Here’re the first paragraphs of the introduction to my new Merton paper, “Under a Doom-shaped Sky, Or Hats off to the Human Condition”. The paper discusses Merton’s book-length poem, Cables to the Ace. There are a couple of qualifying footnotes to these paragraphs, but I have omitted them.
Worship is a norm of human life. Merton knew this–knew what David Foster Wallace knew when he later commented: “Everybody worships.” Merton’s alternative title for Cables is Some Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding. —Liturgies because human life lives up to its nature almost always already in this one respect: it is worshipful. The question is not typically whether it is worshipful, but what is worshipped, and even more, how it is worshipped–because here the how determines the what. Merton’s poem repeats the basic structure of liturgy; it is loosely composed of litanies, entrances, hymns, homilies, etc. –Merton’s poem is familiar liturgies in two senses. First, it is largely, almost entirely in the vernacular. And, second, and more important, because what it liturgizes is modern life, our ordinary life (despite the fifty years between the poem’s publication and now). Even those parts of the poem hard to understand create the nagging feel of a song you recognize but cannot name. The words of Cables are on the tips of our tongues. –The poem is familiar liturgies of misunderstanding because the liturgies are wrong–worshipful in the wrong way, worshipful of the wrong object. And because they are, they are display the way our lives are down-destroyed instead of upbuilt by our life, our life with our language, a life we cannot avoid, even in silence. These are liturgies of deformation, not of formation. They are the bad news; they are the tidings of unhope.
Let me start by dwelling on that last point. Christian liturgy upbuilds. That is not all it does, of course. Its intentional structure is worshipful, worshipful of the triune God. Participants in it are thus ordered toward God, not toward themselves. But in virtue of participating in what is ordered toward God, they are themselves ordered toward God, and such ordering is always upbuilding. Now, this is not two different intentional structures, a worshipful one and an upbuilding one. It is one structure that has a particular effect on its participants in virtue of their participation. To the extent that we enter into the how of the liturgy, we reach toward its what, its object, but participating in the how also changes our what, what we are. Participant liturgical knowledge is connatural knowledge–and that is a bit of grammar. We become what we know and know what we become: blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
This is importantly reverse-true of what Merton takes to be our familiar, unChristian liturgies, our liturgies of misunderstanding. Cursed are the impure in heart, for they shall see UnGod, Gog or Magog, the False. Our participation in these liturgies results in our deformation. We become what we ‘know’ and ‘know’ what we become. Connatural ‘knowledge’, in this case, is damning ‘knowledge’. ‘Knowing’ nothing we hasten our own nothingness.