Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

September 12, 2011

A Zen friend recently shared a quote of Thomas Merton‘s with me. It was very touching, but I made an unexpected discovery when I looked up the source of this quote. What nearly everyone (and I refer here to countless web pages and quite a few books) attribute to Merton, he attributes to someone else, Douglas Steere. Here’s the full quote as I found it in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 81, Doubleday paperback edition, 1966:

“Douglas Steere remarks very perceptively that there is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Merton’s book, which many web pages incorrectly refer to as Confessions of a Guilty Bystander, contains a lot of good material, although a great deal went over my head. Here are some other pieces that I will go back to and look at from time to time…

Doubting my actions (p.19)The “world” I left (p. 41)Genuine happiness (p. 50)Who has the truth? (p. 62)Living with technological progress (p. 67)Technology in the service of God, man, and reason (p. 70)Christian Social Action (p. 76, p. 78)Dissociating ourselves from evil (p. 113)The Law of Love (p. 116)Charismatics (p. 121)Affirming myself by affirming others (p. 140)A member of the human race (p. 153 – READ OFTEN)Those who do not please us (p. 171)Business as Religion (p. 232)World War II & Holocaust (p. 241)They deny the Gospel and despise the poor (p. 245)Subservient technology (p. 254)My mid-life crisis (p. 264)Zen Koan: nothing left to do (p. 284)How high the corn is (p. 309)

p. 19

It would be easy and consoling to be able to say, at any moment: this thing I am now doing is regarded by every believer as a perfect act, as something having genuine and unquestionable value in the eyes of God. But would the peace and consolation I felt necessarily have anything to do with God? Might it not, after all, turn out to be another illusion, all the more illusory because it seemed so safe? A surrender to the authority of common opinion: “they say.” But what do they know about it? How weak our consciences are. We give in and shut our eyes. We have conformed to “them.” We are at peace, because we are what “they say” we should be. When Christ was nailed to the Cross, “they” were all certain that He was a blasphemer and a rebel, and the Apostles themselves did not dare to oppose “them.”

p. 41

As usual, one comes back to the old question: what do you mean by “the world” anyway? In this, I don’t think an abstract answer makes too much sense. My concrete answer is: what did I leave when I entered the monastery? As far as I can see, what I abandoned when I “left the world” and came to the monastery was the understanding of myself that I had developed in the context of civil society — my identification with what appeared to me to be its aims. Certainly, in the concrete, “the world” did not mean for me either riches (I was poor) or a life of luxury, certainly not the ambition to get somewhere in business or in anything else except writing. But it did mean a certain set of servitudes that I could no longer accept — servitudes to certain standards of value which to me were idiotic and repugnant and still are. Many of these were trivial, some of them were onerous, all are closely related. The image of a society that is happy because it drinks Coca-Cola or Seagram or both and is protected by the bomb. The society that is imaged in the mass media and in advertising, in the movies, in TV, in bestsellers, in current fads, in all the pompous and trifling masks with which it hides callousness, sensuality, hypocrisy, cruelty, and fear. Is this “the world”? Yes. It is the same wherever you have mass man. The basic pattern is identical in Russia, the United States, Germany, France. The materials and appearances differ, and in Western Europe perhaps the cut is a little more sophisticated. But it is the same suit of clothes, and same pair of ready-made pants, the same spiritual cretinism which in fact makes Christians and atheists indistinguishable.

All this is obviously irreversible. Whether one is “with” it or “against” it makes not the slightest difference. And perhaps that is why “believers” are tired of pretending that their “belief” somehow distinguishes them from others who are completely committed to these values. In fact, belief makes no earthly difference. For my own part, I am by my whole life committed to a certain protest and nonacquiescence, and that is why I am a monk. Yet I know that protest is not enough — is perhaps meaningless. Yet that is also why protest and nonacquiescence must extend to certain conceptions of monasticism which seem to me to be simply a fancy-dress adaptation of what we are claiming we have renounced.

As if, for instance, “leaving the world” were adequately summed up by those pictures of “the Trappist” with this cowl over his head and his back to the camera, looking at a lake.

p. 50

Why can we not be content with an ordinary, secret, personal happiness that does not need to be explained or justified? We feel guilty if we are not happy in some publically approved way, if we do not imagine that we are meeting some standard of happiness that is recognized by all. God gives us the gift and the capacity to make our own happiness out of our own situation. And it is not hard to be happy, simply by accepting what is within reach, and making of it what we can. But if we do this, and I find that I do, we still wonder if there is not something wrong. Are we getting something that others cannot have (a private and personal happiness!)? Obviously my happiness is not somebody else’s — until I share it. And in sharing it I am happier than I was before.

Or we ask if we are failing to meet a general level which alone is authentic. (For instance, can a happiness that is absolutely free, costs nothing at all, has never been advertised in Life, be genuine? It turns out to be the only kind that is genuine!)

It is all there, yet we worry about it a little, as if it were not allowed. As if we could not be happy without the sanction of Madison Avenue. Or Washington, or the FBI, or somebody. And yet this, of all things, is precisely that for which no permission is needed.

I have used secular examples: but the case is just as evident in the realm of official and approved spirituality.

p. 62

We are living under a tyranny of untruth which confirms itself in power and establishes a more and more total control over men in proportion as they convince themselves they are resisting error.

Our submission to plausible and useful lies involves us in greater and more obvious contradictions, and to hide these from ourselves we need greater and ever less plausible lies. The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.

We then convince ourselves that we cannot preserve our purity of vision and our inner sincerity if we enter into dialogue with the enemy, for he will corrupt us with his error. We believe, finally, that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy — for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us and exactly the same basic policy by which he defends the “truth.” He has identified us with dishonesty, insincerity, and untruth. He believes that, if we are destroyed, nothing will be left but truth.


Once again, let me be clear about this word “breakdown.” It is bound to be taken as an incomprehensible affront by all those who are firmly convinced that the technological power of our society represents the highest development of man, the beginning of the golden age of plenty and of perfect freedom. I am as ready as the next man to admire the astonishing achievements of technology. Taken by themselves, they are magnificent. But taken in the context of unbalance with the other aspects of human existence in the world, the very splendor and rapidity of technological development is a factor of disintegration.

The Greeks believed that when a man had too much power for his own good the gods ruined him by helping him increase his power at the expense of wisdom, prudence, temperance, and humanity until it led automatically to his own destruction.

Suppose a hundred men who in a former age would have died of typhoid fever today crash to their deaths in a supersonic jet plane. Does the fact that typhus is controllable and that supersonic flight is possible make any difference in their deaths? Or, if technology means safety, and if life is easily and surely prolonged, travel safer, and so on: what difference does this make if, in the congested, irrational, frustrated and bored society that results, everyone nurses an acute and pathological death wish, and if weapons are at hand that might conceivably implement that wish in drastic fashion?

What I am saying is, then, that it does us no good to make fantastic progress if we do not know how to live with it, if we cannot make good use of it, and if, in fact, our technology becomes nothing more than an expensive and complicated way of cultural disintegration. It is bad form to say such things, to recognize such possibilities. But they are possibilities, and they are not often intelligently taken into account. People get emotional about them from time to time, and then try to sweep them aside into forgetfulness. The fact remains that we have created for ourselves a culture which is not yet livable for mankind as a whole.

Never before has there been such a distance between the abject misery of the poor (still the great majority of mankind) and the absurd affluence of the rich. Our gestures at remedying this situation are well meant but almost totally ineffective. In many ways they only make matters worse (when for instance those who are supposed to be receiving aid realize that in fact most of it goes into the pockets of corrupt politicians who maintain the status quo, of which the misery of the poor is an essential part).

The problem of racism — by no means confined to the southern United States, South Africa, or Nazi Germany — is becoming a universal symptom of homicidal paranoia. The desperation of man who finds existence incomprehensible and intolerable, and who is only maddened by the insignificance of the means taken to alleviate his condition.

The fact that most men believe, as an article of faith, the we are now in a position to solve all our problems does not prove that this is so. On the contrary, this belief is so unfounded that it is itself one of our greatest problems.

p. 70

The central problem of the modern world is the complete emancipation and autonomy of the technological mind at a time when unlimited possibilities lie open to it and all the resources seem to be at hand. Indeed, the mere fact of questioning this emancipation, this autonomy, is the number-one blasphemy, the unforgivable sin in the eyes of modern man, whose face begins with this: science can do everything, science must be permitted to do everything it likes, science is infallible and impeccable, all that is done by science is right. No matter how monstrous, no matter how criminal an act may be, if it is justified by science it is unassailable.

The consequence of this is that technology and science are now responsible to no power and submit to no control other than their own. Needless to say, the demands of ethics no longer have any meaning if they come in conflict with these autonomous powers. Technology has its own ethic of expediency and efficiency. What can be done efficiently must be done in the most efficient way — even if what is done happens, for example, to be genocide or the devastation of a country by total war. Even the long-term economic interests of society, or the basic needs of man himself, are not considered when they get in the way of technology. We waste our natural resources, as well as those undeveloped countries, iron, oil, etc., in order to fill our cities and roads with a congestion of traffic that is in fact largely useless, and is a symptom of the meaningless and futile agitation of our own minds.

The attachment of the modern American to his automobile, and the symbolic role played by his car, with its aggressive and lubric design, its useless power, its otiose gadgetry, its consumption of fuel, which is advertised as having almost supernatural power … this is where the study of American mythology should begin.

Meditation on the automobile, what it is used for, what it stands for — the automobile as weapon, as self-advertisement, as brothel, as a means of suicide, etc. — might lead us at once right into the heart of all contemporary American problems: race, war, the crisis of marriage, the flight from reality into myth and fanaticism, the growing brutality and irrationality of American mores.

I thoroughly agree with Bonhoeffer when he says:

The demand for absolute liberty brings men to the depths of slavery. The master of the machines becomes its slave. The machine becomes the enemy of men. The creature turns against its creator in a strange reenactment of the Fall. The emancipation of the masses leads to the reign of terror of the guillotine. Nationalism leads inevitably to war. The liberation of man as an absolute ideal leads only to man’s self-destruction. — Ethics

If technology really represented the rule of reason, there would be much less to regret about our present situation. Actually, technology represents the rule of quantity, not the rule of reason (quality=value=relation of means to authentic human ends). It is by means of technology that man the person, the subject of qualified and perfectible freedom, becomes quantified, that is, becomes part of a mass — mass man — whose only function is to enter anonymously into the process of production and consumption. He becomes on one side an implement, a “hand,” or better, a “biophysical link” between machines: on the other side he is a mouth, a digestive system and an anus, something through which pass the products of his technological world, leaving a transient and meaningless sense of enjoyment. The effect of a totally emancipated technology is the regression of man to a climate of moral infancy, in total dependence not on “mother nature” (such a dependence would be partly tolerable and human) but on the pseudonature of technology, which has replaced nature by a closed system of mechanisms with no purpose but that of keeping themselves going.

If technology remained in the service of what is higher than itself — reason, man, God — it might indeed fulfill some of the functions that are now mythically attributed to it. But becoming autonomous, existing only for itself, it imposes upon man its own irrational demands, and threatens to destroy him. Let us hope it is not too late for man to regain control.


We have got ourselves into a position where, because of our misunderstanding of theoretical distinctions between the “natural and the supernatural,” we tend to think that nothing in man’s ordinary life is really supernatural except saying prayers and performing pious acts of one sort or another, pious acts which derive their value precisely from the fact that they rescue us, momentarily, from the ordinary routine of life. And therefore we imagine that Christian social action is not Christian in itself, but only because it is a kind of escalator to unworldliness and devotion. This is because we apparently cannot conceive material and worldly things seriously as having any capacity to be “spiritual.” But Christian social action, on the contrary, conceives man’s work itself as a spiritual reality, or rather it envisages those conditions under which man’s work can recover a certain spiritual and holy quality, so that it becomes for man a source of spiritual renewal, as well as of material livelihood.

Christian social action is first of all action that discovers religion in politics, religion in work, religion in social programs for better wages, Social Security, etc., not at all to “win the worker for the Church,” but because God became man, because every man is potentially Christ, because Christ is our brother, and because we have no right to let our brother live in want, or in degradation, or in any form of squalor whether physical or spiritual. In a word, if we really understood the meaning of Christianity in social life we would see it as a part of the redemptive work of Christ, liberating man from misery, squalor, subhuman living conditions, economic or political slavery, ignorance, alienation.

p. 78

Christian social action must liberate man from all forms of servitude, whether economical, political, or psychological. The words are easily said. Anyone can say them, and everyone does in some way or other. And yet in the name of liberty, man is enslaved. He frees himself from one kind of servitude and enters into another. This is because freedom is bought by obligations, and obligations are bonds. We do not sufficiently distinguish the nature of the bonds we take upon ourselves in order to be free.

If I obligate myself spiritually in order to be free economically, then I buy a lower freedom at the price of a higher one, and in fact I enslave myself. (In ordinary words, this is called selling my soul for the sake of money, and what money can buy.)

Today, as a matter of fact, there is very little real freedom anywhere because everyone is willing to sacrifice his spiritual liberty for some lower kind. He will compromise his personal integrity (spiritual liberty) for the sake of security, or ambition, or pleasure, or just to be left in peace.


“The business of every God-fearing man,” says Gandhi, “is to dissociate himself from evil in total disregard of the consequences. He must have faith in a good deed reducing only a good result. … He follows the truth though the following of it may endanger his very life. He knows that it is better to die in the way of God than to live in the way of Satan.” — My Non-violence

This is precisely the attitude that we have lost in the West, because we have lost our fundamentally religious view of reality, of being and of truth. And that is what Gandhi retained. We have sacrificed the power to apprehend and respect what man is, what truth is, what love is, and have replaced them with a vague confusion of pragmatic notions about what can be done with this or that, what is permissable, what is feasible, how things can be used, irrespective of any definite meaning or finality contained in their very nature, expressing the truth and value of that nature.

We are concerned only with “practicality” — “efficiency”: that is, with means, not with ends. And therefore we are more and more concerned only with immediate consequences. We are the prisoners of every urgency. In this way we so completely lose all perspective and sense of values that we are no longer able to estimate correctly what even the most immediate consequences of our actions may turn out to be. We know well enough that if we do certain things, certain definite reactions will follow: but we lose all capacity to grasp the significance of those reactions, and hence we cannot see further than the next automatic response. Having lost our ability to see life as a whole, to evaluate conduct as a whole, we no longer have any relevant context into which our actions are to be fitted, and therefore all our actions become erratic, arbitrary, and insignificant. To the man who concerns himself only with consequences everything soon becomes inconsequential, nothing “follows from” anything else, all is haphazard, futile, and absurd. For it is not humanly possible to live without significance and remain healthy. A human life has to have a human meaning, or else it becomes morally corrupt.

Hence we come to be forced into evil in order to avoid what seem to us evil consequences. We find ourselves more and more backed into a corner in which there seems to be no choice but that of a “lesser evil” for the sake of some urgency, some imaginary or desperately hoped for good. But an evil choice can never have wholly good consequences. And a good choice can never have wholly evil consequences. But when one chooses to do good irrespective of the consequences, it is a paradox that the consequences will ultimately be good, and the good that is in them will far outweight the possible evil.

Gandhi’s standard is the standard of the New Testament: to do all things in the name of Christ, in the name of the truth, that is to say for the sake of the truth in them which is a manifestation of Christ. To act out of love for truth, “doing the truth in charity” is to act for truth alone, and without regard for consequences. Not that one recklessly does what seems to be good without care for possible disaster, but that one carefully chooses what one believes to be good and then leaves the good itself to produce its own good consequences in its own good time.

Of one thing we must be persuaded: good action is not by any means a mere arbitrary conformity to artificial social norms. To conform is not to act well, but only to “look good.” There is an objective moral good, a good which corresponds to the real value of being, which brings out and confirms the inner significance of our life when we obey its norms. Such an act integrates us into the whole living movement and development of the cosmos, it brings us into harmony with all the rest of the world, it situates us in our place, it helps us fulfill our task and to participate fruitfully in the whole world’s work and its history, as it reaches out for its ultimate meaning and fulfillment. In a word, it is an act of obedience to God. Sometimes it may be necessary for us to go against social norms in order to obey real norms of objective good on the direct word of God. For when the norms of conduct in a society become arbitrary, capricious, and pragmatic there is great danger that one will passively enter into cooperation with injustice and evil, and refuse to listen to God’s pre-emptory command.

In times like ours, it is more than ever necessary for the individual to train himself, or be trained, according to objective norms of good, and learn to distinguish these from the purely pragmatic norms current in his society. Thus he will come to know the difference between the “ways of God and the ways of Satan.” We cannot trust our society to tell us this difference. Everything is confused, and the men of our time blindly follow now God and now Satan, blown this way and that by every changing wind of urgency and opportunity, judging only by what seem to them to be the immediate consequences. We must recover our inner faith not only in God but in the good, in reality, and in the power of the good to take care of itself and us as well, if only we attend to it, observe, listen, choose, and obey.

Gandhi pointed out very wisely that our feeling of helplessness in the presence of injustice and aggression arises from “our deliberate dismissal of God from our common affairs.” Those who relinquish God as the center of their moral orbit lose all direction and by that very fact lose and betray their manhood. They become blindly dependent on circumstances, and upon those who are astute enough or powerful enough to use every circumstance for their own ends. Those who renounce God immediately become victims of the nearest brute that is a little more powerful than they. They have to live in submission to this gangster, and pay him dearly for their safety. It doesn’t matter much whether the “power” thus exercised is physical or moral, whether it is a matter of force or money or cleverness. Those who renounce God have to fall back on force when they get sick of their state of dependence on other men. Yet force alone can never deliver them completely. Indeed, to rely on the military power of stronger allies is the sure way to national suicide. The prophets taught this lesson tirelessly for centuries — without success.

Reliance on God, of course, does not mean passivity. On the contrary, it liberates man for a clearly defined activity, “the will of God.” This is, in Gandhi’s words, “intelligent action in a detached manner.” God wills that we act humanly, therefore intelligently. He wills that we act for His sake, for love of the truth, not out of concern for immediate material interest: therefore He wills that we act in a “detached manner.” Detachment is not pure indifference, but again only a concentration of attention on the subject of the act itself, not on the results or the consequences. We are not responsible for more than our own action, but for this we should take complete responsibility. Then the results will follow of themselves, in a manner we may not always be able to foresee.

But the point is that we do not always have to foresee every possibility. We have only to judge whether the act is right, just, and accords with truth and love here and now, because we “believe in the good” and are therefore convinced that, whatever consequences may follow, they will certainly be good ones, beneficial to ourselves and to society.

p. 116

The Law of Love.

We still speak of the Law of Love. The first and greatest commandment. And the second like unto the first. What is this Law of Love?

We tend to think of it uneasily as a dictate which interferes with our ordinary, natural, human existence. The interference is of course salutary, indeed “salvific.” We do not regret this interruption of our ordinary pursuits. Still, it is a nuisance!

Yet the “Law of Love” (supernatural) tends to break into the Law of Nature, which we assume is contrary to it. With a sigh we renounce that to which we are spontaneously inclined and turn away to “duty” — the duty of love, imposed for some inscrutable reason by God in order to “save us.” Well, of course, we do want to be saved, don’t we?

Because the Law of Love is presented in this gray light, fewer and fewer people are able to keep alive a genuine interest in salvation.

Let us forget this travesty, and try to understand the Christian view of love.

First of all, the Law of Love is the deepest law of our nature, not something extraneous and alien to our nature. Our nature itself inclines us to love, and to love freely.

The deepest and most fundamental exigency of the divine law in our hearts is that we should reach our fulfillment by loving. It is not enough for us to possess human nature, we have to act as humans, we have to exercise all the deepest capacities of our nature. More than this, we have to act as persons — freely! As soon as we come into existence we begin to obey the Law of Love.

The demands of the Law of Love are progressive. We begin by loving life itself, by loving survival at any price. Hence, we must first of all love ourselves. But as we grow we must love others. We must love them as our own fulfillment. Then we must come to love them in order to fulfill them, to develop their capacity to love, and finally we must love others and ourselves in and for God.

But the most fundamental demands of the Law of Love is that we should love freely. We are commanded to choose our own object of love, and not simply to love any object that is placed before us.

Yet at the same time our choice is bounded by certain limitations — for our time, our place, our society, our state of life determined for us a certain limited number of friends and enemies. We are not entirely free to say who precisely shall be our friend and who shall be our enemy. Our choice is limited to certain definite possibilities. But, still, we can and must choose to love the men we actually encounter, whether as friends or as men loved in spite of their hostility.

The Law of Love then is not a law commanding that we wallow in sentimental consolation or in condescending official benevolence. It is a command to commit ourselves to the use of this deep power that is in us, to choose to commit ourselves even in situations where the power does not go into action instinctively.

In a word, the command to love is a command to rise above the mechanisms of natural instinct, to use a natural force freely and deliberately, instead of permitting ourselves to be led by it, and carried away by it blindly.

Only this free use elevates the natural drive to a personal and spiritual level. But freedom does not necessarily deny and frustrate nature altogether. The choice of a partner in marriage is obedience to this high spiritual law. Married love can be a fulfillment of this profound love, a spiritual act of obedience to God in freedom and in joy.

p. 121

Curious that in the United States, particularly the South, at the height of the struggle for Civil Rights, the (Protestant) churches were swept with a wave of glossolalia — “speaking in tongues.” Naturally this “charism” had nothing to do with the current violence — anything but! Though it was perhaps an outlet, in some cases, for inarticulate and apocalyptic fears. I don’t know what they were saying, in their tongues. The irony of it is that it seems to have been an ultimate protest against the inacceptable realities and challenges of the historical situation — a convenient resort to immediate inspiration rather than the difficult and humiliating business of hearing and obeying the Word of God in the need of one’s fellow man.

In the whole question of the (Catholic) church and the world, we come again and again to the various ways in which adaptation to “the world” can in fact be an expression of shame and fear — guilt at having failed to “hold” the modern world and to charm it with spectacles, pageantry, lively new debates, and other contrivances. To be dominated by the fear of losing our “hold” on men, especially on youth, is implicitly to confront the world in abject shame at the name and power of Christ. We do not preach Christ, we preach our own modernity, our own cleverness, our liveliness, our fashionableness, and our charm; or (if we are conservatives) our unshakable security and unchangeable rightness, our inviolable respectability (and God knows that is no attraction for the youth of the world!).

Bonhoeffer, writing in the time of the Hitler Jugend, wrote: “The Church offered no resistance to contempt for age and the idolization of youth, for she was afraid of losing youth and with it the future. As though her future belonged to youth!”

The last thing in the world that should concern a Christian or the Church is survival in a temporal and worldly sense: to be concerned with this is an implicit denial of the Victory of Christ and of the Resurrection.

Yet this is what seems to concern most Christians. It is this fear of destruction and of suffering that has reduced the “Christianity” of so many Christians to mere anti-Communism and little else. It is this mortal terror of not “surviving,” or indeed of not having a privileged place in society, that makes Christians willing and eager to destroy Communism with H-bombs. Or, in the case of liberals, the same fear takes another form: the fear of falling behind the intellectuals and the radicals who seem to make more sense than anyone else, and who seem to know the way into the future. The same fear of not surviving, of not being acceptable any more, of not having any place in the world of the future!

Anything that a Christian does under the impulsion of this fear is bound to be, in some way, an evasive repudiation of the name of Christ, whose death has “overcome the world” and whose resurrection is the only pledge of a real future that anyone can possibly have!

p. 140

“Des homes comme Saint Seraphim, Saint Francois d’Assise et bien d’autres, ont accompli dans leur vie l’union des Eglises.”

This profound and simple statement of an Orthodox Metropolitan, Eulogius, gives the key to ecumenism for monks, and indeed for everyone.

If I do not have unity in myself, how can I even think, let alone speak, of unity among Christians? Yet, of course, in seeking unity for all Christians, I also attain unity within myself.

The heresy of individualism: thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unit and asserting this imaginary “unity” against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply “not the other.” But when you seek to affirm your unity by denying that you have anything to do with anyone else, by negating everyone else in the universe until you come down to you: what is there left to affirm? Even if there were something to affirm, you would have no breath left with which to affirm it.

The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say “yes” to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.

I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.

So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot “affirm” and “accept,” but first one must say “yes” where one really can.

If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.

p. 153

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.

Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts when neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.

Again, that expression, le point verge, (I cannot translate it) comes in here. At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

p. 171

A basic temptation: the flatly unchristian refusal to love those whom we consider, for some reason or other, unworthy of love. And, on top of that, to consider others unworthy of love for even very trivial reasons. Not that we hate them of course: but we just refuse to accept them in our hearts, to treat them without suspicion and deal with them without inner reservations. In a word, we reject those who do not please us. We are of course “charitable towards them.” An interesting use of the word “charity” to cover and to justify a certain coldness, suspicion, and even disdain. But this is punished by another inexorable refusal: we are bound by the logic of this defensive rejection to reject any form of happiness that even implies acceptance of those we have decided to reject. This certainly complicates life, and if one is sufficiently intolerant, it ends by making all happiness impossible.

This means that we have to get along without constantly applying the yardstick of “worthiness” (who is worthy to be loved, and who is not). And it almost means, by implication, that we cease to ask even indirect questions about who is “justified,” who is worthy of acceptance, who can be tolerated by the believer! What a preposterous idea that would be! And yet the world is full of “believers” who find themselves entirely surrounded by people they can hardly be expected to “tolerate,” such as Jews, Negroes, unbelievers, heretics, Communists, pagans, fanatics, and so on.

God is asking of me, the unworthy, to forget my unworthiness and that of all my brothers, and dare to advance in the love which has redeemed and renewed us all in God’s likeness. And to laugh, after all, at all preposterous ideas of “worthiness.”

p. 232

Businesses are, in reality, quasi-religious sects. When you go to work in one you embrace a new faith. And if they are really big businesses, you progress from faith to a kind of mystique. Belief in the product, preaching the product, in the end the product becomes the focus of a transcendental experience. Through “the product” one communes with the vast forces of life, nature, and history that are expressed in business. Why not face it? Advertising treats all products with the reverence and the seriousness due to sacraments.

Harrington says (Life in the Crystal Palace): “The new evangelism whether expressed in soft or hard selling is a quasi-religious approach to business, wrapped in a hoax — a hoax voluntarily entered into by producers and consumers together. Its credo is that of belief-to-order. It is the truth-to-order as delivered by advertising and public relations men, believed in by them and voluntarily believed by the public.”

Once again, it is the question of a game. Life is aimless, but one invents a thousand aimless aims and then mobilizes a whole economy around them, finally declaring them to be transcendental, mystical, and absolute.

Compare our monastery and the General Electric plant in Louisville. Which one is the more serious and more “religious” institution? One might be tempted to say “the monastery,” out of sheer habit. But, in fact, the religious seriousness of the monastery is like sandlot baseball compared with the big league seriousness of General Electric. It may in fact occur to many, including the monks, to doubt the monastery and what it represents.

Who doubts G.E.?

p. 241

The mentality of propaganda.

On January 30, 1939, seven months before invading Poland and setting in motion the events that led to catastrophe for his own Thousand Year Reich, Hitler had this to say in a Reichstag speech: “If the international Jewish financiers should again succeed in plunging the nations into a world war, the result will be the annihilation of the Jewish race throughout Europe.” This “prophecy” was repeated five times at various intervals. On the face of it, the statement means that the Jews are striving to plunge the world into war, and that Hitler and his peace-loving Nazis are trying to prevent this. But he foresees that he will fail to preserve peace, alas! — the world will be plunged into war, and the Jews will have to pay for it. Translated into the language of truth, statement meant simply that Hitler was planning to plunge the world into a war and found it expedient to blame the war in advance on the Jews. Thus he was in fact announcing two plans he had in mind: one to plunge the world into war, and the other to exterminate the Jews. He succeeded in the first and nearly succeeded in the second. He was simply proposing his future actions in a form in which he knew they would be acceptable to self-righteous people. But Hitler had no monopoly on this kind of utterance. We hear the same thing every day and on all sides, the only difference being that the myths are somewhat more modest and the threats a little more restrained.

p. 241

Technology and death.

Excerpt from a letter of I.A. Topf and Sons, manufacturers of heating equipment, to the commandant of Auschwitz, concerning a new “heating system.” “We acknowledge the receipt of your order for five triple furnaces including two electric elevators for raising the corpses and one emergency elevator.”*

Excerpt from a letter of Didier and Col, Berlin, to the same: “For putting the bodies into the furnace we suggest simply a metal fork moved on cylinders … For transporting the corpses we suggest using light carts on wheels.” Business is business!

Excerpt from a letter of another firm: “We are submitting plans for our perfected cremation ovens which operate with coal and have hitherto given full satisfaction … We guarantee their effectiveness, as well as their durability, the use of the best material and our faultless workmanship.”

For the product: straight A. B-plus for salesmanship.

The camp commandant of Auschwitz was of course eager to surpass the other camps in efficiency and good results. Even when he was being tried in court he wanted to make clear that he had done a very commendable job. For instance, he declared: “Another improvement we made over Treblinka was that we built our gas chambers to accommodate 2000 people at a time, whereas at Treblinka their gas chambers only accommodated 200 people each.”

Food for thought: “how to accommodate people.” The word “accommodate” implies to “make comfortable.”

The doubletalk of totalism and propaganda is probably not intentionally ironic. But it is so systematically dedicated to an ambiguous concept of reality that no parody could equal the macabre horror of its humor. There is nothing left but to quote the actual words of these men.

Himmler, in a speech to the SS generals, October 4, 1943, praised them for the dedicated and self-sacrificing zeal with which they had applied themselves to the task of extermination.

“Most of you must know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side-by-side, or 500, or 1000. To have stuck it out and at the same time–apart from exceptions due to human weakness–to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.”

Pardon, Herr General, I cannot refrain from writing.

*Facts and quotations from W.L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, New York, 1960.

p. 245

Maritain on the practical atheism of many Christians:

They keep in their minds the settings of religion for the sake of appearances or outward show … but they deny the gospel and despise the poor, pass through the tragedy of their time only with resentment against anything that endangers their interests and fear for their own prestige and possessions, contemplate without flinching every kind of injustice if it does not threaten their own way of life. Only concerned with power and success, they are either anxious to have means of external coercion and force what they term the “moral order” or else they turn with the wind and are ready to comply with any requirement of so-called historical necessity. They await the deceivers. They are famished for deception because first they themselves are trying to deceive God. — The Range of Reason

These are terrible and prophetic words, and their light picks out with relentless truth and detail the true face of what passes for “Christianity,” and too often tries to justify itself by an appeal to the “Christian past.”

p. 254

Technology can elevate and improve man’s life only on one condition: that it remains subservient to his real interests; that it respects his true being; that it remembers that the origin and goal of all being is in God. But when technology merely takes over all being for its own purposes, merely exploits and uses up all things in the pursuit of its own ends, and makes everything, including man himself, subservient to its processes, then it degrades man, despoils the world, ravages life, and leads to ruin.

p. 264

The change in my own inner climate: the coming of autumn. I am still too young to be thinking about “old age.” Really, these years when you approach fifty and get ready to turn the corner are supposed to be the best in your life. And I think that is true. I do not say that for me they have been the easiest. The change that is working itself out in me comes to the surface of my psyche in the form of deep upheavals of impatience, resentment, disgust. And yet I am a joyful person, I like life, and I have really nothing to complain of. Then suddenly a tide of this unexpected chill comes out up out of the depths: and I brief the cold air of darkness, the sense of void! I recognize it all right, it does not bother me. And I say to my body: “Oh, all right, then die, you idiot.” But that is not what it is trying to do. It is my impatience but thinks of this in terms of death. My impatience of degrees, and of gradualness, and of time. My body is not sending out signals of emergency and of death, it is only saying: “Let’s go a little slower for a change.”

Nor is it just “the body” that is talking. Where does this naked and cold darkness comes from? Is it from myself, or is it a momentary unmasking of my self? Who is it that experiences this sudden chill? What does it mean? When I turn to it, I sensed that this chill and this fear has a friendly and perhaps important message. If I stand back from it and say “it is nothing,” then it returns more forcefully the next time. But if I do not evade it, if I accept it for what it is, I find it is, after all, nothing. What is this nothing which, when you run away from it, becomes a giant? And when you accept it, is nothing?

I think one must say it is a positive nothing, an unfulfilled possibility — almost an infinite possibility. A frightening one, in the sense that it is a possibility which includes the postulate that I myself cease to exist.

Thus, putting it in the form of a question, it comes out like “Who are you when you do not exist?”

Is this question an absurd one? On the contrary, it is I think a most attractive and fascinating one because of the obscure promises that it contains and because the answer to it can never be grasped by the mind. This is a question into which one must plunge himself entirely before it can make any sense — and that means, in a way, plunging entirely into nothingness, not just struggling with the idea of nothingness.

When the question presents itself as an alien chill, it is saying something important: it is an accusation. It is telling me that I am too concerned with trivialities. That life is losing itself in trifles which cannot bear inspection in the face of death. That I am evading my chief responsibility. That I must begin to face the deepest of all decisions — the “answer of death” — the acceptance of the death sentence — and with joy, because of the victory of Christ.


In a Zen koan: someone said that an enlightened man is not one who seeks Buddha or finds Buddha, but simply an ordinary man who has nothing left to do. Yet mere stopping is not arriving. To stop is to stay a million miles from it and to do nothing is to miss it by the whole width of the universe. As for arriving, when you arrive you are ruined. Yet how close the situation is: how simple it would be to have nothing more to do if only — one had really nothing more to do. The man who is unripe cannot get there, no matter what he does or does not do. But the ripe fruit falls out of the tree without even thinking about it. Why? The man who is right discovers that there was never anything to be done from the very beginning.


How high the corn is this summer! What joy there is in seeing the tall crests nod ten and twelve feet above the ground, and the astounding size of the silk-bearded ears! You come down out of the novitiate, through the door in the enclosure wall, over the little bridge, and down into this paradise of tall stalks and leaves and silence. There is a sacredness about the beauty of tall maize and I understand how the Mayas must have felt about it: in this feeling there is a pre-Eucharistic riteness and wisdom. How can we not love such things? That is why I continue to admire the Mayas and Incas as perhaps the most human of peoples and as those who, so far, have done most honor to our hemisphere.


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