Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
I studied in the seminary from 1994-1999, and, to be very honest, I rarely heard the name of Thomas Merton mentioned even once during those years, and, if I did, it was usually used in derision, as a product of a time period long passed. It wasn’t until I was ordained a priest and assigned full-time to a parish that I actually read Thomas Merton for the first time.
The occasion for this reading was a retreat that I was going to take with some other priests, my first retreat as a priest. I was going to Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, which is perhaps more famous as the home of the liturgical vestment shop, the Holy Rood Guild. My pastor, a fine priest, was ordained in 1958, forty years before me, and it was interesting being assigned to him. We had very different priestly formations and very different life experiences. And, as one could imagine, we had very different liturgical stylings- I enjoyed wearing my cassock and he was usually in a grey clerical shirt. But, to be honest, he was a prayerful priest, striving for holiness, who edified me in the time he spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. My pastor suggested that, in anticipation for the retreat, I read Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain (1948), which I purchased in its 50th anniversary edition.
I came to this text suspicious and skeptical and, having actually read the book, I left rather impressed to say the least. I cannot say that I have the same love for Merton that Bishop Robert E. Barron does, but I certainly respect Merton’s writings, particularly his early works. I am aware of his reputed troubles with his vocation in his later life, and I am certainly aware of the criticism that Merton was beginning to be rather syncretistic in his later writings, embracing an odd, in my opinion, “Zen-Christianity,” but I would certainly recommend many of his early writings, particularly The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), Seeds of Contemplation (1949) The Sign of Jonas (1953), and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966).
Bishop Barron, in his interview with John L. Allen, Jr., To Light a Fire on the Earth (2017), states:
I worked at Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore chain. It’s gone now, but it was a big deal at the time. There was a huge store in Chicago and about sixteen satellite stores in the area. I worked at one of the branches, and the policy was if a book got too worn out, the manager would tear the cover off and we could take it home. My brother worked there as well; he was seventeen and I was sixteen. He saw that The Seven Storey Mountain cover had been taken off, so he threw it at me and said, “I bet you would like this. It was written by a Trappist monk.” I said with completely unconscious irony given Merton’s interests later in his career, “Oh, I don’t want to read a book by some Buddhist.” My brother shot back, “Trappists are Catholic, you idiot!” With that, literally landing in my lap was The Seven Storey Mountain. I brought this mangled book home with me, no cover, and I read it will full teenage passion…Merton filled in the spiritual content for me. It was like, wow, if there really is a God, you can be in relationship with him, and you can explore that friendship in all sorts of interesting ways. I read The Seven Storey Mountain like a romance novel. I loved the Beatles, and I have a very vivid memory or reading The Seven Storey Mountain with the sound track of the Beatles behind me. (19)
In his incredible text, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (1997), Bishop Barron uses Thomas Merton’s incredible experience of conversion as a model of shedding what Barron describes as the pusilla anima (the fearful soul) and embracing the imago Dei (image of God) which is inherent in all Christians. Barron writes:
By raising to the surface the godlike quality in us, by polishing off the diamond, we do as Jesus did: we appeal to and awaken the divinity that is implicitly in work in us. We stir up that longing for God that remains despite the dysfunction and we thereby prepare the way for transformation of the soul, for metanoia. (56)
In And Now I See, the Bishop uses Merton’s autobiography to demonstrate the movement of God in the life of the believer. Merton’s own eye for the aesthetic leads him to an embrace of the divine. Read Merton’s description of his experience of the French town of St. Antonin, where he and his father lived in the 1920s (Barron quotes this in And Now I See, 59):
Here in this amazing, ancient town, the very pattern of the place, of the houses and streets and of nature itself, the circling hills, the cliffs and trees, all focused my attention upon the one, important central fact of the church and what it contained…Every street pointed more or less inward to the center of the town, to the Church. Every view of the town, from the exterior hills, centered upon the long, grey building with the spire.” (Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 41)
Through these experiences, and later through a visit to Rome, the young Merton, in his encounter with the great beauty found in the Eternal City, comes to the realization that what he is encountering is indeed the transcendent. Barron quotes Merton in this section of And Now I See (60):
I found myself looking into churches rather than into ruined temples…The effect of this discovery was tremendous. After all the vapid, boring, semi-pornographic statuary of the empire, what a thing it was to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality…an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all that it had to say. (Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 41).
It is the beautiful that catches the eye of the young Merton, which leads to what Bishop Barron describes as an even deeper realization of the transcendent, what is termed a “limit experience,” an experience in which Merton comes to the basic realization of his radical dependence on God. The philosopher Charles Taylor (A Secular Age, 5) describes the limit experience as “… an experience which unsettles and breaks through our ordinary sense of being in the world, with its familiar objects, activities and points of reference …when "ordinary reality is 'abolished' and something terrifyingly other shines through…” Basically, Merton comes to know, in rather plain and blunt terms, if I may, that God is God, he is not, and thank God for that.
Intellectually, it is the simple reading in 1937 of Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (1936) that assists Merton in his awakening faith. Bishop Barron writes:
Interestingly, in the wake of reading this book of Christian metaphysics, Merton is compelled to go to church, to acknowledge existentially the God whom he had discovered, to pray. And here we see the imago Dei with great clarity. In our very dependency and insufficiency, in our very fear and limitation, in the very threatened quality of our existence, we have within us an openness to the God who is neither dependent, nor insufficient, nor threatened. We carry about in our bodies the death of Christ, as Paul said, and in that very mortality we are oriented to the immortal source of being. When we sense how fragile and nonself-explanatory we are, we are forced, by a kind of inner compulsion, to kneel, to pray, to acknowledge the divine. This darkness that opens to light is another form of the imago Dei in us. (And Now I See, 65)
Bishop Barron details the third and powerful example of the imago Dei in Merton’s life, in which the young man comes to the point vierge (the virgin point) in his life. Again, this is a term Barron is using from Merton and, by it, he means the following:
This is the place of emptiness and purity which dwells at the deepest heart of the person, that point of contact between the soul and God, that place where, in the words of Meister Eckhart, there is no real distinction between Creator and creature. It is this “point,” both nothing and everything, that sums up what we have seen so far: it is the sense and taste for divine beauty and it is the hunger and thirst for God. It is the way that the divine is stubbornly and unavoidable present even in the dysfunctional pusilla anima. (And Now I See, 66)
Christine Bochen in her work, Thomas Merton: The Essential Writings (2000) explains it even more clearly:
A French phrase caught my attention in the writings of Thomas Merton. Even poorly pronounced, le point vierge sounds better in French than its English translation ‘the virgin point.’ Merton defined le point vierge as the ‘point at which I can meet God in a real and experimental contact.’ He said, ‘This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. (60-61),
As we know, Merton follows his call to belief in God to belief in the Catholic Church and then to the particular vocation of religious life as a Trappist priest. The example of the point vierge that Bishop Barron points to in Merton’s life happens a number of years after his entrance as a monk. Father Louis (as Thomas Merton was called in religion) describes a particularly powerful experience he had one day when he was out shopping for his Abbey:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” and he adds: “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 156).
Isn’t that the task of a converted Christian — overcoming the pusilla anima, recognizing the imago Dei in himself or herself and others, and then, shining like the sun, letting everyone whom one encounters know, by one’s love, that they, too, are shining like the sun, too.
To be honest, as I have mentioned, Merton’s writings do not appeal to me as much as they do to Bishop Barron, but I recognize the wisdom and beauty of Merton’s writings and I count The Seven Storey Mountain as a contemporary spiritual classic. His Holiness, Pope Francis, in his 2015 address to the U.S. Congress, mentions Thomas Merton, stating: “Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions."
One can see why Merton’s writings appealed so much to a young Robert Barron. Merton’s story is a love story with the All-Beautiful One — a tale in which a pusilla anima discovers the imago Dei. His story of conversion leads him along the way of the path of the transcendentals, a path which the Bishop details as the way to evangelization — the order being beauty, then goodness, then truth.
In my next piece on the theology of Bishop Barron, I would precisely like to speak about Barron’s concept of the transcendentals and, in a particular way, apply them to the evangelization of young people in our contemporary world.