by Shaul Magid

Merton's monasticism was a critique of religion as merely another leisure activity.

SHAUL MAGID teaches Jewish mysticism and thought, and is chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy, at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Dovid Din. May his memory be a blessing. He was a teacher, friend, monk. He lived in the balance. He died on the edge.

The fact that an observant Jew like myself could find inspiration and spiritual nourishment from a Trappist monk is simultaneously typical and surprising. Throughout the long trajectory of Jewish history, Jews have figuratively (and sometimes literally) sat at the feet of masters from other faiths. Often such cross fertilization has resulted in Jews "borrowing" intellectual methods of analysis and practical approaches to ritual from these other traditions, returning with them to the religious lives and texts of their own tradition. This round-trip excursion was particularly notable in the Middle Ages when allegiances were more sharply defined and inter-religious "boundary crossing" was a treacherous journey.(1) A classic example of this phenomenon can be seen in Bahya Ibn Pakuda's Duties of the Heart, a Jewish pietistic treatise probably written at the end of the eleventh century.(2) Indicative of the cautious and sometimes paranoid nature of medieval Judaism in these matters, the author refrains from openly reflecting on his use of non-philosophical "outside" sources (primarily from Sufism), even as those influences can readily be seen by the educated reader.(3) What we have in the Arabic original of Bahya's treatise, and even more so in the Hebrew translation by R. Judah Ibn Tibbon, is a judaized Duties of the Heart, seemingly void of direct Sufi influence, yet at least partially built on this pietistic tradition of Islam. Bahya's treatise, which became one of the more widely read medieval pietistic texts in Judaism and one of the first Hebrew books ever to be printed, reconfigured Jewish pietism by integrating Islamic modes of worship and spirituality.

In modern Judaism this cross fertilization is far more relaxed, enabling the modern Jew to present Judaism in a western framework, sharing core values with the dominant culture (and religion) in which it lived. Although the underlying agenda of such cross fertilization was often politically motivated, modern Judaism has flourished in light of its open interface with the wider religious culture. The twentieth-century Neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen (who only wrote on Jewish topics late in life) and his student Leo Baeck, who was a leader of Liberal Judaism in prewar Germany and postwar England and America, represent this tendency (although almost all modern Jewish thinkers engaged in this synthetic project, including the Orthodox thinkers R. Samson Rafael Hirsch and R. Joseph Soloveitchik).(4) Living in an emancipated culture that embraced or at the very least tolerated Judaism as a viable religion, many modern Jewish thinkers openly engaged with (and often criticized) Christian ideas in their "Jewish" texts. One whose philosophical education was limited to modern Jewish philosophical texts, for example, would quickly become acquainted with the likes of Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, among others, from reading modern Jewish theology.(5) Moreover, to understand these modern Jewish thinkers, the reader would have to turn to these primary philosophical texts themselves, as the modern Jewish writer assumed some familiarity with this philosophical tradition.

For the modern Jewish theologian, unlike some of his medieval predecessors, the dominant interest in Christianity was philosophical or theological and not the ways in which Christian ideas were lived in its religious communities. Post-emancipated Jewish intellectuals were attempting to accomplish two opposing goals in their writing, one universal and the second particular. First, they wanted to present Judaism as contributing to the larger culture concerned with the relationship between religion and morality. Second, they sought to protect the rights of particular Jewish forms of worship. The latter was important precisely because of the Jewish community's investment in secular life. Medieval Jewish communities, which largely lived separate from their Christian and Moslem neighbors, may have been more open the pietistic practices of neighboring religions precisely because their communal separation made these practices less threatening. In short, for the modern Jewish theologian, as opposed to medieval pietists like Bahya, the cross fertilization of religious ideas had little practical or devotional import.

My interest in Thomas Merton is clearly not of this modern variety. In many respects I share more with Bahya than with Cohen or Baeck. I do not look to Merton for theological method, nor do I read him to teach me about Christian ideas, theology, or Christian approaches to scripture.(6) I see him merely as one religious seeker, unique in his courage and tenacity, traveling on the bridge from modernity to postmodernity, deeply connected yet critical of his pietistic past, and optimistic yet cautious about the new era that was unfolding before his eyes.(7) My interest in him is neither scholastic nor theological; it is pietistic in a trans-religious sense. I am an observant Jew who came to Judaism as a response to the last wave of the American counter-culture. I adopted an observant lifestyle, constructing it from the mystical tradition of Kabbala and Hasidism, as an expression of my unwavering commitment to that counter-culture, finding the ancient mystical and pietistic tradition an embodiment of many of the same ideals. I was immediately taken by the way Merton reflected upon, lived, and presented the monastic life as a counter-cultural critique of religion and a liberating path for the irreligious. This essay is little more than my reflection upon a series of his reflections. It is not ecumenical in that it is not intended to foster dialogue between two religious traditions. It is not polemical in that I have nothing to gain from finding the weaknesses in other religious traditions; I have much to gain by locating their strengths. Although I stand in the world as a Jew and therefore read Merton as such, my intention is not to take him back to my Jewish texts nor judaize his writings. My intention is to read Merton trans-religiously -- interpreting him through my frame of reference, using it as a tool to open his writing to those who see religion as a potential avenue of counter-cultural critique.

Merton's Life and Work

Thomas Merton's popularity in America remains peculiar. He did not publish any new theology, was not a professor at a major university or seminary, and was not primarily a political activist. He was simply (or, not-so-simply) a monk who shared with us his monastic journey, reminding us from the cold damp stone walls in Bardstown, Kentucky, that many of our cultural and political problems were rooted in our spiritual vacuity. (8) Many of his avid readers are not sure whether he was a voice from the past or from the future, a voice to return or a call to renew. In many ways Merton served as the spiritual conscience of late twentieth-century America, gently teaching with his life and letters the substantive difference between religion and spirituality.(9) The former (religion) "answers our questions" while the latter (religiosity) "questions our answers."(10) His message was a modern version of an ancient call of pietistic critique -- religion without spirituality is fundamentalism, spirituality without religion is sentimentality.

As much as he was a product of his time, he spoke in opposition to many of its conventions. Living in a postwar America which embraced ecumenicism, Merton spoke as a non-ecumenical (not anti-ecumenical) Christian. He did not intend to represent Christianity in the forum of religious dialogue.(11) He sought to engage spirituality as a trans-religious construct and teach solely from his experience traveling through the labyrinth of one religious tradition, critically yet passionately absorbing its ideas. Therefore, Merton's autobiography Seven Storey Mountain is really the ur-text of his entire literary corpus, as it presents the prehistory and origins of Merton's decision to live publicly as a medieval monk in postmodern America.(12) Ecumenicism is largely a scholastic enterprise, illustrating America's experimentation with nascent multiculturalism. Drawing from the wellspring of medieval monasticism, Merton had little personal interest in ecumenicism, even though he supported it. His interests were almost exclusively monastic, exploring the ways in which piety (not politics) can be translated into a universal category in a multicultural world.

Merton entered public life through his writings as a Trappist monk, a stream of Catholicism that had largely been abandoned in late twentieth-century Christianity. He passionately advocated the monastic life of medieval devotional Catholicism to a Christian audience largely interested in liberalization, not a return to the "dark ages." Quickly, however, those who listened realized that there was no zealousness in his message. His voice did not have the edge of fire and brimstone nor the confidence of a Bible-thumping preacher. It was a counter-cultural voice preaching an ancient message of a "tradition of rebellion" for the future of civilization. He never claimed to be a zealous defender of the faith -- his absolute commitment to it obviated any need for such a defensive posture. On the contrary, the Church often viewed him as a troublemaker. One might say that he was one of the first postreligious pietists in America, deeply religious yet critical of the institutions of religion. One of his greatest assets was that he was so profoundly Christian that he did not need to be read solely as a Christian. His monastic journey took him to the other side of the spiritual quest, from religion to religiosity, from the institutional community of believers to the wandering community of seekers. This is the way he understood the monastic journey. "The monk has no standard by which to compare himself to other religions. His eyes are not turned toward the battlefields in the plain, they gaze out upon the desert where Christ will once again appear. . ."(13) The monk has no need for polemics or apologetics, nor need for ecumenicism, as he is not making any claim to religious truth, only the religious quest. And the search for God, Merton argued, need not be defended.

Merton criticized the secular world around him by chastising the institutions of religion, showing how they are replicas of the institutions of the secular. He brought us from the church to the desert, first by showing that religion was not what we thought it was and then showing us that religion was not enough.(14) He showed with his life that the path to the liberation of the desert was through and not around the confines and discipline of religious tradition. In this way, he countered the spirit of renewal endemic in the influx of eastern spirituality in the 60s, while embracing its message. The east would fail us, he preached, unless it was embraced from within our western tradition; we can sprout from the spirituality of the east but we cannot flower in the soil of its tradition. Merton believed that the flowering of the spiritual quest had to be on indigenous soil, in the tradition of the Bible.

Merton did not leave a systematic theology. This was intentional and aligned with the monastic writing he revered. His roots were in the monastic, not scholastic, tradition -- a tradition that believed in devotion over ideas, sermons over dialectics. Aside from his autobiography Seven Storey Mountain, his literary output largely consisted of journal articles, letters, poems, guidebooks for his initiates, reflections on politics and religion, and a history of the Cistercian order. To analyze Merton's ideas would be to scholasticize the monastic, to flatten the poetics of faith with the language of scholastic reason. Instead, I would like to think aloud about one of Merton's deepest messages: that tradition (I use the term loosely here) is liberating (or at least the path toward liberation) and that liberation is, in opposition to what we normally think, traditional.

Life in Religion

Merton writes:

The whole purpose of the monastic life is to purify man's freedom from [the] stain of servility which it has contracted by its enslavement to things that are beneath it. . . Freedom in the monastic context, does not imply the capacity to choose evil rather than good, but rather the capacity to prefer good over evil without ever being deluded by false appearances of good. . . It is in the light of this freedom and spirit that we must see and understand all the discipline of the monk, his austerities, his sacrifices, his rules, his obedience and his vows. (15)

This is not an apologia for asceticism. It is an expression of the perennial attempt to correlate freedom with sanctity, liberty with piety -- to proclaim that knowledge of the self is born by sacrificing the self to the absolute other. We desire to be liberated from the weight of the past and become burdened with the weight of the self. The monk, however, if we accept Merton's appraisal of him, is free from the burden of the self by being liberated from the weight of the desire to be liberated. The notion that true autonomy is achieved via servitude to the absolute other is the cornerstone of the Exodus narrative in the Bible and lies at the heart of the monastic vocation.

What strikes me so profoundly about Merton's life (and as a monk his writing is always about his life and never merely about his thought) was that he lived monasticism both as a rebellion against and an offering to the modern world he left behind. In his Alaska journals in 1968 (the year before his untimely death) he wrote:

This deep call [for renewal of the contemplative life] is very delicate and very personal, and in the depths of our hearts it is really a two-fold call. First of all, it is a call to intimacy with God and to the contemplative life. It is also a call to renew the contemplative life or the monastic life, in terms of the present world and the people of the world today as well in terms of the new relationship to the world.(16)

Religiosity is renewed only when religion is deeply lived. Religion is deeply lived only when one is willing to sacrifice the self for the sake of the absolute other. This can be seen in light of the dichotomy of renewal and evangelicalism underlying Merton's monastic writings. Renewal is not about translating the message of faith or molding the conventions of old to meet the demands (and constraints) of the new. This is the vocation of the medieval scholastic or modern evangelical preacher. Piety is never, for Merton, the outcome of evangelicalism. He sees the evangelical vocation as a scholastic enterprise -- the attempt to convince the nonbeliever of the truth of faith. Renewal is monastic and not scholastic in that it is about living in the uncertainty of honest faith, not the false certainty of reasoned faith. Renewal cannot be forced upon a tradition in order to meet contemporary needs. Rather, it is an organic internal process of self-critique resulting from the community's desire to move inward and, by doing so, revisit the religious norms instituted by its predecessors. Renewal does not only define the monk's stance to the world but lies at the center of his own internal religious life. Merton teaches us that the monk take conversion but does not take upon himself the mission of conversion. His entrance into the monastic vocation does not make him responsible for the conversion of others. His stance to the world and his stance toward himself are one and the same: it is a position of freedom. Renewal is simply the goal of the entire monastic vocation; it is the relentless pursuit of intimacy, the telos of intimacy being the dissolution of alienation.

I think that Merton believed that the existentialists got it wrong when they claimed that alienation was a modern malaise. He defined alienation as "the psychological condition of somebody who is never allowed to be fully himself. . . There is no real personal meaning to his life, because everything he does belongs to somebody else. Anything can be taken away at any moment."(17) This is just as true of the individual's relation to the state as her relationship to the institutions of religion. Alienation and intimacy have always been the two poles of human existence. When we lose the ability to access intimacy with God, with others, with ourselves, we suffer from alienation. Alienation is not aloneness, it is loneliness, being estranged from oneself.(18) Aloneness is an expression of fullness, loneliness is a disease of paralysis: it is the loss of a spiritual center. According to Merton, the monk is able to extirpate loneliness through aloneness. This is a fundamental principle of monasticism that Merton suggested may be useful in a culture which has mistakenly conflated these two ideas. He pointed out that alienation is not a modern problem, although it may take a unique form in the modern context. Perhaps in severing (some say liberating) our allegiance to the past, we moderns have been reluctant to see that many of our problems existed for millennia. We have become so intoxicated with uniqueness that we have lost the ability to see continuity.

For Merton, the solutions to the problems of alienation should not be sought solely in modern inventions like psychology or the escape into "traditionalism" (for which Merton had little tolerance).(19) The solution to alienation is to embrace the journey of the biblical Abraham. A dramatization of the biblical conversation between God and Abraham might have God saying to Abraham, "Do not be afraid of the world, you only answer to Me." The essence of God's covenant with Abraham was intimacy. "If you are not intimate with Me, if your focus is not on Me alone, you have returned to idolatry, the place I commanded you to abandon."

The Bible only gives us two alternatives: intimacy with God (covenant) or idolatry -- idolatry being absolute intimacy with something that it not absolute. Idolatry, Merton teaches, is the depth of alienation, what eclipses our ability to love the world. If our love is focused on that which is not everything, it can never encompass everything. Paradoxically, to love anything but God is to diminish the potential to love. To love God, however, is to be able to love the world and those who dwell in it. The first monk is really the first Jew, the Patriarch Abraham. Ironically, Judaism and Christianity, the religions that have become the institutions of western civilization, begin with rebellion against the past, against tradition, against the world.(20) The garment of rebellion is religious renewal. The goal of rebellion is intimacy with God, with tradition, with the world.

The New Testament argues that the Pharisees were slaves of their own system. In an attempt to liberate them from their bondage to that system Jesus ingeniously reminds them that they are the "sons of Abraham."(21) Merton made a similar claim in his critique of the Church and even his critique of the monastery. Jewish mystics, particularly the Hasidic masters, made such a claim against the abuses of rabbinic legalism in their day.(22) Abraham emerges often in Jewish and Christian literature as the critic of the institutions of religion. He is the prototypical counter-culturalist, uncompromising yet loving, passionate yet compassionate. He is the conscience of religiosity in the world hopelessly lost in religion. This is because, as Kierkegaard has taught us, Abraham sacrificed everything to achieve everything.(23) He loved Isaac and he loved Ishmael.(24) He never saw the incongruity in this because his love for both stemmed from his love of God. He loved Isaac as he tied him to the alter. He loved God as he heard His command to sacrifice his son. Abraham's love was unconditional because he loved the unconditioned. He escaped idolatry through his commitment to uncertainty. And, as Merton taught, a commitment to God is a commitment to uncertainty: never to know what God wants but to be willing always to give it. The midrash teaches us that Abraham spent his life stumbling in the dark, wandering aimlessly, never being sure of the world or what God wanted from him.(25) This instability was his freedom, his liberation, his monotheism.

Monasticism and Modernity

For Merton, the monastic life was not an escape or refuge but a modern choice, a spiritual vocation which grew from the depths of secularism toward the heights of sanctification. He notes: "[a]s long as I imagine that the world is something to be 'escaped' in the monastery -- that wearing that quaint costume and following a quaint observance takes me 'out of the world,' I am dedicating my life to an illusion."(26) The monastic choice was simultaneously traditional and counter-cultural. "The monk," he says, "is someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the contemporary world and its structures." He does not reject the world -- he criticizes it from within. On this Brother Patrick Hart, who was Merton's secretary, comments, "The monk in this context is in protest against modern society like the Egyptian desert dweller of the fourth century who fled the Roman culture of his day."(27) Brother Hart has brought the truth to the surface. Physically, Merton lived in the monastery, but his heart lived in the desert, before the time when Christianity was confined by the opaque walls of the "religious institution." "The monastic horizon is clearly the horizon of the desert. The monastic Church is the church of the wilderness, the woman who has fled into the desert from the dragon that seeks to devour the infant Word."(28)

From the nakedness of the desert Merton taught us how to reverse the trajectory of modernity without abandoning its goals. We seek the certain; Merton, like the desert Fathers, tells us to seek the void.(29) We seek God's voice; Merton tells us to seek God's silence. We pray for mercy; Merton teaches us how to pray for love. We seek meaning in the world; Merton taught us that meaning in the world can only be found in the abyss, the very place of its absence.

It is true that when I came to the monastery where I am I came in revolt against the meaningless confusion of a life in which there was so much activity, so much movement, so much useless talk. . . that I could not remember who I was. But the fact remains that my flight from the world is not a reproach to you who remain in he world, and I have no right to repudiate the world in a purely negative fashion, because if I do that my flight will have not taken me to truth and to God but to a private, though doubtless, pious illusion.(30)

The monastic journey is one of penitence -- not in the formal sense of repentance from sin, but in the spiritual sense that one's growth allows one to see the superficiality of that which brought her to that place. This is the essence of devotional repentance in the thought of the early nineteenth-century Hasidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. We repent, Rabbi Nahman teaches, not to eradicate sin but to bring us to a new level of clarity, after which we have to repent on the deficiency of our first repentance.(31) Monastic critique is always only perpetual self critique, for the monk knows that the turmoil of the world is no more than a reflection of the turmoil in his own heart. If he envisions the monastic choice as a choice to retreat from the world then he has failed. The monastic choice for Merton is one of protest. It is not protest against the world, only against the world's limitations. It is the choice to be liberated from the confines of human potentiality that the world wants us to believe in.

We normally do not think of monasticism as protest; we think of it as escape or at best retreat. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton's contribution to political activism, taught us the ways in which monasticism is a politico/spiritual protest -- the protest of the humble and the guilty as opposed to the protest of the sanctimonious and the righteous. It is a deeper and more treacherous kind of protest than we normally practice. It does not dwell on the evils of the world but on the failure of the self. "[The monastic] flight is not an evasion. If the monk were able to understand what goes on inside him, he would be able to say how well he knows that the battle [of the world] is being fought in his own heart."(32) This leads us back to the early Christian critique of the institution of the Church, to those fourth-century desert dwellers who left the Church to find God, cognizant of the fact that religion + politics = politics.(33) For these seekers, the success of the Church in the world was the failure of its essence as critique. Retreat is not always abandonment; it is sometimes deep critique, especially when we retreat more deeply into and not away from the center of the storm. Merton did not want to abandon the world for the desert; he wanted us to make the world the desert.

Although the Desert Fathers were deeply influential for him, he was acutely aware of the dangers of reviving their asceticism in our modern society, knowing that God had to become more and not less a part of our world. He also knew that the model of retreat, which was the conventional way in which we moderns viewed monasticism, was not a productive one for the twentieth century. Despite these dangers, Merton proceeded because he believed that what we need is not more religion but more religiosity -- what Martin Buber called "the elemental entering-into-relation with the Absolute,"(34) a monastic idea if ever there was one. He recognized that we needed to reconnect to the roots of the spiritual quest, which had become formalized and fossilized in institutional religion, beginning in the fourth century for Merton and the rabbinic period (second century) for Buber. Both Buber and Merton knew the extent to which this pursuit of religiosity demanded rebellion, not against the secular state but against the very institutions of religion! Buber wrote, "Religiosity induces sons, who want to find their own God, to rebel against their fathers; religion induces fathers to reject their sons, who will not let their fathers God be forced upon them. Religion means preservation; religiosity, renewal."(35)

Both Buber and Merton knew the extent to which this pursuit of religiosity demanded rebellion, not against the secular state but against the very institutions of religion!

For Merton, renewal meant retrieving the past by questioning the "traditional" presentation of it. He desired traditionality and not traditionalism. Jarsalov Pelikan suggests the following distinction between "tradition" and "traditionalism:" tradition is the "living faith of the dead" -- traditionalism is "the dead faith of living."(36) What I mean by "traditionality" as embodying Merton's idea of renewal is that he wanted monasticism to revive the dead, as it were, and make religiosity in modernity "the living faith of the living." By living deeply, yet on the margins of the tradition, one can revive the religiosity dormant within it. To do that, however, requires a protest against tradition itself, whose fatal flaw is that it seeks to preserve the past even at the expense of the creativity of the present. Traditions perpetuate themselves by warding off, or at least controlling, change. Traditionality, which is founded on perpetual critique, does not seek to perpetuate itself . Its success creates its own obsolescence.

Buber, a passionate advocate of Judaism and anti-traditionalism, lived less on the edge of modernity than Merton. Therefore, while he may have been correct in his diagnosis of the problem, he offered a more simplistic and far less compelling solution. Merton believed that only commitment to tradition, even in its corrupt form, could lead to the desert, which he envisioned as the "living faith of the living." It is alive precisely because it is unstable, precarious, unpredictable. To live a dead faith is to live solely in the institution of religion. To merely replicate a live faith ("traditionalism") is to be a preservationist, dangerously conflating belief (conviction built on uncertainty) with truth (certainty). Merton constantly tried to diffuse the romantic and sentimentalist notion of the monastic life, maintaining that romanticism too often leads to nostalgia, which has no place in the authentic monastic quest. Traditionality is lived by embracing tradition while moving through it. In doing so, Merton believed, its essence is liberated and revived. Buber abandoned tradition in search of its source and, in doing so, left its corrupted form intact. Merton lived in tradition rebelliously searching for its source. In this sense, he was far more a disciple of the Hasidic masters than Buber. He knew the power of obedience and its indispensability to evoke love.

The higher and more perfect union of wills in love (the goal of the monk) will not be possible if the lower and more elemental union of wills in obedience is lacking. It is an error to appeal to love against obedience. But it is also an error to reduce all love in practice to obedience alone, as if the two were synonymous. Love is much deeper than obedience, but unless obedience opens up all those inner spiritual depths our love will remain superficial, a matter of sentiment and emotion, little more. . .(37)

As a Jew who made similar choices by leaving the world of my youth, entering (less reflectively and far more superficially than Merton) into the "monastic" world of Hasidic Judaism, I was taken by the way Merton was boldly unapologetic and surprisingly critical. By embracing monasticism, he entered a vocation modernity scorned, while still remaining a part of the modern project. "One who loves God," Merton said, "may indeed remain in the world, but must never be of the world."(38) This goal of being in but not of the world reflects the age-old notion of imitatio dei. Merton was able to defy modernity by challenging it with the tradition (Christianity), which modernity claimed as its foundation. Perhaps as a Jew I can read about Merton's monastic journey without either being overly romantic or cynical. My journey is a shadow of his -- his being far more courageous, more ambitious, and clearly more demanding. Yet as I read The Seven Storey Mountain for the first time, I felt that I entered an unopened room in my own mind. I became his disciple by entering into his life, not being convinced by his thought. This, I suppose, is the way of true discipleship.

Religion as Leisure or Vocation

Another way to see Merton's presentation of the monastic vocation as counter-cultural critique is to ponder the distinction between leisure and vocation as they relate to the development of religion in twentieth-century America.(39) One of Merton's most subtle contributions to religion in America was his presentation of monasticism as a religious model of vocation as opposed to leisure, the latter of which still dominates the American landscape. Jean Leclercq's The Love of Learning and the Desire for God first introduced me to the distinction between scholastic and monastic culture in the Middle Ages, which helped me formulate Merton's notion of religion as vocation.(40) According to Leclercq, monastic culture developed alongside yet distinct from scholastic culture, always departing when the schoolmen allowed the pursuit of the truth to overtake the pursuit of the holy. When St. Thomas praised Aristotle's Metaphysics, the monks praised St. Benedict's Rule and the Desert Fathers' aphorisms. When the schoolmen spoke of the university, the monk spoke of the desert. Yet it is presumptuous to see the monastic vocation as anti-philosophical. For the monk to love was precisely "to philosophize," not merely to pursue the truth with one's intellect but to live what Plato called "the examined life." Leclercq reflects Merton's sentiment when he said,

The monk's principal purpose is not to reveal the mysteries of God, to explicate them or derive from them any speculative conclusions, but to impregnate their whole lives with them and to order their entire existence to contemplation. . . The scholastic endeavor is to a greater degree occasioned by the need for action in the church: controversy, pastoral administration, or again, the solution of new questions. Monastic concerns are less effected by the thoughts of the moment; rather it is governed only by the enduring necessities of the search for God.(41)

According to Leclercq, the scholastic model of religion always had the "outside" world in mind. It was infatuated with the question of relevance -- of creating religious norms that can be believed and religious forms that can be lived in the contemporary world. This is not to say that it was apologetic (although it sometimes was) nor that it didn't truly believe it had resolved the conflict between faith and reason (though it rarely did). I am speaking only about its programmatic agenda. Religion in America shares this scholastic agenda. One of the ways religion in America has succeeded in remaining relevant is that it has found a place in secular life in the category of leisure. In Secularization and Moral Change, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that religion in the secular world can be subsumed under the category of the "religion of the enclave." That is, religion is largely practiced by a small group within the society in a way that does not infringe (or minimally infringes) on the rhythm of secular life. The sacred becomes severed from the profane so as to not infringe on the profane, the opposite of what was intended by such bifurcation in traditional societies. The survival of institutions of religion in America is commensurate with their ability to accommodate to the secular model of autonomous living. Religious worship largely became a week-end activity, sharing time with football, visits to museums, and Sunday afternoon picnics. The church or synagogue picnic attests to this accommodation. Contemporary Jewish philosopher and scholar David Hartman understands it this way:

Another religious response to secularization is to provide an alternative form of leisure. . . Religious institutions justify themselves by showing how religion can offer a form of leisure which secularism cannot.. The more the failures of secular society are emphasized, the more religious institutions can justify their place in the modern world.(42)

Hartman astutely observes that religious institutions have become bastions of modernity bashing, railing against the abuses of technology, industrial society, the environment. By pointing again and again to the failure of the secular world, religious movements deepen their investment in the secular world. By adopting and investing in secular norms and practices, religion argues that it can beat secularism at its own game by performing the same functions while infusing it with "sacred" import. This, I would argue, is a form of modern scholasticism in its use of argumentation and polemics as a way of ensuring religious relevancy and survival.

Merton provides us with an entirely different model, a subtler kind of liberation, not the polemical liberation of leisure religion. The monastic life, in whatever form we are able to integrate it into our lives, is neither a rejection nor an acceptance of the secular. The secular is an accepted reality and simply not a focus of the monastic vision. This is why Merton could readily enjoy what secularism had to offer without any need to justify or sanctify those activities. The monk is concerned about deeply understanding the instability of the human condition and the need to sacrifice the desire for certainty in the life of devotion to the Absolute. He knows that part of that instability may include temporarily moving outside the boarders of the sacred. The goal, as I understand it, is to become liberated from the desire for certainty and thereby celebrate wandering faithfully.

The monastic life doesn't teach us how to cope with our lives by offering us a respite once a week where we hear how terrible life is "out there" and how beautiful it is "in here." Nor does it flatten religion to acts of social justice and community service, drawing the curtain that separates the holy from the secular, attempting to make both holy and, in doing so, making neither holy. Clearly there is holiness in pursuing social justice. But, says the monk, there are many ways to achieve this. If one believes in the life of the spirit, then spirit has to be introduced into the arena of social justice. This spirit is not the certainty of God's Word but the uncertainty of any interpretation of it. This recognition opens up the possibility of seeking to experience rather than defend the spiritual dimension of culture. The former is monastic, the later evangelical. The monastic pursuit is one of introducing the life of the spirit into the life of humankind, not as a solution but as an orientation. As the Kabbalists like to say, all relations in this world are between the individual and God, even those that are between the human being and her neighbor (bein adam l'havero).

The model of the monk teaches us little more than how to find the desert and live in it. The monastic goal, not unlike the Hasidic goal, is to become like Abraham (imitatio Abraham), the man who found religiosity without religion -- yet was the father of biblical religion.(43) Finally, the Bible tells us two, and only two, things about Moses. First that he was humble and second that he was a man of God. Striving to attain either of these attributes cannot be done in one's spare time. Religion may be a leisure activity but authentic religiosity is a vocation. When we understand how to live the latter while we are enveloped in the former, we will have begun to understand the counter-cultural monasticism of Thomas Merton.


1. [Back to text]  I use the phrase "inter-religious" to exclude the open mention of philosophic sources which was prevalent in Jewish literature throughout the Middle Ages. Jewish philosophers and pietists had no problem citing Aristotle and Plato but rarely revealed their Christian or Islamic influences.

2. [Back to text]  The life of Bahya ibn Pakuda remains a mystery to scholars It is likely that he lived during the second half of the eleventh century, although his precise place of residence remains unknown. Written in Arabic and translated into Hebrew by Judah Ibn Tibbon in 1160, his book enjoyed widespread acceptance and was one of the first books to ever be published in Hebrew. The first English translation from the Arabic which includes many references censored by Ibn Tibbon and subsequent Hebrew translation is Menahem Mansoor's The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart (London, 1973).

3. [Back to text]  On this see Mansoor's "Translators Introduction," 10, 11. In the Arabic text Bahya often cites directly from Islamic sources, without attribution. Ibn Tibbon, often replaces the Islamic citation with a verse from scripture and, in at least one case, deleted the entire citation. See Mansoor, ibid., 33.

4. [Back to text]  See Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism, trans. by Simon Cohen (Atlanta, 1995). For two noteworthy studies which treat Cohen's use of philosophical sources and his ecumenical agenda see Steven Schwatzschild, "The Title of Hermann Cohen's Religion of Reason out the Sources of Judaism" in the 1995 reprint of Religion of Reason, 2-20, and William Kluback, "The Ecumenical Meaning of Cohen's Religion of Reason" in his The Legacy of Hermann Cohen (Atlanta, 1989), 1-16. For Leo Baeck see his The Essence of Judaism (New York, 1948). Cf. his "Romantic Religion" reprinted in Jewish Perspectives on Christianity, ed. Fritz Rothschild (New York, 1996), 56-91.

5. [Back to text]  This is not only true in the liberal camp. The writings of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the two leaders of Neo-Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy respectively, are full of references to these thinkers, both supporting and challenging their views on Judaism and modernity. On Hirsch see Isadore Grunfeld's Introduction to S. A. Hirsch's Horeb (London, 1962), xix-xxx and xl-xlvi and the counter-argument by Joseph Elias in his introduction to the new translation of Hirsch's The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel (Feldheim edition), xxiii-xxx. For Soloveitchik see his Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (New York, 1983), and Lonely Man of Faith in Tradition 7-2 (1965): 5-67

6. [Back to text]  An interesting example of exegetical cross-fertilization in modern Judaism is the writings of R. Joseph Hertz, whose Pentateuch is replete with Christian exegetes. Even as his stance toward them is largely polemical, he often adopts many of their methodological assumptions. See Harvey Meirovich, A Vindication of Tradition: The Polemics of the Hertz Pentateuch (New York, 1998), esp. 49-80.

7. [Back to text]  See Thomas F. McKenna, C.M., "A Voice in the Postmodern Wilderness: Merton on Monastic Renewal," Merton Annual 8 (1996): 122-37.

8. [Back to text]  See R. Inchausti, Thomas Merton's American Prophecy (TMAP) (Albany, 1998), 152. Inchausti later notes (131) that Merton "wasn't a system builder but a dissident; and he employed a rhetoric of discovery checked by a contemplative appeal to conscience to oppose positivist assertions." His religious sensibilities enabled him to see that system-building, even though it was the foundation of the scholastic tradition, was also the foundation of modernity, the very force he battled against, drawing the monastic tradition of medieval Christianity.

9. [Back to text]  I owe this formulation to Professor Jay Harris, which he used to describe the late Professor Isadore Twersky at a 1998 conference in his memory held at Harvard University.

10. [Back to text]  This formulation is borrowed from Leonard Fine, distinguishing between two orientations toward religion. I'd like to thank my friend Shai Held for bringing this to my attention.

11. [Back to text]  His book Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York, 1968) is not an ecumenical study but an exploration into the pietistic life of the east in order to help him formulate his own ideas of contemplation See, for example, William H. Shannon's Thomas Merton's Dark Path (New York, 1981), 189-217, and more recently Robert Faircy, "Thomas Merton and Zen," Merton Annual 9 (1996): 142-51.

12. [Back to text]  Merton's Seven Storey Mountain is a kind of modern version of Augustine's Confessions, telling the story of one man's life from estrangement to intimacy with God and religion. Merton, however, does not use his religious commitment as a tool to justify the truth claims of Christianity, only to critique the spiritual vacuity of contemporary life.

13. [Back to text]  Thomas Merton, The Silent Life (New York, 1956), xiii.

14. [Back to text]  See Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York, 1960), 6-10.

15. [Back to text]  The Silent Life, 24, 25.

16. [Back to text]  Thomas Merton, Alaska Journals (New York, 1988), 72, 73.

17. [Back to text]  Alaska Journals, 74, 75.

18. [Back to text]  This distinction is made by R. Joseph Soloveitchik in "Lonely Man of Faith," in Tradition 7-2 (1965): 6-9.

19. [Back to text]  On this see Robert G. Waldron, Thomas Merton in Search of His Soul: A Jungian Perspective (Notre Dame, Ind., 1994), and Richard B. Patterson, Becoming a Modern Contemplative: A Psychospiritual Model for Personal Growth (Chicago, 1995).

20. [Back to text]  Interestingly, the midrashic tradition depicts Abraham in this light. For a nuanced depiction of Abraham as rebel see R. Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, vol. 1, "Laws of Idolatry," chapter 1.

21. [Back to text]  As is well known, Jesus' reprimand of the Pharisees reflects earlier prophetic criticisms in the Book of Isaiah and Amos. It is also quite interesting that the Babylonian Talmud refers to Abraham as "the first convert." See Talmud Sukkah 49b. The model of this conversion in Judaism, from polytheism to monotheism, is viewed as the foundation of the Jewish religion and the beginning of the prehistory of the covenant. The model of conversion, from Judaism to Christianity, especially in Paul, plays a prominent role in the distinctive character of Christianity. Cf. Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith (New York, 1951), 44-50.

22. [Back to text]  On this see Samuel Dresner, The Tzaddik (New York, 1960), 75-113, and Ben Zion Dinur, "The Origins of Hasidism and its Social and Messianic Foundations" in Essential Papers in Hasidism, ed. Gershon Hundert (New York, 1991), 86-101.

23. [Back to text]  See Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Princeton, 1983), 48-49.

24. [Back to text]  The Torah never tells us that Abraham's love for Ismael was diminished. In fact, certain strains of midrash posit that Abraham never abandoned Ismael and continued to visit him in the desert after he was exiled with his mother Hagar. Another midrash suggests that Isaac, after the story of the Akedah (Genesis 22), travels to Ismael and Hagar and returns both of them to Abraham's house.

25. [Back to text]  See Genesis Rabba 60:12

26. [Back to text]  Thomas Merton, "Contemplation in a World of Action," cited in Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master (New York, 1992), 376.

27. [Back to text]  Thomas Merton, Monastic Journey (New York, 1977), "Foreword."

28. [Back to text]  The Silent Life, xiii, xiv

29. [Back to text]  "With the Desert fathers, you have the characteristic of a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to swim for one's life into an apparently irrational void" (Wisdom of the Desert, 9).

30. [Back to text]  "A Letter on the Contemplative Life," in Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 424.

31. [Back to text]  See Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei MoHaRan I:6

32. [Back to text]  The Silent Life, xiv

33. [Back to text]  "These men seem to have thought, as a few rare modern thinkers like Berdyaev have thought, that there is really no such thing as a 'Christian state.' They seemed to have doubted that Christianity and politics could ever be mixed to such an extent as to produce a fully Christian society" (Wisdom of the Desert, 4).

34. [Back to text]  Martin Buber, "Jewish Religiosity," in On Judaism (New York, 1967), 80.

35. [Back to text]  Ibid., 80, 81.

36. [Back to text]  Pelikan, Vindication of Tradition, 62f.

37. [Back to text]  Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness (New York, 1963), 43, 44.

38. [Back to text]  Monastic Journey, 75.

39. [Back to text]  On this see Robert Lee, Religion and Leisure in America: A Study in Four Dimensions (New York, 1964), and Norman Lamm, "A Jewish Ethic of Leisure," in his Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought (New York, 1986), 187-211.

40. [Back to text]  Jean Leclercq's The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, trans. Catherine Misrahi (New York, 1982).

41. [Back to text]  Ibid., 223, 224.

42. [Back to text]  David Hartman, "Torah and Secularism," in Joy and Responsibility (Jerusalem, 1978), 57.

43. [Back to text]  For the place of Abraham in Hasidism see Arthur Green, Devotion and Commandment: The Faith of Abraham in the Hasidic Imagination (Cincinnati, 1989), and Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Hasidism as a New Approach to Torah," in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. S. Heschel (New York, 1996), 33-39.

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