"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thomas Merton: Intellect, Possessions and Grace

How is it possible to find ultimate happiness and meaning in our Western consumer society? Clearly, it is not for sale, or there would be advertisements for it. In fact, all advertisements and media commercials are intended to create demand - or, in spiritual terms, desire - and without generating this 'needing' to have, the model of our Western consumer society collapses, for we are not really consumers but over-consumers, striving to get and have more in the hopes of being secure and satisfied.

Yet the glow of acquiring -  be it new clothes, a new car, a new house, or even a new relationship - fades all too quickly, and as the old saying goes: "the bloom is off the rose." Intellect, trained largely by the media tells us that the acquisition of material things will bring us happiness, but knowing this happiness fades, we suffer in any event; and implicit in this process is the stark if unfaced reality that possessions alone cannot bring ultimate happiness and, in fact, they may be a complete impediment to its attainment.

Thomas Merton
Writing in his autobiography, "The Seven Story Mountain," the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton touched upon the role that our trained intellect has in generating not happiness, but suffering. He writes:
"I think that if there is one truth that people need to learn, in the world, especially today, it is this: the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, acutal practice. It is constantly and blindly being perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda."

"We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own infallibility. The desires of the flesh - and by that I mean not only sinful desires, but even the ordinary, normal appetites for comfort and ease and human respect, are fruitful sources of every kind of error and misjudgment, and because we have these yearnings in us, our intellects (which, if they operated all alone in a vacuum, would indeed, register with pure impartiality what they saw) present to us everything distorted and accommodated to the norms of our desire."

"And therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions. There are ways that seem to men to be good, the end whereof is the depths of hell."
[Thomas Merton, "The Seven Story Mountain," pp. 205-206
"The only answer to the problem," says Merton, "is grace, grace, (and) docility to grace."

But why this need for grace, this need to foster and develop a gratitude for who we are and what our life circumstances are, without regard to what we "should" have or "could" be in accordance with the standards of others? Perhaps, it is because we know, at a deep level, that all such standards are fallacies, and the opinion of others will not provide us with ultimate happiness any more than material possessions or wealth will.

"The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy," Merton observes, "(on) the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions of other men! A weird life it is, indeed," he notes, "to be living in somebody else's imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real."
["The Seven Story Mountain," p. 303]

In these times, as blessed (or cursed) with material possessions as we may be, the ancient Sufi poet Rumi would undoubtedly agree with Merton: "(We) need more grace than (we) had thought."


  1. ॥ योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥
    "The practice of yoga is learning to discipline the 'thought-stuff' of the Mind.
    -" Patanjali's Aphorisms, 1:2

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