Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"the servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction"

In On Thomas Merton, Mary Gordon takes note of a period in Merton's life where he served as a spiritual counselor of sorts to the English writer Evelyn Waugh (and Merton in turn would petition Waugh for tips on how to be a better writer). From their exchanges comes this recommendation which struck me as particularly appropriate for Lent [Merton to Waugh, September 22, 1948]:
The virtue of hope is the one talented people most need. They tend to trust in themselves -- and when their own resources fail then they will prefer despair to the reliance on anyone else, even on God. It gives them a kind of feeling of distinction.

Really I think it might do you a lot of good and give you a certain happiness to say the Rosary every day. If you don't like it, so much the better, because then you would deliver yourself from the servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction: and that slavery to our own desires is a terrific burden. I mean if you could do it as a more or less blind act of love and homage to Our Lady, not bothering to try and find out where the attraction of the thing could possibly be hidden and why other people see to like it. The real motive for this devotion at the moment is that the Church is very explicit: a tremendous amount depends on the Rosary and everything depends on our Lady.

Not to dismiss entirely the subjective element within one's religious life (the Church recommends a wide variety of spiritual devotions and practices which the layman can avail himself of), but I couldn't help but observe Merton's remark on the "servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction" as a wry comment alluding to a consumerist mindset that we can sometimes fall into, "spirituality-shopping" as it were, in the form of seeking out those practices that are most appealing, emotionally comfortable or psychologically "satisfying". Sometimes this takes the form of parish-hopping (don't like the hymns? the homily? the mass?); at other times it might be a particular way of meditating, praying, a regimen of fasting, et al. But I think Merton is on to something in his criticism of referring to our own self-satisfaction as the ultimate criterion for value in spiritual life, especially where we might be inclined to forsake a practice because we find too "hard", too "boring", too "uncomfortable" or that we simply (in the contemporary language of our age) "didn't get anything out of it."

Likewise regarding Merton's reference to the "slavery of our own desires", I find I am too entirely susceptible to misinterpret my wants as "needs", not just on a physical level (indulgence of the senses and appetite, especially in the way of food and drink) but mentally and psychologically as well, perpetually grasping after this or that fleeting desire which even when satisfied is found to be wanting.

Gordon observes in closing:

Merton here is urging upon Waugh, the amateur contemplative, the same self-forgetting discipline that Waugh urges upon Merton, the fledgling writer: embrace what is difficult, what is least comfortable and natural, and get on with the job at hand.
May these forty days of Lent -- with its small and large sacrifices -- provide opportunities for us to take notice of the relentless, distracting and demanding tug of of our own desires, but in those moments to seek more fervently God's grace to overcome, to "get on with the job at hand."

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