Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Light of Truth

The Light of Truth

The Seven Storey Mountain, written by the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton (1951-1968) is one of the most widely read spiritual autobiography or our time. Being someone who admires those with the courage to pursue a spiritual vocation, I had read and enjoyed Merton's book greatly when I was working in Singapore five years ago.

Thomas Merton belonged to the Trappist movement, one of the strictest monastic orders in the Catholic tradition. He, like Saint Augustine centuries before him, decided to choose a life of monkhood after having spent a riotuously passionate youth plunged in worldly pursuits.

Despite the many restrictions of the Trappist Order, which Merton described as "the four walls of my new freedom", he was a major voice in the non-violent activist movements of his day. Through his many writings he was recognized as on of the most influential American Catholic in the twentieth century. In his later years, he developed a strong interest in Eastern religions and was a key proponent for better East-West religious dialogue.

Merton, who rarely travelled out of his monastery, was ironically killed in a freak hotel room accident on his first trip to Bangkok for a religious conference in 1968. He leaves behind a valuable collection of spiritual writings which continue to enlighten and inspire Catholics and non-Catholics alike around the world.

I was flipping through my copy of The Seven Storey Mountain, when I chanced upon these lines on page 223 which I had underlined in pencil when I first read it:

Now at last I came around to the sane conception of virtue--without which there can be no happiness, because virtues are precisely the powers by which we can come to acquire happiness: without them, there can be no joy, because they are the habits which coordinate and canalize our natural energies and direct them to the harmony and perfection and balance, the unity of our nature with itself and with God, which must, in the end, constitute our everlasting peace.

What a long sentence that is! I'm sure it confuses most readers. But how profoundly it expresses the concept of virtue, and why it will bring peace and happiness. We act virtuously not because the religious scriptures or the law says so, but because it is the practical and ultimately the only way to achieve everlasting peace.

Why? Because virtues are "habits which coordinate and canalize our natural energies": which actually means that they constitute the right set of actions, in accordance with the universal laws of nature and if executed consistently, can only bring good returns to us.

Perhaps that may still sound a bit mystical to some people but in a way it sums up everything that I've been trying to say all these years in my blog. And I suppose my challenge is to continue writing such things, marshalling all the possibilities of words, imagery and language, to express what I feel deep down inside to be true, until the light of truth shines forth with unequivocal clarity.

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