Friday, May 22, 2015

Musing on Thomas Merton, Self-Actualization, and Women's History

Thomas Merton, wiki image
It was another full house at Lourdes University's Franciscan Center to hear Fr. Jim Bacik speak on Thomas Merton, the Catholic theologian, Franciscan, and Trappist monk.

First edition, 1948
wikipedia image
As Bacik talked about the influences on Merton's thinking, I found myself floating back to my undergraduate days at Wheaton College in Norton, MA, then an all-women's college, now co-educational.   I was in professor Jane Ruby's Medieval History class, an era I came to love and appreciate to this day. It was NOT the dark ages I thought it was.  Ruby shared new scholarship with us, and it was thrilling. I also took classes in English literature. My readings, which I now realize were incredibly thoughtful, included Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, or parts of it, along with the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, St. Augustine's Confessions, and Dante's Divine Comedy.  All classics of the grand Western tradition, the focus of my education from high school through college and graduate school.

I turned back to Fr. Bacik's lecture. Turns out the books I had read so long ago composed a circle of literature and history that encompassed Merton's spiritual journey. They are connected. Nor did I know then what I know now: that my education itself was a spiritual journey. For me at the time, it was all intellectual.

"The world is charged with the grandeur of God," Hopkins the Catholic poet wrote, a reverence Merton shared. According to Fr. Bacik, Merton would add the notion that "every human being is charged with the grandeur of God." We need only to recognize it.

Thomas Merton was born on January 31, 1915, and died by an accidental electrocution while visiting Bangkok in 1968.  I vaguely remember the news; we had recently left Madison to begin a new chapter in Toledo.  Merton was exploring eastern mysticism, especially Zen Buddhism.  It was a time when many of us were learning that the world was more than the Western tradition in which we had been steeped. West meets East.

Yet, how strange Merton's death seems. Electrocuted. An accident. In Thailand. A man of God zapped in his prime. The life of a monk exploring a larger world cut short.  On the other hand, Merton's journey in search of his "true self," which became a core of his theology, had many twists and turns, Bacik noted. A kind of electrical charge flowed through it. That's the Merton that Fr. Bacik focused on in this lecture, the first of three he will give in honor of Merton's centenary.

The journey from  the "false self" to the "true self" is never ending, Merton believed. What is the "true self?"  Bacik elucidated: it embodies authenticity and faith, brutal self-honesty and being true to one's self, shedding false defenses and discovering the God within us, the temple where God dwells.

In practical terms, Bacik explained in a series of real-life illustrations, it's about doing what you really want to do, being who you truly are, getting beyond "comparative mode," beyond critical, judgmental, edgy mode, and moving toward a spiritual self-fulfillment.  All this sounded like my high school motto, simple yet elusive: "To thine own self be true."

I swirled these ideas around in my mind, thinking about the concept of "self-actualization."  That was the major theme of the Women's History courses I taught for many years.  Merton's idea of the "true self" was precisely what the 19th-century Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had in mind when she said that people, men and women, must love others "from the fullness, not the poverty, of being."

The journey toward the "fullness of being," being true to one's self, is what the women's movement was all about. Before Merton, before modern psychology and popularizers such as Alice Miller, before the civil rights movements, there were women pioneers, pondering their own status, who led the way in embarking on and talking about this journey.

The Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Catt.   These women were fearless in the realm of thought. Ahead of their times. They and their supporters forged, out of their own experiences and perspectives, an American philosophy of freedom and autonomy that constitutes a powerful legacy.  They are seldom if ever acknowledged, but there were, indeed, many Mertons among them.

So I find myself musing about Merton, self-actualization and women's history. How amazing to discover the same universal truths over and over, to realize how certain trends and thoughts re-emerge in our lives in new form and with enhanced meaning.  To realize how everything is connected, as Chief Seneca taught.

Hearing Fr. Bacik on Merton felt like this. Of course Merton the Monk had a faith in God that many of us cannot claim. Still, I admit to paying homage to some mystical higher power, some holy spirit that is both male and female, transcendant. Perhaps it is the higher power that Merton believed resided not out there, not out in cosmic space, not above us, but within us, within all of us.

The God within. Yes, I see this, I say to my brother Loren in heaven. Well in that case, I hear him reply, we have to talk as well about "the Goddess within."  Ah, Loren, you are looking over my shoulder. It must be you. Here I am thinking and writing and you emerge, on the very day of your last hike five years ago.  This journey that Merton embodied unwinds in so many mysterious ways. It takes you to such amazing places.

Prayer of Thomas Merton
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so./But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it./
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Solitude of Self," Address before U. S. Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage, February 20, 1892

     The point I wish plainly to bring before you on this occasion is the individuality of each human soul-our Protestant idea. the right of individual conscience and judgement - our republican idea, individual citizenship. In discussing the rights of woman, we are to consider, first, what belongs to her as an individual, in a world of her own, the arbiter of her own destiny, an imaginary Robinson Crusoe with her woman Friday on a solitary island . Her rights under such circumstances are to use all her faculties for her own safety and happiness. /Secondly, if we consider her as a citizen, as a member of a great nation, she must have the same rights as all other members, according to the fundamental principles of our Government./Thirdly, viewed as a woman, an equal factor in civilization, her rights and duties are still the same-individual happiness and development./Fourthly, it is only the incidental relations of life, such as mother wife, sister, daughter, which may involve some special duties and training. 

      In the usual discussion in regard to woman's sphere, such men as Herbert Spencer, Frederick Harrison and Grant Allen uniformly subordinate her rights and duties as an individual, as a citizen, as a woman, to the necessities of these incidental relations, some of which a large class of women never assume. In discussing the sphere of man we do not decide his rights as an individual, as a citizen, as a man, by his duties as a father, a husband, a brother or a son, some of which he may never undertake. Moreover he would be better fitted for these very relations, and whatever special work he might choose to do to earn his bread, by the complete development of all his faculties as an individual. just so with woman. The education which will fit her to discharge the duties in the largest sphere of human usefulness, will best fit her for whatever special work she may be compelled to do.

      The isolation of every human soul and the necessity of self-dependence must give each individual the right to choose his own surroundings. The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, her forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear-is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life. The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives; in the religion she is asked to believe; equality in social life, where she is the chief factor; a place in the trades and professions, where she may earn her bread, is because of her birthright to self -sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself.
      To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes ; to deny the rights of property is like cutting off the hands. To refuse political equality is to rob 'the ostracized of all self-respect, of credit in the market place, of recompense in the world of work, of a voice in choosing those who make and administer the law, a choice in the jury before whom they are tried, and in the judge who decides their punishment. Shakespeare's play of Titus and Andronicus contains a terrible satire on woman's position in the nineteenth century - "Rude men seized the king's daughter, cut out her tongue, cut off her hands, and then bade her go call for water and wash her hands." What a picture of woman's position! Robbed of her natural rights, handicapped by law and custom at every turn, yet compelled to fight her own battles, and in the emergencies of life to fall back on herself for protection . . . . .
      How the little courtesies of life on the surface of society, deemed so important from man towards woman, fade into utter insignificance in view of the deeper tragedies in which she must play her part alone, where no human aid is possible!
      Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility. Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one's self -sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded-a place earned by personal merit, not an artificial attainment by inheritance, wealth, family and position. Conceding then that the responsibilities of life rest equally on man and woman, that their destiny is the same, they need the same preparation for time and eternity. The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is the sheerest mockery, for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, and with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, to conquer . . . . .
      In music women speak again the language of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and are worthy interpreters of their great thoughts. The poetry and novels of the century are theirs, and they have touched the keynote of reform in religion, politics and social life. They fill the editor's and professor's chair, plead at the bar of justice, walk the wards of the hospital, speak from the pulpit and the platform. Such is the type of womanhood that an enlightened public sentiment welcomes to-day, and such the triumph of the facts of life over the false theories of the past.
Is it, then, consistent to hold the developed woman of this day within the same narrow political limits as the dame with the spinning wheel and knitting needle occupied in the past? No, no! Machinery has taken the labors of woman as well as man on its tireless shoulders; the loom and the spinning wheel are but dreams of the past; the pen, the brush, the ease], the chisel, have taken their places, while the hopes and ambitions of women are essentially changed.
      We see reason sufficient in the outer conditions of human beings for individual liberty and development, but when we consider the self-dependence of every human soul, we see the need of courage, judgment and the exercise of every faculty of mind and body, strengthened and developed by use, in woman as well as man....

Upcoming Father Bacik Lectures:
Tuesday July 31, Thomas Merton: Dialogue with Eastern Religions
Tuesday, August 18,  Pope Francis on the Environment
Monday, Sept.  21, Thomas Merton on Peace-Making 

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