October 23, 2017

Merton: “Every other man is a piece of myself”

It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves but for others. When we do this we will be able first of all to face and accept our own limitations. As long as we secretly adore ourselves, our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with an apparent defilement. But if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be “as gods.” We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.

Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and “one body,” will we begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ. This was was the poet John Donne realized during a serious illness when he heard the death knoll tolling for another. “The Church is Catholic, universal,” he said, “so are all her actions, all that she does belongs to all. …Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings: but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?”

Every other man is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of mankind. Every Christian is a part of my own body, because we are members of Christ. What I do is also done for them and with them and by them. What they do is done in me and by me and for me. But each one of us remains responsible for his own share in the life of the whole body. Charity cannot be what it is supposed to be as long as I do not see that my life represents my own allotment in the life of a whole supernatural organism to which I belong. Only when this truth is absolutely central do other doctrines fit into their proper context. Solitude, humility, self-denial, action and contemplation, the sacraments, the monastic life, the family, war and peace — none of these make sense except in relation to the central reality which is God’s love living and acting in those whom He has incorporated in His Christ. Nothing at all makes sense, unless we admit, with John Donne, that: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

• Thomas Merton
No Man Is an Island, xxi-xxiii

Comments

  1. Robert F says:

    Even if we are marooned on an island alone, we are not alone. We carry the voices of others inside us, and with their voices their presence; they call us into living relationship with them, and if we go insane and ultimately die from loneliness on our island, it is because we are unable to heed their call and enter into new life with them. The voices go dead, and when they do, so does our own voice, and so do we. That is why there are few punishments worse than prolonged solitary confinement: the voices go dead. A season of silence and solitude may be a good thing, even a long one, if it is chosen and delimited; but whatever kills the voices, and presence, of other human beings in us, also kills us. No man is an island.

    • Paraphusin says:

      Maybe let’s not think about insanity as failure on the part of the insane, Robert.

      • Robert F says:

        Where do I speak about failure in my comment? I speak instead of inability to hear other voices. Where do I blame that inability on the sufferer? Are you saying that those who suffer from clinical insanity, obviously through no fault of their own, are not isolated? Unable to hear voices calling them into community? You are reading into my comment.

    • From its beginning, in the Bible death = exile.

    • Though they go mad they shall be sane,
      Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
      Though lovers be lost love shall not;
      And death shall have no dominion.

      —Dylan Thomas

  2. Ronald Avra says:

    The people around you are important, even if they don’t like you.

  3. No Man Is An Island was published in 1955. That would have been about the year a high school teacher said to me, “You must be an individualist.” He wasn’t being mean spirited, but I understood it as a pejorative, much as later someone might say, “You must be an introvert,” as if identifying something wrong that needed fixing. I would have been the only one in the whole school he would have said this to. This would also have been about the time I looked around me at the sea of gray dour faces in gray dour clothing in the Presbyterian Church and thought to myself, “If these are Christians, I want no part of this.” The Cold War was in full swing, and there was intense pressure to conform, to demonstrate unquestionable loyalty to authority.

    There were already cracks in the dam. Beatniks, Rock & Roll, civil rights, the 60’s looming ahead for anyone looking around them instead of shuffling along in line. This corrective was vital for human progress, but the corrective had its own problems we still haven’t broken out of. Jack Kerouac and J.D.Salinger were around to catch my attention but Thomas Merton never crossed my radar until much, much later. At the time if I had been aware of Merton, he would probably have been dismissed as Catholic. Even now I wonder just who was reading him in 1955 and what difference this made to the world I lived in, then and now.

    You can still buy No Man Is An Island but the excerpt above does not entice me to read it these sixty years later. Tom seems to be calling me to join the institutional collective just like that teacher of mine way back when and the Presbyterian elders and Stephen Freeman yesterday. I observe that Tom was really unhappy in his collective life until he finally cajoled his way into a hermit’s shack, and I find myself enjoying that same freedom today, me and God and whoever stops by. It’s not about shunning human contact, it’s about not everyone is wired the same, and if Christ sets us free, it seems to me that freedom includes a quest to seek truth wherever it leads and to find the niche and level and service most suitable to the particular Child of God we were created to be. Yes, we have some severe problems to deal with today. I’m of the opinion that any real solutions are going to found not by looking back at our formative years but forward to a place where we might actually grow up.

    • Charles, I didn’t get that Merton is calling us to “join the institutional collective,” but rather to grasp a deeper mystery of interconnectedness that enables me to use my individual freedom to genuinely love and serve others as well as to welcome their love and service to me.

      “Charity cannot be what it is supposed to be as long as I do not see that my life represents my own allotment in the life of a whole supernatural organism to which I belong.” This seems to me a key sentence in the excerpt.

    • I sympathize with you Charles. I prefer to be on an island over community. Just the way I’m wired. I try to “rewire” myself but people will always cause me more anxiety than not.

  4. ” Hence Plato suggested that the highest philosophical vision is possible only to one with the temperament of a lover. The philosopher must permit himself to be inwardly grasped by the most sublime form of Eros – that universal passion to restore a former unity, to overcome the separation from the divine and become one with it.” Richard Tarnas – The Passion of the Western Mind
    The ancient Greeks, with some exceptions, knew that love is where it’s at. It has always been about love. Simply put, love requires an other to be love. That doesn’t mean I need 100 close and intimate friends and that I must express that love unsolicited to every human I encounter but it does mean that some other humans are required for the Christian sensibility to be in any way real. How and how many do I love I suppose is the question. Ironically so, that is answered individually.

  5. Do I sense a “disconnect” in Merton. Isn’t it rather ironic that a guy who lived a hermit’s existence seems to think that he has something to say on connectedness? It’s easy to talk the talk, but much harder to walk the talk. But wait, he didn’t have to did he, in his little disconnected world all was fine. No need to get down and dirty so to speak, with the great unwashed rest of humanity, with all their angst and insecurities. Philosophy is fine until it hits reality.

    • Christiane says:

      well, some go into silence so they can begin to hear again

      I think he may have been one of those people

  6. Well now isn’t that something. Haven’t study Merton’s life have read many things on here though. I would say that someone who sought a monk’s style of living saying no man is an island interesting. Not that much though that I would or could ever pursue it. Seeing that even what work he was doing only was a small part of the whole that left him able and gave support to follow such a life. Value and thought by his written word nominal at best for me.

    Footprints in the snow…… When I started feeding the wild cat who had never been handled by humans it was winter and his shadow and glimpses had put food out. I saw the foot steps into the food and where they left. He was the Alpha of the area. I looked upon those footsteps and felt love and caught a glimpse of how my God might see mine. 2 years and my wife took up the cause and kept putting the food closer to her until he first walked across her lap. He adopted her and vice-versa. 4 years later and a warming house and food everyday he followed her like a dog. Loved her in ways I thought not possible for a wild one.

    Most beautiful day here in central Pa. Bo the alpha went to the vets but isn’t come home no more. The growth in his sinuses that one vet said was just a upper respiratory infection but turned out to be cancer and blinded his one eye by now and he couldn’t eat and hardly breathe as the second vet said no way it has to be a growth and they did the scan to confirm and he needed put down right away. He is coming home but in ashes and will be put where he loved to lay in the one garden. We did our best. Was the bluest of skies for us I wonder as a gift he would have had us have. I’m extremely sad. One of the ways I hate this world. One of the ways I love this world was Bo. I find it hard to have both at the same time. Thanks for listening and I’m sorry it’s off topic a little.

    I’d rather be alone but I find it impossible in this world at this time anymore. We have to be dependent on each other in some way or another. Lord as much as it hurts thank you for Bo.

    • Mod It’s okay if it has no significance just slash it.

    • Dana Ames says:

      Hugs to you, w. I’ve been there and know how it hurts – it’s because we love, and so did Bo.

      Dana

      • Yep….. Somewhere in the night it occurred to me Bo did great with what he had started with. The thought came you were great and are great. It broke the extreme sadness. Now it’s all I think.

        • Christiane says:

          ” Bo the alpha went to the vets but isn’t come home no more. The growth in his sinuses that one vet said was just a upper respiratory infection but turned out to be cancer and blinded his one eye by now and he couldn’t eat and hardly breathe as the second vet said no way it has to be a growth and they did the scan to confirm and he needed put down right away. He is coming home but in ashes and will be put where he loved to lay in the one garden. We did our best. ”

          yes, he was loved 🙂

          that’s important