Merton’s Palace of Nowhere
(40th Anniversary Edition)
Do we need another book about Thomas Merton—the man, monk, and writer who inspired many to enter monastic life, some to write spiritual memoirs, and hopefully more than both of those numbers combined to pray? Even before Merton’s death in December of 1968, an industry of texts about him had appeared. Following his perplexing electrocution by a floor fan in Thailand, the field of Merton studies only multiplied (and for good reasons). But after one reads Merton’s primary texts—including his seven-volume journal set—and the works of his closest associates, including Patrick Hart (Merton’s last secretary), there is not much more to explore about the man. I believe Merton himself would tell us to go to prayer rather than to pick up another book about the one time the author met him. I can read Henri Nouwen’s words until the cows come home, but his book about Merton, Encounters with Merton: Spiritual Reflection, takes this very premise.
With all of this in mind, I picked up the 40th Anniversary Edition of James Finley’s Merton’s Palace of Nowhere published this year. Surely a book’s reprinting by a reputable Catholic press (Ave Maria) 40 years after its original release must be worthy of it, I thought. Finley, now seventy-three years old, writes in a new preface about a dream he had in which he was presenting at a conference when Merton, from seemingly out of nowhere (no pun intended), starts folk dancing in front of him. This sounds as ridiculous as it comes across, and the point Finley eventually makes is not worth recounting here. Perhaps he should skip a new preface should Finley see the book’s 50th birthday. I hope he does because his text deserves one despite this introductory babbling (the book’s and my own). In fact, I have trouble finding my notes because I dog-eared almost every other page.
Merton was Finley’s novice master during his “some six years as a monk” at Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. While it would be easy for Finley to fall back on his years of access and proximity to Merton in offering his readers compelling interpretations of Merton’s thoughts, he avoids this lazy credentialing. Instead, Finley quietly and astutely pulls from Merton’s writings for the “underlying thesis of this work…that Merton’s whole spirituality, in one way or another, pivots on the question of ultimate human identity.” What does this mean in more concrete terms? Finley anticipates my question and draws from his teacher’s 1967 book, Mystics and Zen Masters: “Merton repeatedly draws us to…the realization that our own deepest self is not so much our own self as it is the self one with the ‘Risen and Deathless Christ in Whom all are fulfilled in One.’”
If this sounds like Richard Rohr to those who receive his popular email meditations, it is, and he borrowed this false self versus true self paradigm from Merton. What I appreciate about Finley’s focus on this concept, however, is his insistence that Merton believes prayer is the remedy to everything. No one can challenge this claim, I believe, because prayer is the most difficult practice for humans to, well, practice. “An exploration of the true self will bring us to an understanding of prayer, Finley writes. “[A]nd a prayerful attentiveness will bring us to an understanding of the true self…. It is in prayer that we discover our own deepest reality from which we have strayed like runaway children becoming strangers to ourselves.”
Finley uses the true self ideal throughout the rest of his text to illuminate how we see ourselves in the world, for what or for whom we’re searching, and the goal of realizing, or making real, this self in Christ. He is particularly enlightening when using Merton’s writings to tease out what we do to and tell ourselves every day among the world, and both Merton’s and Finley’s words remain timeless. First, Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
The mother of all lies is the lie we persist in telling ourselves about ourselves. And since we are not brazen enough liars to make ourselves believe our own lie individually, we pool all our lies together and believe them because they have become the big lie uttered by the vox populi, and this kind of lie we accept as ultimate truth.
Finley follows with specific examples that remain prescient:
This occurs whenever society makes a cult of some relative interpretation of life or sets some relative good up as the end of life itself. Success, progress, and all similar goals are examples of the world’s expression of the false self. These social imperatives hold themselves up as absolutes to the extent that we are led to believe that life is nothing but these things…. We are led to believe that only the world can save us. We are told that irrelevance according to the criterion of the world is tantamount to nonexistence.
This fear drives people to maintain social media profiles, self-promote their “brands,” list their curricula vitae on websites, and share what song they just queued in their playlist. The answer to these great lies of Satan, writes Finley, is solitude. This does not mean being physically alone, however. “What the solitary renounces is not his union with other men, but rather the deceptive fictions and inadequate symbols which tend to take the place of genuine social unity,” Merton writes in Disputed Questions.
What aids in our renouncing these fictions that fuel our FOMO (fear of missing out) today? The answer is prayer: “We pray not to recharge our batteries…but rather to be transformed by God so that the myths and fictions of our life might fall like broken shackles from our wrists,” Finley writes. After reading Finley’s words about Merton, which reshaped how I pray and how I think about prayer, I have tried to convince my friends—both real and online—that a healthy FOMO to harbor is the one in which they do not open this book.
Win Bassett’s work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Oxford American, and Commonweal. He lives in Tennessee, where he teaches and coaches at a boys’ school. Find him online at: http://winbassett.com/