"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Thursday, December 30, 2010

No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton

You may have guessed from my review of Sam Harris' most recent book that I don't really believe in God. This is basically true! I say "basically" not because I haven't really thought about it, or because I don't care about the implications of that decision. Rather, I just think telling someone you are "an Atheist"--or worse, "an Agnostic"--may suggest some things that aren't necessarily so. As an example, I suspect some people associate Atheism with only having coldly rational interests, with a lack of capacity to appreciate beauty. That's obviously stupid!

Perhaps more fairly, though, I'm pretty sure most people don't think of Atheists as having particularly sophisticated Spiritual Lives.

But as a Non-Believer I still experience the numinous and the spiritual. Focusing your attention, singing hymns, belonging to strong communities, feeling genuine love, appreciating art and nature, humbling yourself in the presence of something greater than yourself, meditation, going to church... these things that have that particular and strange transcendental quality, that are powerful and personal and lasting are, as far as my money goes, basically the things that really make life worth living.

And that doesn't require a belief in anything truly supernatural.

It's a simple point, but something I don't hear many people talk about. So I'll say it one more time. My spiritual life and health are daily important to me despite the fact that I don't believe in the existence of any literal God. I've continued to read the writers from the Mystical and Contemplative traditions--Rumi, Meister Ekhart--long after deciding that God doesn't exist in any meaningful sense, and their work is as powerful and informative as it ever was when I thought a man in the sky cared about me.

That's right. Like a jerk, I decided that I get all the cool, rewarding parts of religious experience without all the weird non-factual baggage. I can do it. I can have it all!

Now: No Man is and Island.

This was my first dip into T-Mert. Having gone to a Jesuit college and having worked at a bookstore in a predominantly Catholic city, I've long been aware of his reputation, and some people who I respect a lot speak really highly of his writing. If you don't know: Thomas Merton was an American Trappist monk in the 1940s-1960s. He entered the priesthood late-ish in life. He wrote extensively on pacifism and social justice and the monastic life, and developed a particular interest in Zen Buddhism. He was a pretty cool guy.

Although I skimmed several sections for which I decided I was not the intended audience, I wasn't at all disappointed with the book.

He had me at: "A happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy," which is the first sentence. The book spans several topics, some of which I found more relevant than others. Of particular interest to me were the sections and sentences about community/love for others and those about the need for individual actualization. The clash of independence and interdependence is (for me) one of the most interesting, most important struggles of life. While Merton doesn't quite talk about this issue specifically, his observations and insights into each of those aspects of life were really illuminating.

The truth is that I stopped taking notes after the first thirty pages or so. There's just too much there. It's a book that I'll need to buy, to store on a shelf and refer to when the right times come along the way I do a couple books of poetry. It's not meant to be digested in a week the way I did.

Anyway, here's a nice quote I wrote down:  "we must make choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves. [...] when in fact our acts of free choices are largely dictated by psychological compulsions, flowing from inordinate ideas of our own importance. Our choices are too often dictated by our false selves."

Happy New Year!


  1. Happy New Year Spencer!

    Good review, I'll look into the book when I can. This blog thing is pretty cool! I wish I had some more interesting observations. Oh well!


  2. Good review. Thanks! And that *is* just the book I'm looking for.

    Best wishes,


  3. Merton is excellent, even for the non-believer. And I was pretty much raised agnostic.

    Incidentally, you might want to look into Secular Humanism as an answer for your Atheist-but-not-an-Atheist pseudo-dilemma. Or perhaps even post-theism?