In the previous post, I noted that Thomas Merton said the monastic life
has a certain prophetic character about it . . . in the sense that [the monk] is a living witness to the freedom of the sons of God and to the essential difference between that freedom and the spirit of the world. (First published in Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 28; now in Selected Essays [SE], edited by Patrick F. O’Connell, p. 387)
Merton portrayed this role of prophetic outsider (which resembles Anabaptist sectarianism in some ways) in the essay “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” written from his hermitage.
Thus the solitary cannot survive unless he is capable of loving everyone, without concern for the fact that he is likely to be regarded by all of them as a traitor. Only the man who has fully attained his own spiritual identity can live without the need to kill, and without the need of a doctrine that permits him to do so with a good conscience. There will always be a place, says [Eugène] Ionesco, “for those isolated consciences who have stood up for the universal conscience” as against the mass mind. But their place is solitude. They have no other. Hence it is the solitary person (whether in the city or in the desert) who does mankind the inestimable favor of reminding it of its true capacity for maturity, liberty and peace. (In Raids on the Unspeakable [RU], p. 22; now in SE, p. 223)
Mennonites have generally looked askance at hermits and solitaries; but one might argue that Mennonite/Anabaptist voluntary withdrawal from society (seen most strongly in the Amish and Hutterites) is a kind of collective solitude, or at any rate the life of a communal anchorite (from the ancient Greek anachōrētēs, one who withdraws from the world). It is precisely from this withdrawn, separated position that Anabaptist pacifism is practiced. At its best (which it has not always been in the 19th and 20th centuries), this pacifism is not just a personal “conscientious objection” but a testimony to the capacity for peace and mutual love exhibited by a humanity restored in Christ.
A few pages earlier in “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” Merton wrote of the solitary’s withdrawal as one of two forms of liberation from the world’s illusion.
Because we live in a womb of collective illusion, our freedom remains abortive. . . .
He who is spiritually “born” as a mature identity is liberated from the enclosing womb of myth and prejudice. He learns to think for himself, guided no longer by the dictates of need and by the systems and processes designed to create artificial needs and then “satisfy” them.
This emancipation can take two forms: first that of the active life, which liberates itself from enslavement to necessity by considering and serving the needs of others, without thought of personal interest or return. And second, the contemplative life, . . . an advance into solitude. . . . (RU, pp. 16-17; SE, pp. 220-221]
Obviously Mennonites and other Anabaptists have strongly preferred the active route toward liberation. But they have also strongly rejected the artificial need-generating system of modern capitalism, insisting on a simple lifestyle detached from what Merton calls the “collectivity” that “informs and shapes your will to happiness . . . by presenting you with irresistible images of yourself as you would like to be.” Anabaptist simplicity aims precisely at undermining the human tendency to create false self-images by fulfilling culturally dictated desires; simplicity too is rooted in sectarian nonconformity to “the world.”
Thomas Merton, sectarian? I doubt very much that he would have thought of himself or his fellow monks as “sectarian”; he might even have been offended by the term. Nevertheless, and whatever you might want to use as a label, I think Merton’s choice to live as a voluntary outsider in a community that is (at its best) a standing critique of “the world” bears some of the marks of Mennonite/Anabaptist sectarian identity.
Weldon Nisly said:
Thanks again for the post David! I have long been impressed with Merton’s great gift offered to the world as a solitary conscience standing up for the universal conscience. He was right that is in sharp contrast to the mass mind — however fragmented and fearful the mass mind may be. Merton was remarkable in being a hermit monk while knowing deeply what is happening in the world and how to make meaning out of it and in how many others he was in conversation with to interpret theologically and spiritually what was happening and what it meant. But that is the contemplative heart and mind at its best. A question I have is what is the parallel for Mennonites? For us the solitary conscience standing up for the universal conscience may have been overwhelmingly action rather than contemplation. I grew up hearing “Actions speak louder than words.”