William H. Shannon. Thomas Merton’s Dark Path: The Inner Experience of a Contemplative (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1981)
Welcome to the first in my new series! In these posts I will review obscure, comedic and neglected books throughout theological history.
At important junctures in my life I have found that books of a felicitous nature have presented themselves to me, seemingly by way of providence. This strange phenomena has happened whilst browsing bookshops, through friend recommendations or, most recently, glancing at my own bookshelf. I had been lightly working out on my recently acquired cardio machine when I stole a glance at the mass of overflowing titles screaming out for some love and affection.
Tucked away on the bottom shelf was William Shannon’s study of Thomas Merton’s understanding of what it means to live a contemplative life. I had purchased this funky little number at my theological libraries monthly book sale, which is always an opportune time to pick-up some obscure titles that no-one cares about. This book set me back the grand total of 50 cents, which is rather appropriate given that a central message of the work is that one must abandon the realms of profit and materialism in order to arrive at a state of pure contemplation. The author of this gem was a professor of religion at New York’s Nazareth College, where he assisted in the creation of the International Thomas Merton Society. In 2012 Shannon passed away at the ripe old age of 94, leaving behind a legacy of masterly Thomas Merton scholarship. It just so happened that discovering this book coincided with a time in my life in which I am disillusioned and frustrated with the noise and chaos of life. I have been seeking silence and solitude, and this book deals with these important but overlooked elements in human existence.
Each chapter of Shannon’s work features an analysis of key texts in Merton’s corpus, including Seeds of Contemplation, The Ascent to Truth and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Shannon’s love and passion for Merton are evident throughout, although one of the books many qualities is that he does not spare Merton from his fair share of criticism. Shannon’s willingness to call out apparent contradictions are evident in his treatment of Merton’s understanding of the conditions through which one may partake in the contemplative life. At times Merton appears to subscribe to a more elitist view, in that a retreat to the monastic life is the only option available for those seeking a state of pure contemplation. On other occasions Merton appears content with a broad interpretation of contemplation as being accessible to all. Shannon also helpfully critically engages with Merton’s understanding of Zen, the depth of which developed throughout the course of the Trappist monk’s life. What emerges from this is a portrait of a mind that was evolving, always unafraid to question his own assumptions and positions. While some may call this mere ‘inconsistency,’ I interpret it as a sign of deep wisdom. Merton was highly sensitive to the reality of God as the ground of all our being (the Tillichian reference is noted in this work), but one who is at the same time beyond the grasp of human words and concepts. What matters is the ongoing task of orientating one’s life to the possibility of experiencing God beyond the intellectual, scholastic concepts that have shaped much of the Western theological tradition.
I am relatively new to the world of Christian mysticism, and the desire to learn more about its purpose and history is in part why I chose this book. I particularly enjoyed how Shannon placed Merton firmly in the tradition of apophatic theology and the desert fathers. Shannon emphasises that contrary to superficial opinion, the mystic/monastic tradition is not about selfishly removing oneself from the rigors of life as a form of escapism. Rather, pursuing a life of pure contemplation has as its goal a full understanding of one’s own inward state, so that one can then participate in external relationships in a more wise and meaningful way. The contemplative process includes appreciating one’s own capacity for evil. On this topic, Merton writes: ‘instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war.’ (1) Shannon draws attention to the obvious Kierkegaardian themes in much of Merton’s writing, particularly the former’s Concept of Anxiety. Merton draws on Kierkegaard’s argument that existential anxiety is the underlying reality of human existence, that it must be faced directly if one is to really ‘become’ who one is. (2) The noise and distractions of modern life, for example, are mechanisms through which we avoid confronting this anxiety, and thus our true selves.
- Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), 125.
- Thus Kierkegaard writes: ‘Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.’ See: Soren Kierkegaard. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. International Kierkegaard Commentary Vol. 8. Edited by Robert L. Perkins (Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1985), 171.