Saturday, January 12, 2008

Encounters with Merton (updated)

In this blog...
  • Merton on the bus home...
  • Dealing with solitude...
  • On Merton and dealing with Goals and Methods in the logical framework...
Christmas Vacation '07-'08 has finally concluded, and what a blast. For those who don't know, two fellow YASC missionaries, Matt Kellen and Jesse Zinc, flew up from South Africa to spend two weeks with me. Thankfully for both of us (writer and reader), Jesse has graciously given a full account of our adventures in Gulu and beyond. It's really good - long, but really good. In fact, it's so good I won't try to outdo it. But I do have a few reflections of my own.

After saying goodbye to Jesse and Matt and boarding the bus to Gulu, numbed by the din of Kampala's incessant buzz and baked in dust, smoke and scorching sun, I managed to finish Henri Nowen's Encounters with Merton, which I had been picking at for the better part of a month.

Merton was a trappist monk who focused his monastic life on solitude and living the contemplative life, and his writings have been a great complement to my missionary life here, recently. Solitude, as Matt and Jesse were able to affirm in our conversations, can be a new, imposing and strange fact of life for missionaries. Quite unexpectedly, I've found more encounters with solitude here than in any other time in my life, and learning how to live in that has been a real challenge. I think most westerners are uncomfortable with solitude (not just being alone, but alone with oneself, i.e. with the TV off), and especially solitude by circumstance and not by choice. It's often in the evening when others are eating with their families, or Saturdays and holidays, mornings and afternoons while waiting for evening plans.

One of Merton's important sights to me was that God speaks when we are silent, that my mind does not need to spin in order gain from or enjoy my solitude. And ultimately, that it is not a gift meant solely for our own spiritual growth, but like so many gifts of God, given so we may better listen and show compassion to those around us, especially those that normally confuse and anger us.

The last chapter of Encounters, the one read on the heavily listing bus as the sun was setting, focused on Merton's study of Eastern teachings and what they point to in our own Christian tradition. Inevitably I'll fail in conveying the full meaning of Merton's and Chuang Tzu's writings, but let me give a couple illustration.

1) I had a long conversation with an American friend and aid worker here. At length we covered the many and complex challenges facing Northern Uganda. In rhetorical desparation she asked, "So what's the answer? How do we fix this?"

The more one seeks "the good" outside oneself as something to be acquired, the more one is faced with the necessity of discussing, studying, understanding, analyzing the nature of good. The more, therefore, one becomes involved in abstractions and in the confusion of divergent opnions. The more "the good" is objectively analyzed, the more it is treated as something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes (...) until finally the mere study of the means becomes so demanding that all one's effort must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten... This is, in fact, nothing but organized despire..."
- Merton in The way of Chuang Tzu, 23

I think this applies equally well to the well-trained missionary coming from an organization, who may often wonder, "How do I grow the most from this experience?" (but certainly not me...)
2) Lastly, a story about some of the work I'm doing. As part of the grant proposal for the Okweyo Initiative (see past posts), I'm filling in a 'Logical Framework', a required part of the application. It's a matrix...more simply, it's a standardized way of showing how your planned actions achieve your stated goals. The rows include 'Goal', 'Purpose', 'Outputs' and 'Activities', the latter hopefully contributing to former. I was thining about what the 'goal' of Okweyo should be. I reckon our funders would like to see something like "Break cycles of violence, and increase economic and psycho-social health of victims." These sound like important keys to improving the lives of these people. Nowen points to Merton pointing to Chuang Tzu:
If you ask 'what ought to be done' and 'what ought not to be done' on earth to produce happiness, I answer that these questions do not have [a fixed and predetermined] answer" to suite every case. If one is in harmony with Tao - the cosmic Tao, "Great Tao" - the answer will make itself clear when the times comes to act, for then one will act not according to the human and conscious mode of deliberation, but to the divine and spontaneous mode of wu wei, which is the mode of action of Tao itself, and is therefore the source of all good.
-Merton in The Way of Chuang Tzu, 24

Fundamentally, as a church, our goal through the work of this initiative could be better stated "To authentically express our love for God by showing compassion for these victims." That's the goal, the details can come in their time.


Matthew Kellen said...

Thank you. I had been feeling and thinking the same thoughts, overwhelmed by the issues of my community in South Africa, being ivolved more or less in Mthatha, and being enveloped in the issues of Northern Uganda. At one point either on the back of a bota or in the back of a bus, I became overwhelmed with the sense of, either I could spend my life working to solve the worlds issues or crawl into a hole and forget what I am experiencing, settle down and start a family...... I know it will never be that simple, but I can't help the ideal in myself that wants to save the world. I guess it comes down to doing what I can where I am. Thanks for letting me ramble my thoughts.

DrJohn said...

Hi Johnny,

I am glad you have discovered that Merton and Nouwen have lots to say to you during this period of your life. You and your fellow missionaries have this wonderful opportunity not only to serve, but to learn so much about yourselves. I hope you will repeatedly use what you are gaining from the experiences as your life progresses. I am proud of you and believe in you. Dad

Jane Pope said...

John, you continue to be in my prayers. I enjoy reading your thoughts here and am delighted that you have brought Nouwen and Merton into the experience. May your work -- both inner and outer -- be greatly blessed.