A 40 Year "Retrospective Journey"

“Be good, keep your feet dry,
your eyes open, your heart at peace
and your soul in the joy of Christ.”
Thomas Merton

October 23, 2008

The Relevance of the Irrelevant

Thomas Merton's turn to address the Calcutta Spiritual Summit Conference came on October 23, 1968. Merton had prepared a talk on "Monastic Experience and the East-West Dialogue". The notes for this presentation are published in "The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton" and in the conference proceedings, where it is described by the editors as "a working document giving a singularly lucid picture of one of the clearest of contemporary poetic minds at work."

Merton uses the term "monastic" in a broad way to describe various forms and elements of contemplative life including:
  • some level of detachment in relation to the secular concerns of the world;
  • a deep appreciation for the inner life of faith and wisdom; and
  • a "special concern with inner transformation, a deepening of consciousness toward an eventual breakthrough and discovery of a transcendental dimension of life beyond that of the ordinary empirical self and of ethical and pious observance."
Instead of presenting his prepared talk Merton speaks extemporaneously on the question of "relevance". He begins by describing the monk in America as a "marginal person" with much in common with the hippy and the poet.

"Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being. The marginal man accepts the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death. The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life. He struggles with the fact of death in himself, trying to seek something deeper than death; because there is something deeper than death, and the office of the monk or marginal person, the meditative person or the poet is to go beyond death even in this life, to go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and to be therefore, a witness to life."

Merton goes on to speak of the reality of doubt in the midst of faith and of the need to break through the doubt and pierce the "irrelevance" in order to experience true "relevance" in God, the ultimate reality.

Whew... lots of deep stuff there!! Way too much to address meaningfully in a short and shallow blog like this. I will say that I am very intrigued by this theme. Particularly as it relates to our culture of "pragmatism" which values most things by their "relevance" to the cycle of producing and consuming. Perhaps I'll reflect more on it later. For now I think I'll go find a totally irrelevant song or video clip to post instead!

Irrelevantly yours... Rob

"Poetry often enters through the window of irrelevance,"
Mary Caroline Richards

"May we agree that private life is irrelevant? Multiple, mixed, ambiguous at best - out of it we try to fashion the crystal clear, the singular, the absolute, and that is what is relevant; that is what matters."
May Sarton - Poet

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