Saturday, March 24, 2012

Why Thomas Merton in the age of The Hunger Games?

I am experiencing, feeling, tugs of doubt as to why Thomas Merton would be important to anyone in the contemporary time when people are hungering to see The Hunger Games. How does Merton’s writing connect with people today? This is the beginning of a rambling essay in the spirit of Merton’s own ebbing and flowing thought pieces. Perhaps I’ve become too close with him over the years.

As I approach the re-write of Conscience Matter, I’m filled with the outcomes of recent discussions about renunciation, confession, vows, rules, love, and truth. In the past days, I’ve read deeper into his journals, essays, and the things he was reading at this very time in 1966. Today, March 23d is the very day he went to the hospital for his back operation in 1966. On March 25th, a Friday, Dr. Mitchell operated on Tom’s back. Tom met Margie Smith on March 31st.

I’m in the process of following his journal in light of my own early Spring calendar 46 years hence. Strange. I feel strange recently, examining him in such a voyeuristic way by way of his journal entries.

Our modern age seems to accept an amplified sense of the apocalypse; as if it’s a given thing. I remember the atomic air-raid drills in elementary school around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Last night, I watched a program about the accelerated melting of glaciers in Greenland. Today, I reread a few of Merton’s “Cold War Letters” I wish I could have had access to when he wrote them in 1962. Today, young people in America ache as I did. Their “Cold War” does not have a name, but the closest title I can surmise is The Hunger Games.

Resonate gets overused these days…this writing, that film, this painting still “resonates”, people say. A creation has stood the test of time. It applies to how we feel today; how we see the world. Things haven’t changed. Yet we live in an intense world of information, images, on-demand , connected, socially networked, and very impatient when we know how fast we can access what we desire.

As I’m writing about this day in Thomas Merton’s life, this time in Margie Smith’s past, I’m feeling uncertain about how these people and their conditions could “resonate” with a contemporary audience. All I know is, I’m compelled to tell the story. I’m admittedly obsessed with Merton’s writing, his life. I’m searching to capture Margie’s voice. I know that I’m writing about me.

I’m not in a struggle here. It’s like swimming in a very deep wide lake. The deeper I dive, the deeper I wish to go. Yet, in the age of The Hunger Games, people don’t seem to be swimming much anymore. Contemporary culture appears to have accepted the coming drought, when lakes go dry, glaciers melt, the end comes. Survival is more than a popular theme…it’s a reality show. I don’t feel we’re in an age of oblivion, but rather living in a time that some people like Thomas Merton, understood in the 60s, peering into the future; a time that has come to amplified fruition. We have accepted the atomic bomb… we accept that people will kill for survival, we are numb to warfare and its effects. We have slow-cooked the earth like a tender brisket. There is no American Dream. We have re-fashioned Eastern thought and commercialized it in the forms of yoga, fung shui fashion consulting, and Dali Lama Fan Clubs complete with guided tours and catered meals.

Merton’s desire for a contemplative life of solitude, the modern life of a Trappist (the word comes up as misspelled in Microsoft Word) in Gethsemani is so very foreign, alien, and unknown to most people today. Confused Catholics grapple with issues of contraception, rather than the Immaculate Conception; with abortion instead of absolution, with fear of pedophilic priests instead of calm competent clergy. I over-generalize here…

The current novel on my reading table is Philip Roth’s American Pastoral…in the novel, the main character and narrator, composes a speech for his 45th high school reunion, as he drives home from the reunion party…a speech never delivered:

“It’s astonishing that everything so immediately visible in our lives as classmates we still remember so precisely. The intensity of feeling that we have seeing one another today is also astonishing. But most astonishing is that we are nearing the age that our grandparents were when we first when off to be freshman at the annex on February 1, 1946. What is astonishing is that we, who had no idea how anything was going to turn out, now know exactly what happened. That the results are in for the class of 1950 – the unanswerable questions answered, the future revealed – is that not astonishing? To have lived – and in this country, and in our time, and as who we were. Astonishing.”

Philip Roth
American Pastoral, page 44

I’m understanding that astonishment Roth conveys. I know I should be reading less and writing more but reading, as in writing, is something I must do almost daily to live.

picture of Merton's hermitage front porch by Merton, courtesy of the wonderful Merton blog "louie louie" curated by Beth Cioffoletti

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