- Seeds of Sorrow: Thomas Merton’s Fiftieth Birthday Journal
Sorrow, sadness, or mental pain (all encompassed in the French la douleur) are among our most elemental means of adjusting to reality in addition to its part in artistic inspiration. If we are literary interpreters, we participate imaginatively in the written sorrows of others, such as Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), whose poetry and critical writings are permeated with sadness, anger, as well as compassion for the bereft. In a poem entitled “Meditation” (Recueillement), he assumes the positive value of withdrawal into unhappiness: Ma Douleur, donne-moi la main; viens par ici,/ Loin d’eux (“My Sorrow, take my hand, come this way/ Far from them”).1
Studying the travails of others can help clarify our own perplexities, even to the point of self-transformation. Such is one function of art, research, and writing. At an earlier period of my life, I became preoccupied with sadness as a result of several personal losses during one horrible year: the breakup of my marriage, my father’s sudden death, denial of tenure, and more. In my daily relationships or readings, I often found myself excessively moved by the lexical field of “sadness” or “sorrow” or “pain.” At the same time, my healing benefitted from psychoanalytic writings on grief and mourning, especially the object relations approach typified, for me, by a three-volume study by John Bowlby entitled Attachment and Loss.2
Gradually, over the years, I recovered my personal dignity, and ability to love again, having overcome depression in part though my profession of French literary study and my vocation of religious studies, especially the life and works of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972), a Jewish theologian and prophetic activist who immigrated to the United States in 1940; born in Poland, Heschel’s inner agony as a helpless witness to the Holocaust made him inordinately sensitive to the pain of others but without succumbing to despair.3 The Trappist monk, writer, and spiritual radical, Thomas Merton (1915–1968), presented even more richly documented experiences of love, sadness, and faith. [End Page 278]
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A Writer’s Healing
The religious life can encompass all human aspirations, as it seeks to nurture deep levels of self-awareness within a ritualized relationship to a loving God. One of the most fascinating aspects of Thomas Merton is the accessibility, through his journals, to his inner struggles—which usually accompany interaction with individuals, the community, and with God. In many respects, the monk’s written self-examinations comprise a stream of consciousness analogous to the free association of classical psychoanalysis—as the writer strives for insightful interpretations and helpful conclusions.
Readers of Merton’s journal can follow in sometimes-obsessive detail an emerging insight, especially during periods of emotional turmoil calling for bold decisions. As we know, there were a great many. Merton’s journal became for him a spiritual exercise, a coming into wisdom his readers can share.
From a hermeneutic viewpoint, Merton’s journal can be classified as a specific literary genre, combining spontaneity, analysis, and drafts intended for eventual publication. In other words, Merton seeks self-knowledge while he teaches and fosters dialogue. His entries often begin by describing a setting and a mood. Merton observes his present state while stirring latent memories into consciousness, which then release other memories, wishes, and, hopefully, critical evaluation. His ultimate goal is self-transformation.
A momentous opportunity for such self-scrutiny was Merton’s fiftieth birthday—his Jubilee year—with the relevant entries beginning in late January of 1965.4 (In Jewish biblical tradition, the Jubilee year requires people to liberate their slaves, return all property to their original owners, thus starting anew.) For Father Louis (as Merton was known in religion), this milestone incited him to confront foundational issues such as prayer, obedience, and his desire for radical solitude, while, at the same time, he admitted yearning for contact with others; and, especially, he yearned for love—maternal, spiritual love, but also passionate, even erotic, love.
A Hermit’s Resolutions
It was winter, Merton was still settling into his hermitage...