No Gods Before Me: Leaving Merton Behind

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Faulty Foundations

Like many young men who read him, I was taken with Thomas Merton. I connected with him on many levels, from his struggles and complex personality to his path to conversion, his thirst for experience, and being a seeker. Though I discovered his writing about a year after I came into the Catholic Church in 1998 at the age of 18, I felt I had found a spiritual kin, and considered him a kind of older brother in the Faith.

Like Merton later in his life, I had always had an interest in the East. One of my earliest exposures to it was a small thin Penquin paperback I found in high school titled “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones,” a collection of ancient Zen and pre-Zen writings. They were eccentric and esoteric, while also being simple and parabolic. What really drew me to it (this was prior to my conversion to Christianity) was that these Zen monastics were serious about finding the truth of existence, and sought after the Dharma “the way a drowning man seeks after air,” as the saying goes. I also read a lot of “Beat” literature–Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg. I wanted to be a writer, and Jack Kerouac was by far the biggest writing influence in my life. He and many of the other beats were into Buddhism as well, so I just took to it, their kind of rag-tag Dharma bumming and never-ending quest for kicks and Enlightenment.

In high school I read and studied the basics of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path, the sutras, and of course the enigmatic koans and parables found in my little Zen paperback. I meditated–not with a strict regularity, but I would set up a straw beach mat under the maple trees in our back yard and cross my legs and just count my breaths and try not to think. It was somewhat neutral (this breathing) I suppose, considering I had no religious faith to speak of and no real exposure to Christianity, but that would soon change by the time I got to college.

I came into the Catholic faith by way of personal conversion and encounter with the Holy Spirit; I really didn’t reason or think my way into it. Although Buddhism held appeal intellectually, I knew experientially, and by God’s grace, that I was a sinner in need of a savior, that I could not save myself, and that Christ was the answer. I wanted to protect those experiences, and the Catholic faith seemed to be the most authentic and true to the roots of Christianity; it was Truth, after all. And so, I became Catholic. Unfortunately, I had laid the stones for an Eastern intellectual foundation on which I would build the life of faith with my newfound Catholicism. The brick and mortar was Christian, but the foundation it was built on was Buddhist. So I ran into some difficulties throughout my early years as a Catholic, that were exacerbated by those who were supportive of a kind of mutually-complementary synthesis of Western Christian belief by way of Eastern praxis.

In Theory

I discerned monastic life for about ten years (I discovered Merton’s writing about a year after beginning that discernment process), which led me to visiting different religious communities across the country. I spent my first summer at a contemplative Benedictine monastery in New York as an observer, and subsequent summers in New Mexico and Virginia. It was at a Trappist monastery in Virginia that I worked closely with their vocation director, who agreed to serve as a spiritual director for me during this period of discernment. We exchanged letters for many years, and he was very kind in taking the time to write. He also was generally encouraging of my interest in Eastern spiritual practice, seeing it as somewhat complementary to the Christian contemplative life. I suppose this is where the “Centering Prayer” practice began to grow out of, and I eventually was given a book by M. Basil Pennington, OCSO, on the practice. I also read about Catholic monks like Bede Griffiths who devoted their lives to living in a way that synthesized traditions. So, I thought, maybe there is nothing wrong with this, it is a non-traditional way of getting closer to the Divine and maybe Catholics can learn something from the East.

During all this time I attended Mass regularly, was convinced of the Truth of the Catholic faith, but did not realize the dangers–or at least the lack of fruitfulness–in being of “two minds” seeking to supplement or synthesize Catholic truth with the practice of Eastern meditation and mindfulness. I thought it was kosher, so to speak, to seek a deeper experience in prayer in this way, and I really had no guides or teachers to tell me otherwise. I was kind of making my own quasi-monastic-hybrid blend of spiritual practice, taking the “best of” two opposite traditions and seeking to synthesize them.

For me, in my pride, I was put off by who I saw as the ‘goody two-shoe’ Catholics who were pious and devout, because I was nothing like them. I struggled and struggled to be good, to turn away from intoxication, fornication, and the like, but I continued to live like a prodigal, vacillating between two worlds–the flesh and the spirit. I felt very alone in my faith, but largely because I had shunned conforming to an established tradition and praxis and was piecing together my own esoteric quasi-Buddhist Catholicism. I didn’t see any contradiction; looking back, I can see it as a wholly Gnostic and self-serving approach.

In Practice

I continued in this vein for a number of years. What did this look like in practice? I continued to try to practice Centering Prayer and contemplation as I understood it from Fr. Pennington’s book, and the piecemeal compilations of Eastern practice. Friday nights in my apartment I would listen to a master of the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) on CD ode to the kumuso, the mendicant monks of the 13th century Fuke Zen sect, as a way of deepening my meditation.

One night I walked down the street from my apartment and into the woods of Fairmount Park to meditate. I knew there was a “hermit’s cave” known as the Cave of (Johannes) Kelpius from the 17th century less than a mile into the woods and I decided like the Buddha in front of the Boddhi tree, I would meditate there all night. It was a site popular with the Rosicrucians, an esoteric mystical sect, who had erected a monument there. I laid out my straw mat and lit my candle and some incense and sat cross legged in the dark cave and began to meditate. But I was disturbed by what felt like a malevolent force, spirits, and it freaked me out, as this was not a positive spiritual experience. I left before sunrise, shaken, and did not return there.

I attended talks by the Dalai Lama when he came to Philadelphia, and also Buddhist retreats in New York City when an acclaimed Lama came to the Shambhala Center on West 22nd St to offer teachings. I simply saw this as training in the mental and spiritual life. Yes, it was not strictly Catholic, but if I could gain control of my mind perhaps it would help my spiritual life and life of prayer as a kind of complement to it. I was on my own, spiritually speaking, and no one was warning me that maybe this was not the best idea. I did not find the American Buddhists in NYC or in Philly to be very friendly people. They were cold and impersonal and seemed to be more concerned about their own self-awareness than that of others. They did not talk to me, but I didn’t care as I was there to learn and train.

My practice in meditation was taken to the next level when in November of 2007, after a breakup and needing a change and looking for greater discipline, I booked a flight to Thailand after hearing about a Theravada Buddhist wat (monastery) deep in the jungle of the southern province of Surat Thani named Suan Mokkh, founded by Venerable Ajahn Buddha­dasa Bhikkhu (“Slave of the Buddha”). Buddhadasa was a reformer–he tired of the corruption and laxity in the city wats and sought a purer form of Buddhism, getting back to the Theravada (old school) roots. I flew to Bangkok and made my way south to embark on an 11-day Vipassana (meaning “to see things as they really are”) retreat. There was no way to ‘sign up’ for the retreat, you just had to show up at the gates and hope that the monks let you in.

There were people from all over the world wanting to learn the dharma and the ways of mind-training. It was a rigorous monastic schedule of meditation, yoga, and teaching, and strict silence was expected to be observed. We were not allowed to write either or take notes. We slept in individual cells on a bamboo mat atop a concrete slab, with a wooden block for a pillow (the infamous “wooden pillow”), washed in cisterns, had a candle for light, and ate vegetarian meals. The gates to the monastery were locked every night, so no one could leave. The monks who lived there would regularly meditate in the jungle in where they knew to be tigers present, so as to cultivate an acute awareness that comes when one is so close to death (being devoured by a tiger at any moment).

There were strict rules governing behavior as well. The required tenant of ‘no killing’ extended even to mosquitoes. At one point during sitting meditation a mosquito landed on my leg and I could feel every movement of its stinger inserting itself into my skin, but I couldn’t kill it, nor could I scratch the itch of the welt when it developed. The silence and not talking was very difficult for many people as well. At one point the young Irish man whose cushion was next to mine failed to show up for meditation one morning. I heard (from another participant, after the retreat) that he couldn’t take the rigor anymore and climbed out the bathroom window and over the monastery gates in the middle of the night and ran off into the forest! Although it was rigorous, I enjoyed the structure and the tranquil setting and the simple pleasures that come from not having many material comforts. I really thought that studying and practicing non-sectarian Buddhist meditation would make me a better Christian. No one was telling me otherwise.

I did have one Christian friend, though, who questioned it, when I returned home from Thailand. She basically said point blank, “What’s with all the Buddhist stuff? Are you becoming a Buddhist?” She was a faithful Christian. I tried to explain that no, I was Christian, anyone can practice meditation and take what they want from it, whatever is useful, and leave the rest, but it wasn’t very convincing. But I don’t think she bought it; we are not in touch anymore, though I would like to ask her if that was part of why we did not stay in touch. But otherwise, I did not have too many Catholic friends, no one to kind of call me out on all this syncretist nonsense.

I’ve got issues

A few years after my experience in Thailand, I came across a few articles on the internet that gave me pause and made me just slightly begin to question the efficacy of this kind of religious syncretism. The first was titled, “Can I Trust Thomas Merton?” on  SpiritualDirection.com, in which Dan Burke wrote:

“My advice? Well, it’s not like the Church is hurting for solid and perfectly trustworthy writings on the spiritual life. I personally don’t know why anyone would want to carefully sift through this kind of literature when it is clear that Merton had serious issues. It seems a bit like sifting through the refuse at the back of a good restaurant. You are likely to find much that is of nutritional value, but why not just go take your seat at the table for the best and purest meals available? I would encourage you to stick with the spiritual doctors of the Church.”

Now it seemed kind of square to question Thomas Merton since he was so beloved by so many people and was such a renaissance man and after all, he was a Trappist monk so he was authentically Catholic. Right? In seeing my own tendencies and personality in Merton, though, it made me think, what if I, too, had “serious issues” like Merton?

In fact, I knew I did have serious issues.

I was struggling with bi-polar disorder, submission, obedience, chastity, temperance, prudence, patience, gluttony, fornication, idolatry, and blasphemy. All this hip meditation was perhaps training my mind and making me fit in with my secular friends (who I deeply cherished) but was not redeeming my character and may, in fact, be justifying my sinful and self-destructive behavior.

So, the Merton article gave me pause. There was one more article that I came across a cautionary post about yoga that also made me begin to question the things I could not see beneath the surface of my spiritual life. I was not big into yoga, but we did do yoga at the retreat every morning. I did not know the Theravada stance on ‘Buddha as a god,” but there were certainly statues everywhere and I just didn’t know what kind of spiritual influence I had subjected myself to during all these years, the way you may drink water tainted with an odorless, tasteless chemical that causes cancer. Yoga was not my issue, but in regarding it as a more macro-issue of non-Christian ‘worship,’ I just began to get uneasy. My sins during this time, the volatility of my spirit, and (as I realized years later) not being in a state of grace all made me vulnerable to influences that may not have been of God.

Deliverance

The woman in the yoga article made mention of a deliverance priest named Fr. Mike, and I knew a guy I went to college with who was named Mike, became a priest, and did deliverance ministry now as a priest, so I wondered if it was the same guy. I never reached out to him, but when I was at a conference in Detroit last year for the street evangelization apostolate I am a member of, I witnessed healing of many people of infirmities. I asked one of the men healing in the name of Jesus to pray over me “for forgiveness and deliverance from any of those things from my past to which may have been not of God.” I did not know for sure, but I just had a suspicion that those years of being in an esoteric spiritual wasteland of my own making was not good. And I begged God’s forgiveness for it.

I don’t care much for labels–being a ‘traditionalist’ or a ‘social justice warrior,’ a ‘conservative’ or a ‘liberal.’ But I will say that I have become much more traditional in the practice of my faith. I remembered the words on the Spiritual Direction website: “like sifting through the refuse at the back of a good restaurant…why not take your seat at the table for the best and purest meals available?”  God helped lead me–via Confession, inner-knowledge of my sins, and certain sacramentals (such as the scapular and Miraculous Medal)–back to the Faith that was not tainted with these kinds of esoteric and gnostic attempts at enlightenment.

Even now I am somewhat wary of delving too much into spiritual things of contemplative practices, since I don’t have a guide, and choose instead, like St. Therese of Liseiux, to just trust the Lord. Attending daily Mass and rosary, monthly Confession, regular prayer, and remaining in a state of grace have become indispensable for my spiritual life as a Catholic. I still have a long way to go in terms of mental prayer, as Catholics understand it, but I find that being obedient to the Lord and Church teaching has taken a greater role in my life now that I have abandoned these Eastern practices of meditation. I can instead focus my energy on serving the Lord and not being “a man of two minds,” as St. James says.

I am glad at least prior to becoming Catholic that my parents had me baptized–I shudder to think where I would have been without that grace at least. And after becoming Catholic, He continues to be patient and gently corrects me in my waywardness as I find my way. He has sent me orthodox friends to help me in my journey, “strong meat” in the way of traditional writings and teaching, and grace to discern those things which are not healthy for me spiritually, and courage to leave them aside. Our Catholic faith is too rich, the depths too deep, to need to look outside of it for nourishment. It is all right there; the Lord has given us everything we need to attain holiness and salvation. You cannot serve two masters.

I am a prodigal. I’ve eaten the husks and have finally found my way home. I can never repay the Lord for all He has rescued me from. I simply have no other way to explain the graces in my life–a supportive wife and woman of God, a healthy mind, a spirit properly disposed to the workings of grace, and a life ransomed from death and confusion. I can say with confidence, like the Psalmist, “The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Ps 118:23)

 

Editor’s note:  Please see this video by Dan Burke for more on not mixing authentic Catholicism with questionable, unorthodox, or condemned teachings: https://spiritualdirection.com/2019/04/02/who-is-the-one-who-is-really-helping-me-video

Images courtesy of Pixabay.

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