Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
July 13th, 2009

Finding God in a Fragmented Society

The spiritual-but-not-religious generation finds a kindred spirit in Thomas Merton



For those of us of the “spiritual but not religious” generation, it’s a hymn to our ears when a visionary like Michael Franti (of Spearhead) sings, “God is too big for just one religion.” Among my peers, monotheism may not be on the way out but mono-religionism is long gone. We spend less time in churches, but more time embodying spiritual principles through practices like yoga and meditation.

Globalism and discount airfares have bred a whole new level of cross-pollinated, hyphen-empowered seekers. A friend of mine calls himself a Zen-Baptist, while we all know of Sufi-spinning Jews, born-again Hindus, and more mongrel faiths than God likely intended when the Tower of Babel fell.

I was raised in a liberal Catholic household, where mysticism was encouraged, women’s choice and gay rights supported. Over the years, when home environment gave way to church dictates in defining the family’s religion, I rebelled and sought other outlets. Living in the southwestern United States, where Native American practices are frequently seen if less frequently understood, consideration of “the other” seemed natural. Practices tied to the earth would evolve into the center of my search.

Merton’s influence

But early in my Catholic education, I had learned about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk known for his contemplative approach to Christianity. Even when I broke out to pursue my own spiritual path — which favored Eastern philosophies over what I considered, in my loving non-judgmental state, “stupid insane repressive Catholic dogma” — Merton’s teaching stayed with me. His questions were my questions, and they seemed to anticipate my feeling that “the official rules” were just so much static, and that the music was something to find beyond all that noise.

Globalism and discount airfares have bred a whole new level of cross-pollinated, hyphen-empowered seekers. A friend of mine calls himself a Zen-Baptist, while we all know of Sufi-spinning Jews, born-again Hindus.

Apparently, his influence is still powerful—and cross-generational. In June, The International Thomas Merton Society hosted its eleventh biennial conference at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY. Over 300 people attended, 20 of who were “Daggy Scholars” — a scholarship given to young adults (ages 18-29). I discovered that less than half of my fellow Daggys were self-proclaimed Christians. The others: non-denominational, “searching,” universal. Perhaps they, like me, have found solace and inspiration from Merton’s inter-religious dialogue with Buddhism, Sufism, Judaism, and Hinduism.

No matter what faith we chose, Merton encourages us to go deeper — into our daily habits, our relationships, and how we engage in a culture that seldom uses the word “God” in what we consider a spiritual context.

The weekend of lectures, prayer sessions (well, for some of us, guided meditation), dialogues, and introspection inspired me to ask: In a fragmented, “non-religious” world, how can our contemplative practices inform and unify a sacred sense of identity?

Digital natives and immigrants

Technology presents us all with challenges when it comes to maintaining and uncovering personal authenticity and identity. In his lecture about Merton and “young people,” Daniel P. Horan, OFM broke down the current population into two categories: “digital natives” — who were born with a computer in their home, learned how to type and write simultaneously, and have always had internet at their disposal — and “digital Immigrants” — the older generation who has had to assimilate these new practices.

Being a “native,” I can see how technology confuses our idea of personal and collective identity. On one hand, it’s easy to create multiple identities with social networks such as Facebook and Myspace. With one click, we can redefine our interests, hobbies, friends, aspirations. On the other hand, we are often bound to our “digital” representation; we rely more and more on the Internet to tell us who we are and how we should act. We tap into a spiral of like-minded “natives” likely to offer support and encourage our beliefs, rather than challenge us in meaningful ways. It feels like a public commons, but it’s really a private club.

We are, in a sense, perpetually distracted from getting to know ourselves on a deeper level. Herbst put it nicely when he commented, “If technology rules us, might not some parts of us die?”

Merton and Blackberrys

During his life as a monk living at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton spent many winters living alone in a cottage in the monastery’s forest. In a letter written in 1967, he reflected on a paradox that arose having a gas heater installed one winter after years of having to chop wood for the fireplace: “I am not a better human being now that I have more leisure time, now that I don’t have to chop wood and can rely on the gas stove.”

Merton reflected on a paradox that arose having a gas heater installed one winter after years of having to chop wood for the fireplace: “I am not a better human being now that I have more leisure time, now that I don’t have to chop wood and can rely on the gas stove.”… you wonder what he would have made of Blackberrys.

If a gas stove brought that response, you wonder what he would have made of Blackberrys.

Merton’s writings challenge our concept of modern day leisure. We often assume that the better the technology, the better our lives become. But, as with anything addictive, it’s easy to become dependent. A survey taken of students at a middle school last year included the question: How would your life change if you didn’t have the Internet? Some common answers were: “feel less anxious”; “have more time with friends”; “be more self-reliant.” Clearly, we are feeling the pressures of a highly digital world.

As a 24-year-old digital native, Merton inspires several questions: Are we using technology to our advantage, or are we allowing it to rule us? How can we become more conscience about the intentions behind our usage?

Our relationship with the natural world

Pondering our reliance on the Internet, I decided to attend a meditative lecture about Thomas Berry and his call to witness the natural world as a primary manifestation of the Divine. Known as the “neo-Thomas Aquinas”, Berry was famous for evoking the Spirit through geology, cosmology, and science. In essence, he believed that the universe is our primordial scripture through which to commune with the Great Creator:

“Some people read books to discover God. But there is an even greater book: the very appearance of created things. Look above, below, the stars in heaven and the earth are the unwritten books. The universe itself is a sacred story waiting to be read and told in a sacred manner.”

As we abuse technology, our relationship with Mother Nature suffers. Sister Kathleen Deignan, who moderated the session, said, “Berry reminds me that we are in a use/consume/abuse paradigm with the natural elements. How do we shift that to communing with and creating equanimity among all species?” As we sang and meditated, I thought back to a quote by Berry: “The whole world runs on rhythms that I have not yet recognized.”

An intimate connection with God

When the voices in our heads start to churn doom and gloom about our futures or our personal dramas, perhaps we can return to silence in order to purify our spirits. Centering Prayer… is a way of establishing an intimate connection with God beyond thoughts, definitions, and words. [See this What Works column on how to practice Centering Prayer.]

How do we shift our perspective and find practical solutions for the anxiety and stress that accompany our over-stimulated, hyper-speed culture? When the voices in our heads start to churn doom and gloom about our futures or our personal dramas, perhaps we can return to silence in order to purify our spirits. Thomas Keating, another Trappist monk who mixes eastern traditions into his faith, created a method called Centering Prayer.

The practice is a way of establishing an intimate connection with God beyond thoughts, definitions, and words. Every morning a small group gathered quietly in the chapel and silently repeated a personal sacred word (i.e “Jesus” or “Sacred Heart”) for twenty minutes. The word we chose wasn’t as important as the presence we brought to the time spent in silence. [See this What Works column on how to practice Centering Prayer .]

I felt, in those few moments, that in order to trust the paths our lives are taking, we have to be okay with knowing that what happens is not entirely up to us. When I am in a mindset of gratitude and grace, I don’t have to hold onto angry, judgmental thoughts about the trajectory of my life.

Merton’s writings and legacy hold a simple yet profound message of Love and personal examination that would be familiar to my cross-pollinated cohorts. Even if my generation is not stuck fighting about which “God” is the right one, we still have many barriers to break. We seek to understand the power of technology, using it with intention and clarity instead of building walls; we wonder how to honor the earth as a sacred entity while living in a fossil-fuel culture; and we wonder how to relieve our anxiety in order to awaken to our fullest potential.

You’d think that anything “too big for one religion” would be a lot easier to find, but so far Google returns too many pages, Apple doesn’t have an app, and last time I checked Mapquest for “god” it demanded a ZIP code.

It may be the stuff of Michale Franti and Spearhead lyrics, but it’s also the music of Merton.

The Author : Kate Clancy
Kate Clancy is a freelance writer and performance artist based in Brooklyn, NY.
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  • Chelsie Guillemet

    Well-applied Kate. Good thoughts and parallels drawn here.

    It seems that Merton’s revelation that he is not a better man for owning a technological convenience is an awareness we must grow in ourselves.
    It is a similar awareness that we are not better men for having man-made conveniences such as religion to unfold the mysteries of the world. I’ll explain:

    As part of personal responsibility, we must chop wood. Chopping for ourselves develops awareness of our intentions for the tools we have-meaning, we’re honest with ourselves and acknowledge what our minds are thinking.
    To choose this awareness is self-approaching, yes, but rewarding, for practicing this inward focus quiets the turmoil of our separated world and relieves the need to figure out “God”, the past, or the hyperactive changes in our futures. If we feel no compulsion to keep up with our “fossil fuel culture”, we rid ourselves of accompanying anxiety in exchange for what’s been available to us all along: peace, clarity, and freedom.

    The nail’s head is “returning to the silence in order to purify our spirits”. Reflecting allows us to unscramble the clutter in our heads and return to our center, evaluating our intentions, and controlling our minds so they work as the tools they are designed to be.
    As with all man-made tools, they have their limitations. It is our choice to use them well, for to rely on them for mere ease and comfort only builds a dependence on something separate from our own responsibility–and to continue in that reliance does not make us man, but yet another machine.

    Apologies if I’ve digressed. :) My best to all!

  • susie patalan

    Oh Kate, it was so great reading your piece. You hit so many issues dead center. Merton does live eternally. Let’s not stop taking the time to ask those questions.

  • Don Pitzer

    I am just discovering Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain” and am so taken by how he presents the life intended for us by Christ as a life that unfolds. Such a contrast to ancient eastern spiritual enlightenment, modern western religious enlightenment, or today’s technology enlightenment; all, deliberately or not, attempt to show us man becoming God, not God becoming man.

    In his dialogue with people of other faiths, it seems to me that Merton did not diminish his faith as simply a ‘choice’ among ‘choices’. I am an ‘immigrant’, and yet I teach technology to the ‘natives’ Kate Clancy speaks about. Daily I see that this technology is viewed by them as a birthright that elevates them as smarter, more special, yes, enlightened. But, sadly it’s only an enlightenment of relativism.

    I wonder if those ‘natives’ who were able to actually possess and read the first printed Bible felt so much more enlightened than those ‘immigrants’ who relied on the spoken word?

    FYI, Clancy, please do some research. Your quote attributed to Thomas Berry is at least misleading. He can alter it all he chooses and weave in some fuzzy stuff about the sacred earth, but the
    ‘parent’ quote comes from an ‘immigrant’, a father of the Church, St. Augustine, “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it.” (354-430). I believe he was talking about “I AM”, not mother earth, nor enlightened spiritual gymnastics. I believe he was pointing to Jesus, who said, “You are looking at Him.”

  • Gary Simpson

    The above should have read In the end Jesus was the Way. Also if you haven’t read “The seven storey mountain” Mertons autobiography it is a must read for all his fans

  • Gary Simpson

    I would just like to make a simple statement…Brother Merton through all his searchings never lost faith in Jesus Christ. Through all the different approaches he studied, In the Jesus was the Way.

  • Mark Schmittle

    The fragmentation of modern society is the result of the Enlightenment mentality that denied the existence, and need, of God. The world of modernity objectified nature, and the human person, as something to exploit. This seems to me oddly similar to the desire of so many “spiritual, but not religious” people who want “take” peace, tranquility, and enlightenment, through the tools of various esoteric practices. But peace and joy are not something that can be exploited; rather they are gifts from a personal God who offers them to us as we approach ever nearer the communion of the Church of which God is the heart and soul. Living in communion is confusing and painful, but the alternative is living with only oneself. I believe this is the definition of Hell.

    I’m not judging Clancy, here. I don’t know her at all. I just couldn’t figure out where she was going with her article. It seems to me that so many people leave the Church with the naïve belief they will discover some freedom and fulfillment the Church has not yet found. Rules and beliefs may be poorly presented, and poorly understood, but communion with God is impossible without them. This generation may not be fighting about which is the true God, but it seems to be fighting to assert there is no God and certainly no Church – a recipe not for freedom, but for nihilism.

    I thank God for the rules and regulations. They remind me I can’t possibly fulfill them on my own, that I’m not the center of all things, that I don’t know it all, that in fact, I know very little and am powerless without God. Gadgets can’t do that, nor can yoga; people living in communion, rubbing shoulders and arguing, working, demanding, forgiving, sharing a meal, living with each other’s sins and virtues, and, yes, the contemplation of it all – this is what leads to enlightenment. Yoga and meditation can be spiritual practices, but they are not “spiritual principles.” Loving God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as oneself are spiritual principles. One will never find God sitting on a yoga mat, but in Jesus God has become flesh. It is in Christ’s body, the Church, with all its inconvenience and problems, that we encounter the living God.

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