Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (Image via Wikipedia)


I’m continuing the conversation with noted author and Anglican solitary Maggie Ross. If you’re just joining the party now, read Maggie Ross on Scholarship and the Contemplative Life and Maggie Ross’s Response to get the story thus far. What follows below is my response to her comments, as posted on my blog yesterday.


Dear Maggie,

Once again I must say thank you — this time for leaving such a detailed and thoughtful response to my questions. I know you say you are opposed to spiritual direction, and yet I think your comments are, in written form, an example of just how wonderful authentic spiritual direction can be.

And while it is fairly obvious that in many ways you and I see the world and the issues concerning spirituality differently, I think we agree far more than we disagree. I share your concerns about the dangers inherent in spiritual consumerism (or “spiritual materialism” to use Chögyam Trungpa’s phrase), about the potential abuse of spiritual direction, about the idolatry of experience, and about the ongoing problems of the rational/empirical/positivist cosmology (what Ken Wilber calls “flatland”).

I think our key difference is that you seem to be far less willing to tolerate what you perceive as distortions or errors than I am. Consequently, you respond to such matters as fall outside your sphere of approval with much stronger criticism than I typically do. As you yourself recently said, “there is a limit to toleration in these matters.” And while I agree with you that shoddy scholarship and wishful thinking benefits no one (except those who are at the center of personality cults), I am not, for example, prepared to attack Thomas Merton as comprehensively as you seem to do, even though I agree with you that his modernist assumptions represent a problem. I would much rather try to be as balanced as possible when I critique a work (or a body of work), rather than pronouncing it utterly useless. Clearly you feel differently, as is seen in your willingness to say that reading a bad translation of The Cloud is worse than no translation at all. Please understand that I’m not saying this makes me better than you; on the contrary, I may be the worse for my being “soft on sin,” as the hardline Calvinists like to say. But I do think this is the essential difference: you appear to be more comfortable in establishing hard boundaries separating what is useful from what is deleterious, whereas I’m rather more inclined to see everything as a messy confluence of light and dark.

So yes, Merton was a flawed product of his age. So was Richard of St. Victor and The Cloud of Unknowing and Meister Eckhart. And so is Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault and Martin Laird. We are blessed to be able to assess these writers in terms of their relative merits and flaws. But it seems to me that if we retreat into a position of saying “Merton is just plain dangerous and no one should read him,” all we are succeeding in doing is alienating the Merton community from us, which shuts down opportunities for future conversation.

Likewise with attacking spiritual direction. Maggie, I agree with you that much of what passes for spiritual direction is little more than self-indulgent “let’s have a cosy chat about God.” I have this vision in my mind of a group of bored rich liberal Protestants at a cocktail party, comparing notes on the credentials of their various spiritual directors. We can make fun of this, or fulminate against it, all we want, but to what end? It’s out there, and many people are signed on to it. As the Quakers say, it’s far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Perhaps advocating for a more useful or faithful (to the tradition) model of spiritual accompaniment would be the most effective way to challenge the many distortions that bedevil the current spiritual direction movement.

I agree with you that the best way for non-scholars to discern which translation(s) of the mystics are worth reading is by diligently cultivating our own authentic practice, and learning to recognize the blind spots of our age (such as the lust for experience). But the wisdom necessary to engage in this kind of discernment won’t emerge out of a vacuum. Unless effective models of spiritual accompaniment are promoted within the church — and useful texts advocating the contemplative life are published and made available to all who seek them — I’m afraid that the kinds of misunderstandings that characterize so many good-hearted but naïve seekers will simply continue. Denouncing narcissistic forms of  spiritual direction and dismissing flawed writing might be necessary on one level, but it is still only half the job. I had a boss who used to say “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have at least one idea for its solution.” I think those of us who dare to write and teach the spiritual life might keep this principle in mind. Or, quoting the Quakers again, we need to be in the business of lighting candles.