Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Classic Merton...

Life consists in learning to live on one's own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one's own - be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.

            The purpose of education is to show us how to define ourselves authentically and spontaneously in relation to our world - not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of ourselves as individuals. The world is made up of the people who are fully alive in it: that is, of the people who can be themselves in it and can enter into a living and fruitful relationship with each other in it. The world is, therefore, more real in proportion as the people in it are able to be more fully and more humanly alive: that is to say, better able to make a lucid and conscious use of their freedom. Basically, this freedom must consist first of all in the capacity to choose their own lives, to find themselves on the deepest possible level. A superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here and there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions … is simply a sham. It claims to be a freedom of "choice" when it has evaded the basic task of discovering who it is that chooses. It is not free because it is unwilling to face the risk of self-discovery.           

Thomas Merton. "Learning to Live" in Love and Living. Edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979: 3-4.

It's a curious thing that freedom is best found within discipline, just as love is best found within commitment. To the outsider, these things seem paradoxical, unreasonable, but in God's economy they work, in the same, sane way as losing one's life allows one to keep it forever, whereas attempting to preserve it at all costs is fatal (Luke 17:33; John 12:25).

I often think that the freest people I know live within religious communities, under vows, as Merton did. Brother Ramon SSF, a man after St Francis' own heart if ever there was one, once said, "It may mean... that the believer now lives on two levels of paradox - the outward life seeming to exhibit weakness and physical mortality, while the inward life is more and more possessed by the mystery and fire of God's love." (Franciscan Spirituality, SPCK 1994, pp.175-176)

Br Ramon then goes on to quote a passage I love from Gregory of Nyssa, and one which truly sums up what I understand freedom in the end to be - I'll quote it in full:

The idea of epektasis is that the perfect spiritual man is not one who has 'arrived' at a high degree of moral perfection and contemplative knowledge of God. Rather, he is a man who, having attained a high measure, presses on in pursuit of still purer, more vital experience of God's light and truth. The perfect man is the man who is ever moving forward, deeper into the mystery of God. Heaven itself, in this view, consists in an eternal progress into the love and light and life of God, where each fulfillment contains in itself the impulse to further exploration.

(Bamberger Continuum 7.2, 1968, p. 294)

I wonder if CS Lewis had been reading Gregory of Nyssa before he wrote that marvellous passage at the end of The Last Battle:

...but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (pp. 173-4.)

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