I have read much this past week about Thomas Merton. Beneath the Mask of Holiness is a meditation by Mark Shaw on the life of the great monk who sought understanding knowledge and intimacy with God, through a life struggling with desire for solitude, whilst in contradiction his writings made him most famous and sought out. Whilst twenty-five years after his death, his personal journals and writings reveal his unhappiness, and absolute desire to find his freedom, in being able to authentically Love and be Loved.
This book pays homage to Thomas Merton’s life long discovery of God, his previously undisclosed courageous torment, depression, extremely emotional arduous life of interior odyssey, whilst being publicly acclaimed for his wisdom and enlightened clarity, for which he was world-famous. Having spent years writing in solitude with secret self-loathing for his past shameful sexual encounters, he longed for the perfection of true Christian transformation, this book captures his valiant battle.
Toward the end (page 195) Shaw goes on to state “Wow! In tandem with his apparent state of mind at the time, (full of clarity) and all he had learned during 24 years at Gethesemani about the subject of love, Merton had in two paragraphs, 222 words summed up his view of why it was essential for a monk to experience love and being loved, so as to have the potential to discover the ultimate goal: “perfect love, of being with God alone.”
These are his words.
“Man is most human, and most proves his humanity (I did not say his virility) by the quality of relationship with women, obsession with virility and conquest makes a true and deep relationship impossible. Men think today that there is no difference between the capacity to make conquests and the capacity to love. Women respond accordingly, with elaborate deceit and thinly veiled halotry – the role assigned to women by fashion-and there is a permanent battle between the sexes, sometimes covered over with the most atrocious and phony play acting. In all this everyone completely forgets the need for love. A desperate need: not the need to receive it only, but the need to give love.”
“In the monastery, with our vows of chastity, we are ideally supposed to go beyond married love into something more pure, more perfect, more totally oblative. This should then make us most human of all people, but that is the trouble: how can one go ‘further’ than something to which one has not yet attained? This does not mean that one cannot validly embrace a life of virginity until he has first been married, a nice contradiction to put a person in! It does mean that we cannot love perfectly if we have not in some way loved maturely and truly.”
In the end Thomas Merton discovers the fullness of loving God, by “maturely and truly” fully loving another being, more than he loved himself. ‘He called “Law of Love . . . the deepest law of our nature.” He believed a deep and most fundamental part of any divine law within one’s heart was fulfillment reached by loving.’ The transformation for Merton was in being liberated by growing in love, because of love, for love. Thus becoming Love.
“Where there is no more selfishness, there is only Love”.
He goes on to say “Love transforms our entire life. Genuine love is a personal revolution. Love takes your ideas, your desires, and your actions and welds them together in one experience and one living reality which is the new you.”
‘God had blessed him with the gift of love; his prayers had been answered.’
Thomas Merton was fatally electrocuted by a faulty heater after a shower in his 53rd year of life. He wrote over 70 books and is said to be the most important spiritual writer of the twentieth century.
Beneath the Mask of Holiness by Mark Shaw – Palgrave Macmillan 2009, is a fascinating and insightful read.