Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Soul of Merton 3-29-09

Inspired by my readings of "Contemplative Prayer" and "Contemplation In A World Of Action" by Thomas Merton

Recently, whilst minding the wares at our Starving Students dinner program at 26 Second Avenue, I met a young gentleman who walked in a little disheveled, wanting to replace the Prabhupada Gita that had been taken away from him the other night by rough-and-tumble NYC cops giving him and his friends some trouble (and vice versa I might imagine)

In talking to this chap, I found out that he was a refugee of our post-modern mess, an otherwise bright, talented, and seeking young man who is choosing to live in Manhattan as a drifter rather than be forced to take on the drudgery of home, job, "ordinary" responsibility, etc.

In other words, he's taking a bold and probably unwise response to his total alienation from the societal situation in which he is forced to deal with one way or another. In Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton defines alienation as such:

"The term alienation is used of a human being who is systematically kept, or who allows himself to be kept, in a social situation in which he exists purely and simply for somebody else."

Or in other words, as Merton writes:

"To sum it all up in one word, our postulants come to us from a society in which man is alienated, in which he is systematically deprived of a serious identity, in which he cannot believe in his dignity, in which he has good reason to be profoundly skeptical of everything and everyone, and in which he tends to renounce all hope of experiencing himself as real and genuinely worthwhile. It is a society in which he has not much left to resign himself, with a sigh, to passivity with a can of beer in front of the TV."

Ah, I know that feeling all too does my friend, with the difference being that I am taking shelter of a spiritual society, designed to cure one of all physical and metaphysical alienation, whilst my friend instead rides the waves of the concrete surf of the city and its motley inhabitants. I pray he may clean and sober up enough to deepen his sincere desire to associate with our community.

It is our duty to Prabhupada to improve upon our own spiritual society so that we can give real and meaningful shelter to such refugees of our times. In the ultimate sense, we gotta serve somebody, or as we understand, we must exist "purely and simply for somebody else", with this somebody else being the sweet, Supreme Persona of Govinda.

The alienated man of our times shuns himself from such a binding relationship with the other, suffering grandly and minutely from the perverted reflection of this divine dependence. Merton writes on this account:

"The alienated man cannot love. He has nothing to give. Nothing is his. The lover is able to give himself completely to another precisely because he is his own to give. He is not alienated. He has an identity. He knows what is his to surrender. The alienated man has no chance to surrender. He has simply been taken over by total control."

A full and heart-felt spiritual society, in Prabhupada's mold, must have the courage and intelligence to bring these refugees into the fold, let them realize their true identity through the fullness of the devotional mood, so that they can give their most natural gift, themselves, willingly and with full love and knowledge.

Merton, of course, is speaking from a monastic and Christian perspective, but his realization is so deep as to hit to the very simple essence, beyond all externals and lifting them up, in our desperate need to build real community. He writes:

"The monastic life today stands over against the world with a mission to affirm not only the message of salvation but also those most basic human values which the world most desperately needs to regain: personal integrity, inner peace, authenticity, identity, inner depth, spiritual joy, the capacity to love, the capacity to enjoy God's creation and to give thanks"

And he concludes with:

"Our first task is to be fully human and to enable the youth of our time to find themselves and develop as men and as sons of God. There is no need for a community of religious robots without minds, without hearts, without ideas, and without faces. It is this mindless alienation that characterizes the world and life in the world...Spirituality today must be a personalistic...humanism that seeks and saves man's intimate truth, his personal identity, in order to consecrate it entirely to God."

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