothingness. It was empty, it was a kind of a spiritual vacuum, as far as the supernatural order was concerned. Even its natural faculties were shriveled husks of what they ought to have been.

A soul is an immaterial thing. It is a principle of activity, it is an “act,” a “form,” an energizing principle. It is the life of the body, and it must also have a life of its own. But the life of the soul does not inhere in any physical, material subject. So to compare a soul without grace to a corpse without life is only a metaphor. But it is very true.

St. Teresa had a vision of hell. She saw herself confined in a narrow hole in a burning wall. The vision terrified her above all with the sense of the appalling stress of this confinement and heat. AlI this is symbolic, of course. But a poetic grasp of the meaning of the symbol should convey something of the experience of a soul which is reduced to an almost infinite limit of helplessness and frustration by the fact of dying in sin, and thus being eternally separated from the principle of all vital activity which, for the soul in its own proper order, means intellection and love.

But I now lay on this bed, full of gangrene, and my soul was rotten with the corruption of my sins. And I did not even care whether I died or lived.

The worst thing that can happen to anyone in this life is to lose all sense of these realities. The worst thing that had ever happened to me was this consummation of my sins in abominable coldness and indifference, even in the presence of death.

What is more, there was nothing I could do for myself.  There was absolutely no means, no natural means within reach, for getting out of that state. Only God could help me. Who prayed for me? One day I shall know. But in the economy of God’s love, it is through the prayers of other men that these graces are given. It was through the prayers of someone who loved God that I was one day, to be delivered out of that hell where I was already confined without knowing it.

This passage reminds me of the countless people in the world–atheists, agnostics, and those who formally belong to a religious denomination, even baptized Catholics, who “believe in nothing.”   And so I shall have more to say on that in later posts.

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