Friday, March 10, 2017

Mindfulness and Thomas Merton

Next Thursday night at Christ's College looks to be a cracking night, not least because I do not know anything much about "mindfulness" and I think it is time I found out ... also what Thomas Merton has to do with it.

Thomas is the handsome guy on the ... :)

Speaking on Merton and Mindfulness are Rev. Bosco and Mrs. Helen Peters who have a long-time interest in Thomas Merton, one of the most influential spiritual leaders of the twentieth century (and the son of a Christ’s College Old Boy). They have a wealth of experience around the spiritual journey and are passionate about nurturing the hunger for spirituality that is evidenced in the popular Mindfulness Movement. They are enthusiastic about bringing to light much in the Western, Christian tradition that has been overlooked – practices that can enhance living Mindfully.


Anonymous said...

Bowman Walton

Bryden Black said...

I've often pondered why Merton came to an early, unexpected, untimely (?) death in Bangkok. Might it have been because, as his Asian Journal shows, his journey was becoming a little loosened from his Christian moorings, as he became too (?) interested in Buddhism? Just a thought ... Meanwhile, his earlier life and works remain powerful ...

Father Ron said...

Do you think perhaps, Bryden, that Thomas Merton died because of his interest in 'other' religious spirituality?

Bryden Black said...

I think Ron it’s more complex than your formulation allows. So I’ll tell a story.

A number of years ago I was having lunch with a dear friend, whose acumen and understanding of things means our conversations during such feasts are most enjoyable and rich. (Sadly he’s gone to live overseas, so I’m fasting not only during Lent!) Our conversation turned to CS Lewis for some reason that day, and during the course of that theme his expression “a severe mercy” arose. Lewis had used it of the death of Sheldon Vanauken’s wife in correspondence between them, and it became of course the tile of Vanauken’s book.

We wondered whether such an expression might be applicable to any other set of circumstances/people. Within a mere 20 seconds or so, each of us had offered the name Merton, independently of each other ... We’d curiously never discussed Thomas Merton before - although I’d read much of his stuff years ago, and had been enriched by some of it. Until I encountered his Asian Journal (with some help in its interpretation from Alexander Lipski). Neither of us were quite prepared to be definitive with this “severe mercy” verdict (naturally ...); yet both of us were serious in our appraisal it might indeed be correct. Ref only Merton’s writing up of his visit to Polonnaruwa, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). For the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, Messiah of Israel and climax/telos of the triune God’s economy of salvation, brooks no rivals—especially from ‘atheistic’ meditative traditions. For, as you yourself say on that other thread: “The victory is not in ourselves but in Christ!”

Peter Carrell said...

I am surprised, Bryden, on your and your friend's and the Vanauken logic, noting the severe criticism I regularly come under here as a proto-heretic if not a simple heretic, that I am still alive and have not received God's severe mercy.

Really!? Much simpler to assume that Merton suffered, as many good Christians do, an accident, the whys and wherefores thereof are hidden from our sight.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Merton's unpublished papers on Asian religion are at Bellarmine College in Kentucky, and I have not read them. But I long ago discussed them with E. Glenn Hinson and Michael Mott who had studied them carefully. These conversations have made me wary of the wariness that many have about Merton's investigation of Asian religions.

At bottom, Thomists like Merton, following the analogy of being, have seen safe openings to other religions where Barthians, following the analogy of faith, have seen see only a loss of nerve in the face of the scandal of particularity. That is, the same difference of methodology between doctors of the C13 and C20 that we usually view calmly when we discuss the doctrine of God sometimes occasions a rise of temperature when we discuss approaches to the substance of Asian religions. Notably, although nobody doubts the traditionalism of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, they too seem to have disagreed on this question.

Avoiding that substance does not seem to be possible. For obvious example, *mindfulness* is Buddhism disguised by Jon Kabat-Zinn, yet, amid an epidemic of opioid addiction caused by duly prescribed drugs, it is widely taught in hospitals etc as a pain management technique. Do we judge this practise by its alien origins or by its good effects? Do we say this to patients?-- "Mindfulness came from Buddhism, so practicing it is surely unfaithful to YHWH, even thought it works wonders. Opioids came from godless *eliminative materialism*, so although they may ruin your body with addiction, they are spiritually quite safe. Avoid meditation; take drugs." Or do we say this?-- "By their fruits we shall know them. Try all things, hold fast what is good. Avoid drugs; try meditation." Or do we say something else? And if we conscientiously choose the fruitful discipline in medicine, what would be the exact point of mindlessly avoiding it in the religion of the Healer from Galilee? Inexorably, C21 Christians need an account of mindfulness, and that, Hinson and Mott seemed sure, is what Merton was seeking.

If Bosco dares to plug a fan into an English wall socket, he will probably survive.

Bowman Walton

Bryden Black said...

Thank you Bowman for your considered response re Merton and mindfulness. Naturally, I too have not sighted those unpublished papers (although the Lipski book I cited earlier does mention some of these very materials which he has sighted). Nonetheless, I’d push back on your comment as follows.

I do not think it to be a case of “analogy of being” vs “analogy of faith”. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the very implied ontology of the likes of Zen Buddhism to which I take exception. Nor is this wary response an over-intellectualizing to which Merton objected. In addition, Lipski is correct to point out that Merton’s view of “the East” was a bit romanticized; he terms it “idealistic” versus “realistic”. And we both know that Romanticism is the classic over-reaction to an excessive Rationalism, culturally. Our postmodern indulgence with “feelings” would be another. (Curiously, most contemplative traditions would also decry such ‘feelings’ but for very different reasons! You see; I myself am something of a real contemplative: noone who engages with a fulsome trinitarianism may be otherwise!)

Nor do I quite agree with your medical analogy. Comparing 13th C medicine with that of the 21st C is a bit loose. You were stuck with that analogy of being stuff I fancy! Rather, I’d agree with Merton that our contemporary Western over-indulgence with things material and bodily is to be countered. Yet the way of escape via any sort of drug abuse (either “from the boot of a car” or with over the counter prescriptions) is surely no solution at all. This element of your reply is both important yet also not the entire story at all. For of course there has always been a due form of contemplative prayer in the Christian Tradition, which is far more promising as a due response. Nor do I disagree in principle with Bosco Peter’s desire (or yours) to address “mindfulness” per se. It’s a valid enough enquiry to see how it might overlap with just such Christian practice. Yet its pragmatic usefulness/supposed success is only one factor. I’d dare say good old Christian contemplative practices would assist similarly! They might even help to establish communion between creature and Creator in a way that mere mindfulness probably does not! Even if half a loaf is better than none. Yet the entire loaf is best of all ...

As always nowadays in the West, we’re in a post Christian, secular environment, which seeks to mitigate any sense of the transcendent. Mindfulness sits nicely within such a world-view: humans may still be in control, seemingly. And sure; Christendom’s “control” is no way forward - or back!! For two wrongs never make a right ... Religious dialogue in such settings requires not simply wariness but a robust, honest engagement with multiple dimensions. And while my own engagement with such has been somewhat limited, perhaps, those whom I have met (and read about) from among both ex Hindus and ex Buddhists, as well as still practising folk, makes me conclude where I began: ontology and one’s ‘theology’ of creation is paramount. And this despite the possibility of sharing certain forms of praxis (the beloved other pole of Merton’s spirituality). As I’ve said before, citing Ellul, Christians always need to be wary of the key distinction between co-belligerents and allies when it comes to co-action. This applies, it seems to me, especially to the current fad of mindfulness, as well as dialogue with any Contemplatives.

I’d close by referencing a delightful wee book by Ravi Zacharias, The Lotus and the Cross. It’s an imaginative ‘conversation’ among Jesus, Buddha, and some other travellers in a boat along the River of Kings, Bangkok. Enjoy!