August 21, 2008

Merton's "the Vision in Louisville"

Below is a quote -- a whole short section, really -- from Trappist monk Thomas Merton's 1966 book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that I found by way of a snip in Bad Buddha, the blog of ebwrite's (aka, Ed). I understand, from further research, that the quote below is a rather well-known bit of Merton's writing, later dubbed by fans "the vision in Louisville."

The realization that Merton experiences is as pure a demonstration of Plotinus's path to spiritual awakening as I could ever have hoped to find. Again,
from my earlier post on the Roman philosopher, here is Ken Wilber's pithy statement of Plotinus's Path that Merton fulfills: Flee the Many, find the One; having found the One, embrace the Many as the One.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.

Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them—and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed …I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.

Again, that expression le point vierge (I cannot translate it), comes in here.* At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is, so to speak, His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
Several things that I have learned from my dive into Christianity these last few months I find in Merton's words here.

Merton tells us his "seeing" is unteachable or unmapable -- it's a gift. Paul wrote about the gift of love in
I Corinthian 13. Paul, much like Merton, wrote of the delicious future event when men might no longer "see through a glass, darkly," but instead see each other "face to face," knowing each other, completely, likening it to how we are known by God.

Merton uses the phrase "shining like the sun" to refer to what people really are like. This
comes from the books of Matthew and Revelation and is used in one of the so-called 'extra' stanzas of Amazing Grace, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Here, the line from Matthew that describes Jesus:

And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.
And here, Stowe's stanza of Amazing Grace:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining like the sun,
We've no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.


* A few pages earlier in his book, Merton wrote, "Massignon has some deeply moving pages in the Mardis de Dar-es-Salam: About the desert, the tears of Agar, the Muslims, the 'point vierge' of the spirit, the center of our nothingness where, in apparent dispair, one meets God -- and is found completely in his mercy."

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