Monday Morning with Merton: Inconceivable

I cannot formulate my own inability to formulate anything about God.  Today, before the seventh and eighth stations of the Cross, I was terribly conscious that I was only saying words.  The Lord permits our indifference before the Stations of the Cross so that we may realize that at best we are still indifferent to His sacrifice, and can’t be anything but indifferent.  We cannot suffer His pains, unless He lets us do so in a miracle – we can suffer our own indifference to His pains.  To realize that God is dying and that we are indifferent is to stand on the edge of an inconceivable agony.  But the agony is caused by our indifference in His Passion.  Therefore for us to cry out in agony because He permits us to be indifferent to His Passion is to want to learn what His cry meant:  “Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabachtani, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me!” 

[From:  Run to the Mountain.  The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume I, 1939-1941]. This passage is from February 19, 1941.

27 thoughts on “Monday Morning with Merton: Inconceivable

  1. Amen. I was surprised to learn even Merton went through that, but when I think about it, there was only one who suffered Jesus’ agonies with Him.

  2. I had no idea that indifference could have a positive place in our faith; but it could, it seems to me, only when we ask the question, “Where should we take it to?” To the seat of repentance and onto the throne of the Lord seems to be the crux of the matter. Merton must have grappled with the great paradox.

  3. I guess no matter where we are in the spiritual walk, we suffer various kinds of challenges and even indifferences. I guess I understand these times as challenges of Faith. Mirrors. Awakenings. Reminders of a common humanity.
    Going to Him with our nothingness…with the ’empty hands’ of Therese.
    Merton’s first sentence says it all so ‘pithily’ !!!!

    Thanks for this timely post , Gab.

  4. I was wondering what you all would think of this passage. I didn’t post it to play the devil’s advocate or anything, but it’s one of the rare times I find myself disagreeing with Merton, at least partially.

    I understand this passage insofar as one would experience the agony of being indifferent if one really desired to be otherwise, or if one were going through one of the dark nights, but I don’t agree with his statement that we, “can’t be anything but indifferent.” No, I can’t agree with that at all.

    I agree that we cannot experience the depth of His agony like Mary certainly did, and to the degree that the stigmatists (exteriorly or interiorly) did and do, but to say carte blanche that we can’t be anything but indifferent, no, I don’t buy that. I do relate to his first sentence, though, as teresa mentioned, but not in a sense that’s restricted to the Passion of Christ.

  5. Well, I guess I recall the times I’ve fallen to my knees in a pew while praying the Stations, absolutely devastated. I did not want to have to move; let me remain in this moment with You, because if You don’t permit it, I will undoubtedly go away from it. A few weeks later, or a few hours later, I find I am not standing beside Him while Pilate allows the world to toy with His fate, not to even mention demand His death because this turning Him into human hamburger (for our sakes) is not enough! I am not standing beside His mother, dying inside.

    No, I may find, rather, that I am worried my car won’t start–even if I recall His Passion on my behalf, on my grandmother’s behalf, on my grandson’s behalf.

    Besides this, there have been many times I was conscious that I was just saying words. To me, this is why we pray for faith, because faith itself is a gift from Someone other than ourselves.

  6. In further thinking, perhaps it ties in with one’s understanding of “from those to whom much is given, much is expected.” I don’t expect to only be asked why I didn’t try harder to be good, having had all sacramental grace at my fingertips and without the slightest persecution! I don’t expect to be only asked why I was so crappy to so-and-so. Rather, I expect far more Personal questions asking if my auto’s alternator was really more important that day, than was His suffering for me. I expect to be asked why I laid down His gift to me of nursing others, when it was the one thing that placed me (and others, via His suffering others) right where I wanted to be.

  7. Oh, I agree we can oscillate between entering into the Passion to a certain degree and then not entering into it at all because of life’s distractions, personal indifference, trials, etc. What I don’t think is correct is for someone to make a statement such as “we can’t be anything but indifferent” based on one’s own personal experience of indifference. He may indeed be speaking for the majority of us, or for the majority of us at certain times, but certainly not for all at all times. And I think there is a huge difference between indifference and inability or inadequacy.

    I can’t get into WordPress today. All my plans shot to &*%#. That little s-fellow is so laughable, but may I ask for a prayer? I don’t have much time.

  8. It might just be a matter of semantics. He wrote personally and freely, not ecclesiastically, and maybe he really should’ve said “I” instead of “we.”

    But, certainly shall come a prayer for you from me to get into WordPress. Three of them, actually.

  9. I have encountered, here and there, especially in some mystics, that they did not want to fall into the trap of sentimentalism, considered something quite negative. I have never really understood this, but it has stuck in my mind. Have any of you encountered this concept?

  10. Well, I’m not sure of what you mean, but because we (including mystics) are human, it is as easy to miss the line of demarcation between agape and eros as it is between amor amicitiae and amor concupiscentiae. I think some opt to protect the integrity of the encounter with Divine Mystery by keeping the heart as honest and emotions-free as possible.

    (Thus spake PeeWee Herman of mysticism, I fear.)🙂

  11. Gabrielle, I don’t really have a problem with what Merton is saying and that’s because I think he’s taking it from the we as world or we as humanity or we as miserable wretches viewpoint, loved by God yes, but still indifferent to what really happened that day on Calvary. Unable to fool God, not stupid enough to try, we have to suffer our indifference, the world’s indifference – and that’s suffering we can really enter into – knowing that He knows of our indifference and knowing He loves us in spite of it.
    OK Merton maybe should have replaced we with I, but I think he is just being honest.
    There are of course those who have entered into Christ – chosen real on – the – Cross suffering but they have been few and Merton acknowledges this when he refers to it happening in a miracle.

  12. But the way I understand it is: we are nothing and have not even an inclination for God unless He give it by grace.
    We are Nothing and He gives us every desire for Him. Without His gift, we can be nothing but indifferent to all that is of God.
    We experience the indifference and our own emptiness and poverty of spirit because He allows it ….SO WE CAN SEE IT AND COME TO HIM FOR THE VERY DESIRE FOR HIM!!!
    Our nothingness.
    Merton is just expressing nothing more than poverty of spirit before the Beloved.
    FWIW
    teresa-anawim

  13. Okay, okay, I’m waving the white flag (actually it’s a bedsheet), but I do so with utter joy, because this reminds me so much of the old days, when we went through Interior Castle chapter by chapter, the comments were flying, and the boxing-gloves were waiting patiently somewhere inbetween amor amicitiae and agapé. Old friends and new, you are amazing.

    “But I still don’t like the word indifferent,” she mumbled, dragging the linen behind her.

  14. I read this and found my reply SO long that instead I decided to write a different aspect on my bog:). I hope you will read it in the light within it was written..To challenge us all, including myself:).

    Peace to you this Lent🙂

    Marie xoxoox

  15. Gab

    This is a tough one. It seems that Merton is talking about two different things here–corporate indifference and empathy. I don’t believe he is talking about individuals. I am not sure, but he seems to be saying that we cannot empathize with Jesus’ passion, and hence the indifference. I don’t think we are supposed to be able to do this so Merton is correct in my mind. Otherwise why make an appeal to miracle of suffering if he wasn’t mixing concepts a bit? We can’t empathize enough to be fully engaged.

    If we really believed that Christ was truly present in the Eucharist there would be adoration around the clock in every parish on the planet. Not mention standing room and overflow Mass attendance to see the continuation of this sacrifice. In other words, the manifestation of people’s faith would be palpable if we were not indifferent. Our finite minds are not capable of grasping what Passion really meant, and the corporate “we” remains indifferent to Christ’s sufferings. I can agree with that.

    On the other hand, the whole passage is contradictory. If we couldn’t help but be indifferent, then Merton never should have converted and we shouldn’t be here right now.

  16. “The Cross does not sanctify us by destroying human feeling. Detachment is not insensibility…. If we are without human feelings we cannot love God in the way in which we are meant to love Him — as men.”
    – Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: FSG, 1958), pp. 12, 13.

    Merton must have recognized indifference as part of human nature. It may manifest itself, in spite of oneself, in the face of sudden, unutterable shock or sadness. Or it may even be trained by inundation of misery. To deny possession of it is to deny one’s own humanity.

    Abstraction of two thousand years may pose conceptual difficulties. A brief survey of our world and its myriad tragedies will bring home to us the horror of war and poverty and the human condition. We are inundated with cries and pains of people all over the world and are being desensitized gradually. If we do not become indifferent, our protective inner self may whisper to us ever surreptitiously, we can’t go on. We look away, albeit not without a sigh. But do we feel uneasy? Are we agonized, first by the horrible realities of the world and then by our indifference?

    Indifference may be permitted, but do we cry out in shame and agony when we recognize it in us? I think that this is where indifference can be either elevated to humility and forgiveness or be hardened and fortified in its own logic and mechanism. In the former case, we may cry, “Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabachtani!” and the transformation may occur. This is why I thought that Merton must have grappled with the great paradox.

    If we spent some time in solitude — no books, no telephone, no friends, just us and God — we might be able to know more clearly what Merton might have had in mind. And a broader context may also help illuminate the issue.

  17. Gabrielle, you hilarious little linen-dragger, it may be that you never feel indifferent to Him anymore. I hope it is so.

    And I agree with all the above – he has spoken in one context, and perhaps inferred the “we” as a general (and lamentable!) condition, or maybe even corporately, yes. As Gene and Teresa Anawim and others have called it, I think he was making reference to our inherent poverty of spirit. And I think Jesus Himself addressed that aspect, too, in the Beatitudes as reported in one Gospel as not just the poor, but the poor in spirit (who know they need Him). As Paul said, too, I do what I know I shouldn’t, and don’t do what I know I should. That’s the thorn in our side, if not also his. Poverty of spirit in knowing we can’t even care enough without His infusing that– or so it seems to me.

    Gene, the phrase of his that you quoted above says so much, “The Cross does not sanctify us by destroying human feeling. Detachment is not insensibility…. If we are without human feelings we cannot love God in the way in which we are meant to love Him — as men.”

    Yes, G, this is fun as in olde Castle days.. I was mighty surprised to see 17 comments here today. Pleasantly so. Holy dialog.. whew.
    🙂 God bless you, everyone.

  18. I was working backwards today and so was at View from the Pews before I arrived. I will be on retreat starting tomorrow and I am certain that I will spend a great deal of time in reflection over this. After reading all these and the entries in Marie’s site, I feel certain that this is what I have been sent to contemplate. Oh my goodness!!! “Be not afraid!” “Indifference” right now is sort of overwhelming…I trust and hope that this weekend will be brilliant and I’ll give glory and praise to God, without indifference of any kind. Please pray for me.

  19. Hi, Layne. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Distraction in prayer is a problem for many people, isn’t it. Although I hadn’t thought of distraction in connection with this particular Merton quote, I can see what you mean – constant distraction and inability to focus might lead people to assume that they are indifferent…

    There are many things in all of your comments that I have been thinking about, and that may work their way into some upcoming posts; for example, Pia’s question about sentimentality, Gene’s question, “Where should we take it to?” as well as his point about desensitization, and JohnT’s statement that our finite minds are not capable of grasping the Passion. I’d like to look at these things in reference to contemplative prayer and union with the Divine.

    Marie, I’ll come read your post this weekend. 🙂

  20. Pingback: Always Advent » Thomas Merton on the Stations of the Cross

  21. When I think of Fr. Damian of Molokai, who not only saw the Crucified daily, but got to serve Him, through loving His suffering little ones who were so poor in spirit, what gratitude suffuses me. And a sense of longing, yes.. tho’ part of that is only to have romanticized what a horrendously hard life it is to be on some Island of Golgotha, gathered with some untouchables or other at the foot of the Cross. Can we do very much the similar in our daily lives? Yes. Love is love.

  22. Hello to Clare from “Always Advent”. I just went over to visit you, and will add you to my sidebar. You have a lovely site; thanks for dropping by!

    Ukok, you’ve had more on your plate lately than many; we have to remember too that there is a rhythm to the spiritual life, isn’t there, and it doesn’t always coincide with the Liturgical Calendar. Will keep you in my prayers this evening; we are having a Divine Mercy Lenten reflection at my parish.

    Carol, I remember you talking with longing about your “Molokai” before; it is good, as you say, when the Lord helps us to understand how we might be of service to the “untouchables” in our own day-to-day lives, isn’t it.

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