(4) The theme of individual freedom and integrity is one that Merton comes back to repeatedly. Here is one passage that really struck me:
We are free beings and sons of God. This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth. To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity. We can evade this responsibility by playing with masks, and this pleases us because it can appear at times to be a free and creative way of living. It is quite easy, it seems to please everyone. But in the long run the cost and the sorrow come very high. To work out our own identity with God, which the Bible calls 'working out our salvation,' is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as He reveals Himself, in the mystery of each new situation. We do not know clearly beforehand what the result of this work will be...The seeds that are planted in my liberty at every moment, by God's will, are the seeds of my own identity, my own reality, my own happiness, my own sanctity. To refuse them is to refuse everything; it is the refusal of my own existence and being: of my identity, of my very self (32-33).I have spent a fair amount of time "playing with masks" as a closet doubter in the LDS church. I went through the motions of orthodox belief, even as my view of reality made it impossible for me to believe honestly. I felt isolated and alienated at church, where I could not share my problems with anyone for fear of arousing anger, frustration, and increased alienation (not to mention the possibility that others might take my revelation as a catalyst to radically destabilize their own lives: I did not want to bring anyone's life crashing down by revealing that much of what is taught at church is patently "untrue"). But I needed to express my spirituality positively. I needed a place where I could share my thoughts and feelings freely, knowing that others would respond affirmatively and constructively (instead of telling me to shut up and get back in line, reading scriptures and attending endless meetings where we are spoon fed pat answers). I felt my spirit dying at church (from lack of positive nurture), and so I ended up fleeing to other places in search of spiritual refreshment. It felt so good to take off the mask and be honest for a change (proving that I can still believe in the concept of a resurrection after all, even if I mean something different by it than the old bodily resuscitation).
(5) Another telling passage speaks about the pointless meeting (reminding me of my mission):
We have said that the solitude that is important to a contemplative is, above all, an interior and spiritual thing. We have admitted that it is possible to live in deep and peaceful interior solitude even in the midst of the world and its confusion. But this truth is sometimes abused in religion. There are men dedicated to God whose lives are full of restlessness and who have no real desire to be alone. They admit that exterior solitude is good, in theory, but they insist that it is far better to preserve interior solitude while living in the midst of others. In practice, their lives are devoured by activities and strangled by attachments. Interior solitude is impossible for them. They fear it. They do everything they can to escape it. What is worse, they try to draw everyone into activities as senseless and devouring as their own. They are great promoters of useless work. They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures. They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God (83).Reading these words, I am taken back to zone conference (where sugar replaced the smoke: the mission is a great place to pick up "clean" vices). I am also reminded of other experiences (such as the first priesthood session of General Conference that I attended without my wife) where I found myself asking, "Why do we need to have this meeting? What are we accomplishing?" and being dissatisfied with the answer. The church is certainly not the only organization that persists through pointless meetings (as the faculty at my university will attest), and not all meetings can be avoided, as long as I am trying to be a part of society in any useful capacity. Nevertheless, reading Merton confirmed me in my desire to avoid a useless meeting whenever possible, and made me even more skeptical of the alleged benefits of such meetings (increased "spirituality" at church; magic improvements in "efficient educational delivery" at college: too often it all boils down to a lot of hot air whose import is at best insubstantial, at worst an impediment to real learning and growth).
(6) The problem with meetings is not that they exist per se. They have a disturbing tendency to substitute relatively ineffectual learning methods (in the form of passive listening and empty rhetorical posturing) for effective ones (practicing empathy with another person, undefended by artificial codes of conduct that narrowly prescribe action: it is easy to be "charitable" when this involves nothing more than sitting quietly or uttering platitudes at a podium; if we want to strengthen our charity, however, we should seek out situations that test it a little more). So the church (whether LDS or Catholic) becomes something of a paradox:
Human traditions all tend toward stagnation and decay. They try to perpetuate things that cannot be perpetuated [e.g. naive myths about the nature of reality]. They cling to objects and values which time destroys without mercy [e.g. human infallibility, institutionalized celibacy, polygamy, racist and sexist doctrines of supremacy]. They are bound up with a contingent and material order of things--customs, fashions, styles, and attitudes--which inevitably change and give way to something else. The presence of a strong element of human conservatism in the Church should not obscure the fact that Christian tradition [which for me includes Mormonism], supernatural in its source, is something absolutely opposed to human traditionalism (142).So the Church (as Merton calls it), in order to avoid becoming just another human organization, must foster life of a kind that does not occur elsewhere--a life that takes what is good from the tradition of the past and adapts it in revolutionary fashion to the challenges of the present. It must be open to losing some things its members like, and embracing some things they hate.
(7) Ideally, the Church provides social space in which the individual saint can build his own integrity and simultaneously improve that of his neighbor:
Very few men are sanctified in isolation. Very few become perfect in absolute solitude. Living with other people and learning to lose ourselves in the understanding of their weakness and deficiencies can help us to become true contemplatives...Even the courageous acceptance of interior trials in utter solitude cannot altogether compensate for the work of purification accomplished in us by patience and humility in loving other men and sympathizing with their most unreasonable needs and demands (191).How can I achieve this ideal of iron sharpening iron when I cannot even speak my concerns about righteousness without being removed from the community as an apostate? How can dialogue exist when one side of the conversation has no voice? The moment I express doubt in anything spoken from the pulpit by an imposing man in a business suit, the community (including some close friends) assumes I have no integrity and tells me to repent or go away. Contrary to what I have heard others say, I have no desire to impose my beliefs (or the lack thereof) on the imposing man in the suit or those who elect to hang on every word he utters. I am perfectly willing to put up with the nonsense of others. Why can they not put up with mine? Does Christ make us all brothers and sisters of equal worth to the community, or does he just give some of us a convenient excuse to lord it over the rest of us?