Retreat at Gethsemani Abbey 2018

As I have done for the last few years, I began my summer with a retreat at Gethsemani Abbey. And as I have done each year, I chose a book by Thomas Merton to help me engage with the experience of being at Gethsemani Abbey. In the past I have read Merton’s books Seven Story Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation. I found that Merton’s contemplative approach afforded me a way to connect with the experience of the Abbey even though I am not familiar with Catholic practices. This year I discovered a series of talks by Merton, talks on literature and religion he gave at the Abbey in the 1960s—yet another way for me to connect in addition to the contemplative approach! I listened to his talk on Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian Order, and a series of talks he gave on William Faulkner.

In Merton’s talk on Bernard of Clairvaux, he analyzes St. Bernard’s hagiography as a model for monastics. Merton makes the point that the monastic’s path is renunciation but is not a path of disengagement. A monk must engage in all aspects of human life: body, mind, and heart. But these aspects are devoted to activities that bring the monk closer to God. Monks labor, using their bodies. Monks chant and sing, expressing love. Monks study and write, using their intellect and creativity. I recall talks about renunciation from the Shambhala Warrior Training that described the path of renunciation in similar ways: renunciation isn’t necessarily austere. Renunciation is using discriminating awareness to foster engagement.

Merton spoke further about the idea of activities that bring one closer to God in the literature talk from the series on William Faulkner. Before getting in the Faulkner specifically, Merton began by discussing classicalism. As he put it, a classical outlook on life assumes that one should engage in the right kind of activities, activities that fully express the human potential. He refers to John Milton to articulate that classical view, a view that had been the ideological backdrop for European civilization for centuries. The classical outlook on life is quiet, contemplative, and humble. Importantly, living a classical life opens one to divine inspiration because one’s life is in harmony with divine order. This relates directly to the monks Merton is addressing but has implications for anyone and everyone.

The idea of living a life based on divine harmony, based on fulfilling one’s role in the divine hierarchy, has its origins in St. Augustine’s City of God. Merton connects this idea with Paradise Lost, which he says can only be understood correctly by understanding what divine harmony means in the classical view. Merton goes on to explain that the Romantics did not hold the classical view on life, and so they read Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. For the Romantics, Satan is a swaggering rebel in opposition to an authority figure.

I can identify with the Romantic view, and I have at times felt a powerful resistance to any sense of hierarchy. The suggestion that there is a natural hierarchy has always felt like a lie to me, a myth concocted by The Powers That Be to justify and maintain their authority. And like Satan in Paradise Lost I resist that authority with every fiber of my being, even to my own detriment, because I refuse to submit.

However, I also identify strongly with the classical view on life that Merton describes. I value the quiet, contemplative, humble life. I believe there is an order to the universe, even if the organizing principle of that order is entropy. And I believe I have a place in the universe. I endeavor to practice nonattachment, which is an expression of obedience and submission to the way things are.

Merton’s source for discussing Milton and Paradise Lost is T. S. Eliot’s essays on Milton, which Merton says are “one of the great intellectual battles” of the twentieth century. Eliot argues that Milton is not a classical poet, that Milton is a genius using language but that he does not express the genius of the language. Merton, on the other hand, believes Milton has the classical view. As Merton puts it, Milton assumes that it is worthwhile to devout one’s life to writing well—to achieving full potential of one’s inherent gifts and talents. If that is classicalism, then sign me up!

Merton also disparages Eliot’s comparison of Milton and Byron, making a mockery of the Romantic poet. The Romantic poets were concerned with having experiences, and Byron the poet has experiences all over the place. But Merton says by today’s standards—even by 1960s standards—Byron’s once exotic experiences appear rather mundane. Most of us have had all those experiences before we reach our twenties.

Even Merton admits he is being just a little bit unfair. Yes, the Romantic poets defied convention, indulging in sex, drugs, and poetry. But alongside Byron’s She Walks in Beauty are other Romantic poems such as I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and La Belle Dame Sans Merci Taken all together, the Romantics were not so much concerned with the experience but, as Timothy Merton has written, Romantic poetry is interested in how experience is framed, in other words how experience is ordered.

The monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankestein says that he read Paradise Lost as if it were a true history. He is trying to enunciate his anguish and justify his wrath toward Frankenstein, his creator. And what is most important in his statement is not that he read Milton’s poem; what is most important in explaining the monster’s experience is that he read the poem as if it were true: he believed in it. But then the monster came to understand the poem is not true, the poem is something other than true—it is beautiful.

Milton did not write Paradise Lost as a true history but as a beautiful poem. In the classical view, beauty is more important than truth. And I have the sense that Virgil didn’t write the Aenid as the true history of Rome but as the beautiful history of Rome. That may just be my anachronistic projection onto Virgil, but nonetheless that is my sense.

Looking at it that way, Romanticism is not so much in opposition to classicalism but an elaboration of classicalism. If what is most important about history and religion is not truth but beauty, then Romanticism tries to experience beauty in everything and in every state of being. The contrast to classicalism that Merton explores is provincialism. In 1967 Merton was talking about provincialism using examples of Time and Newsweek, media that had no sense of history, that was really just marketing—marketing an ideology. But the statements he was making would be just as true today using examples of social media. As he put it, it doesn’t matter if you miss a year or two or three of Time, because you just pick up an issue and it’s all right there. You won’t have missed anything. And it doesn’t matter if you check Facebook or Instagram every hour, every day, or once a month—it will still be the same experience when you do check it. It’s all right there. And social media is especially provincial because it connects likeminded viewpoints, fostering a shared ideology that is relevant only because it is shared.

As I make these notes about my retreat at Gethsemani Abbey and Thomas Merton’s talks, I am embarking on a month long journey, a pilgrimage of sorts to the Pacific coast. And as I am making this journey on a Triumph motorcycle, it seems fitting that I recall Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig’s book is also concerned with classicalism, with how we make sense of the world we live in. Or perhaps it is not so much concerned with how we make sense of the world but how to be in the world, which is about the only thing Zen about the book other than the title. Writing for me is how to be in the world. I once said I wanted to write what was true. I said that when I first took Jim Hall’s class and became a writer. But even then, what I meant by “is true” was “is beautiful”. Since then I’ve honed my writing skills and learned to be more precise with words. So, I can now say I want to write what is beautiful—that is how I want to be in the world.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats

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