Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Soul of Merton 4-5-09

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

Out on a harinama, dancing all up on the sidewalks of the Village, blissfully absorbed in the Holy Names, you hope others are also somehow, someway tasting this nectar. But sometimes this turns into hoping against hope...when some unruly Manhattanite pulls up his britches, takes a pull on his cigarette, and exhales with a frothy "Get a Job!"

Ah yes...this typical and time-worn insult is born from the frustration that we, as monks, are not doing our part in the great quilt of society.

Indeed, some people think, that because we have renounced such "normal" occupations and possessions such as employment, car insurance, online video games, reality TV, etc, that we are lazy, no good leechers of everyone who works their ass-like behind off for a living.

They think that because we are not of this world, we are too unworldly. Out of touch, hopeless, and a burden to the capitalist way.

I think they're wrong. You might agree. Thomas Merton agrees, when he writes in Contemplation In A World of Action:

"The monk is out of this world insofar as he is liberated from the routine demands of worldly life. His liberation enables him, however, to give to the world something it needs: a capacity for creating and spontaneous celebration, a deeper understanding, a freer response to the basic existential challenge that summons us to make sense out of our life-to make our own sense out of life. Not just to accept someone else's answers, but to discover by personal experience and to verify existentially the inner meaning and value of human life on earth"

The tradition of the cloistered monk, and his relevance to contemporary times, is one of the main themes Merton explores in his writings. He vouches, in his calls for monastic renewal, for a return to the internal essence of such a "removed" life, but not in the sense of a order of monks completely removed from obligations to a spiritually-needy society, and the personal growth that can come from enthusiastically taking up these obligations.

Merton vociferously denounces such an escape route of immature and undeveloped individuals who choose to hide from reality within monastery walls.

With his own personal example as a guide, he calls for the modern monk (or post-modern monk or post-post modern monk...sigh...its way too many labels) to offer his own depth and clarity gained from his own detachment and distance to mundane frustrations to those who don't have time but sure have the need for such introspection. Merton writes:

"Man has a responsibility to his own time, not as if he could seem to stand outside it and donate various spiritual and material benefits to it from a position of compassionate distance, but man has a responsibility to find himself where he is, namely in his own proper time and in his place, in the history to which he belongs and to which he must inevitably contribute either his responses or his evasions, either truth and act or slogan and gesture...The first thing that the monk can contribute to the world of his time is precisely a perspective that is not of this world. The monk owes the world of his time an unworldliness proper to this time...He is in the world and not of it. He is both in his time and not of it."

We see in Srila Prabhupada's example of this in his, as Allen Ginsburg described it, very intelligent tending of the naive flock of Lower East Side acid-heads and quasi-mystics in the late 60's. Prabhupada's "unworldliness" was indeed incredibly proper to his time.

His "unworldliness" is in fact proper to all times and places, for he brings the message of the spiritual world, our home, to us while we are stuck in a polished series of prison cells, a dreamscape we are convinced is our only and actual place of residence.

In following in Prabhupada's footsteps, we enter into realms beyond the perceptions of most of the "busy bees" in today's world, and one of those rarely-entered realms is our own heart. We make easy journeys to these other planets, these personal internal realms and ecstatic external spheres of Krsna's pastimes and the pastimes of his devotees, to offer to the people what they don't even really know what they're missing.

And in any case, in today's economy, we're not hearing the shouts of "Get a Job!" so much anymore, because the person shouting it needs to find a job himself.

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