Not too long ago I was sitting at the kitchen table with my wife after Mass and she told me that I seemed restless. I agreed, and when we started to dig down into the reasons why, one of them was the kind of “dumbed down” Catholicism that Bishop Robert Barron criticizes so eloquently on his YouTube channel.
I sometimes sit in Church on Sunday and listen to our priest deliver the same New York Jets joke that he has used at least three times in the last 18 months. I’ll hear another priest tell well-prepared homilies that seem to concentrate on feel-goodisms (e.g., “Make someone smile and you’ll bring them closer to God”), instead of anything substantive. It’s maddening to know that there is a wealth of intellectual treasures in the Catholic Church, but for some weird reason priests never seem to challenge people in the pews to pick up a good book and read.
It boggles my mind that I have never — in nearly 38 years — heard a priest on Sunday tell me to read Saint Augustine’s Confessions, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas, or a whole host of intellectual giants who have helped me over the years to understand my faith on a deeper level — and to cogently share it with those in my circle of friends. I searched out the above-mentioned authors because at some point in time I realized that I had to take as much personal responsibility with my spiritual health as I have with my physical and mental development over the years.
And it is here, dear reader, where Trappist monk Thomas Merton enters the equation. Long story short, his autobiography is a must-read for anyone who has drifted away from the Church because they received too many helpings of “dumbed down Catholicism” without realizing how much stimulating content was within reach.
Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of Saint Augustine’s Confessions and now they know that I fully endorse Merton. But what they don’t know is that one of the reasons these men resonate with me is because the flaws they both acknowledge — their spiritual deficiencies — have been my own.
“Where was my will? ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,’ and I had not laid up any treasures for myself in heaven. They were all on earth. I wanted to be a writer, a poet, a critic, a professor. I wanted to enjoy all kinds of pleasures of the intellect and of the senses and in order to have these pleasures I did not hesitate to place myself in situations which I knew would end in spiritual disaster — although generally I was so blinded by my own appetites that I never even clearly considered this fact until it was too late, and the damage was done.
Of course, as far as my ambitions went, their objects were all right in themselves. There is nothing wrong in being a writer or a poet — at least I hope there is not: but the harm lies in wanting to be one for the gratification of one’s own ambitions, and merely in order to bring oneself up to the level demanded by his own internal self-idolatry. Because I was writing for myself and for the world, the things I wrote were rank with the passions and selfishness and sin from which they sprang. An evil tree brings forth evil fruits, when it brings forth fruit at all,” (Merton, Thomas. 253).
Who knew that a deceased monk could peg me to the wall and make me weep like no man who walks the earth? You exposed me to all the world, Thomas Merton. Touché! But I thank you, because I am better for it.
The point here is not so much to treat this blog as a confessional booth (although in many ways it is), but to point out just how imperative it is to read the best and the brightest that has ever been written. If you really want to see spiritual growth, then you must put in the same type of time and effort that you do with any other endeavor deemed important.
If you are a Catholic or a lapsed Catholic, then I highly recommend Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. If you are not Catholic but you are interested in exploring this kind of subject matter, then I would start out with C.S. Lewis since it’s easier to step into a warm bath than a brisk pool.
Regardless which route you take, the point remains: Get reading!