Every once in a while something hits you up-side the head and you wish it hadn’t. Something challenges your enshrined values and you don’t want to yield your revered self-interest. Something written forty years ago surfaces and seems directed singularly at you.
That’s the case with a book on the formation of Thomas Merton’s prophetic spirituality I’ve just finished. The part pestering me today is Merton’s assertion that “the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy. This is perhaps why we wish to destroy him. So, too, we can help him to see his error, and that is why he wants to destroy us.”
Only after humbly accepting this truth are we prepared for real transformation. Merton continues:
In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own particular truth. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.
That’s wonderful in principle and maybe in books. But is it actually possible for any but the truly virtuous among us? Somehow I remain entangled in a world that seems more nasty and complicated. How do we take such pious principles and give them flesh in the muddle of our real relationships — life as, and among, very imperfect people?
Last evening we watched a documentary on the criminal and civil prosecution of OJ Simpson. How does the family of Nicole Brown Simpson give expression to Merton’s ideal?
How do those who have experienced sexual abuse come to “love” their adversary? What does “love of our deluded fellow man” look like for them?
This week Minnesota Public Radio featured a marvelous piece on the Black Lives Matter movement. Where would we be if Rosa Parks had not said, “I’ve had enough — I’m not moving to the back of the bus!”
I’m resigned to the fact that there will always be “adversaries whom we wish to destroy.” I’m equally convinced that some adversaries like racism, violence, and all forms of abuse need to be challenged and destroyed.
I’m equally convinced that “Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.” Fine sounding words and much needed admonition from geniuses like Thomas Merton. But what about most of us who muddle with our fellows in delusion and sin? How do we name and honor behaviors which are just inexcusable?
The way forward? Mutuality. Respect. Encounter. Remaining in community, conversation and relationship. These sound nice but can remain so much etherial babble. For me, maybe you, a good start in giving them legs is by talking about elephants in the room.
The book referenced is In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB. Cistercian Publications. Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN. 2015. p 136. Both quotes of Merton cited above are from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Image Books, 1966, #68.