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Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

von Thomas Merton

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In this series of notes, opinions, experiences, and reflections, Thomas Merton examines some of the most urgent questions of our age. With his characteristic forcefulness and candor, he brings the reader face-to-face with such provocative and controversial issues as the “death of God,” politics, modern life and values, and racial strife–issues that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is Merton at his best–detached but not unpassionate, humorous yet sensitive, at all times alive and searching, with a gift for language which has made him one of the most widely read and influential spiritual writers of our time.… (mehr)
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Even Thomas Merton himself didn't quite know what to make of his 1965 book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.” The much-revered monk insisted it was not a spiritual journal. Nor, he said, was it "a venture in self-revelation or self-discovery" or "a pure soliloquy." Finally in his preface he settled on "a series of sketches and meditations, some poetic, and literary, others historical and even theological, fitted together in a spontaneous, informal philosophic scheme in such a way that they react upon each other," not that that helps much.

I would call it simply a collection of brief essays, some just a sentence or two long, others going on for a page or two. Many of these essays reflect the point in history in which he was writing, the early 1960s. There is much here about President John F. Kennedy, a fellow Catholic whom Merton greatly admires, and the monk is clearly crushed by Kennedy's assassination. Pope John also dies during this period, another blow to him. Merton writes about the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear testing and the civil rights movement, giving any reader the temper of those uncertain times.

Yet much of what Merton writes could have been written yesterday. His thoughts on theology, morality and humanity are not so easily dated. Here's a sampling of some of his most intriguing comments:

"Nor is it certain that we have any urgent obligation to find sin in ourselves. How much sin is kept hidden from us by God Himself, in His mercy? After which He hides it from Himself!"

"Perhaps the man who says he 'thinks for himself' is simply one who does not think at all."

"Note of course that the doctrine of original sin, properly understood, is optimistic. It does not teach that man is by nature evil, but that evil in him is unnatural, a disorder, a sin."

"It is because religion is a principle and source of the deepest freedom that all totalitarian systems, whether overt or implicit, must necessarily attack it."

"The more perfect, the more idealistic the theories, the more dreadful is their realization."

"The greatest temptation that assails Christians is that in effect, for most of us, the Gospel has ceased to be news. And if it is not news, it is not the Gospel."

"Man is the image of God, not His shadow."

"He who fears death or he who longs for it — both are in the same condition: they admit they have not lived."

Rarely does Merton get personal, but there are occasional references to his life before he became a monk, his life in a Louisville monastery and a brief hospitalization. Perhaps the most striking comment in the book comes when he writes, "I think sometimes that I may soon die, though I am not yet old (forty-seven)." In fact he did die of an accidental electrocution in 1968. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Dec 7, 2020 |
In this series of notes, opinions, experiences, and reflections, Thomas Merton examines some of the most urgent questions of our age. With his characteristic forcefulness and candor, he brings the reader face-to-face with such provocative and controversial issues as the “death of God,” politics, modern life and values, and racial strife–issues that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is Merton at his best–detached but not unpassionate, humorous yet sensitive, at all times alive and searching, with a gift for language which has made him one of the most widely read and influential spiritual writers of our time.
  StFrancisofAssisi | Jul 11, 2019 |

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk and prolific writer who died tragically at the age of 53. Prior to entering the monastery, Merton led a worldly life, which I think gives him a unique perspective on religion and life in general. I am of the opinion that one should not pass judgment on life's "sinful" pleasures unless one has first partaken in them. Personal experience goes a long way in forming the basis of a thorough understanding.

Merton's popular autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was on my list of books to read for a long time. However, when I finally got around to reading Merton I opted for something different. I read some reviews of his various books and finally decided to start with this one. Many people said it wouldn't be a good one to pick if you were new to Merton's writing because it's a collection of excerpts from his journals, so it is kind of choppy and random and all over the place, both in tone and topic. However, I appreciate that kind of writing in certain other authors, as well as having a tendency to often write that way myself, particularly in my zine. It's like reading a blog, except it was written in the 50s and 60s, so some of the contemporary references don't apply. To be truthful, I was not able to finish the book before I had to return it to the library (I sure miss the perk of endless renewals that comes with public library work!). But I thorougly enjoyed what I did read. I particularly enjoyed Merton's rants about technology and society's unbridled embracement of it at face value. A quote:

“What I am saying is, then, that it does us no good to make fantastic progress if we do not know how to live with it, if we cannot make good use of it, and if, in fact, our technology becomes nothing more than an expensive and complicated way of cultural disintegration.”

I also really liked when he started in on Americans and their obsession with cars. Keeping in mind that he was writing in the 1960s, I find it depressing how much worse in 40 years the situation he describes has become:

"The attachment of the modern American to his automobile, and the symbolic role played by his car, with its aggressive and lubric design, its useless power, its otiose gadgetry, its consumption of fuel, which is advertised as having almost supernatural power…this is where the study of American mythology should begin. Meditation on the automobile, what it is used for, what it stands for—the automobile as weapon, as self-advertisement, as brothel, as a means of suicide, etc.—might lead us at once into the heart of all contemporary American problems: race, war, the crisis of marriage, the flight from reality into myth and fanaticism, the growing brutality and irrationality of American mores."

I skipped around in the book; since it is so random, there's no chance of losing context by doing so. I plan to read more of him, too, as this just whetted my appetite. ( )
  S.D. | Apr 5, 2014 |
http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/1506013.html

I have long had a vague interest in Thomas Merton, who became a Trappist monk after a dissolute youth (part of which was spent studying at my own later stamping ground, Clare College, Cambridge), and so was looking forward to reading this collection of his writings from the early 1960s - not least because I have been uncomfortably aware that I have enjoyed reading atheist tracts (Lucretius, Russell) more than Christian apologetics in the last few years.

I wasn't disappointed. A lot of this has dated - Merton's historical experience is of the Second World War and he writes in the context of the Cuban missile crisis and the Civil Rights movement - but basically he has a sane, humane, liberal take on Christianity and belief which I find comfortably close to my own prejudices and instincts. I winced a little at his initial naïve enthusiasm for Vatican II, knowing now how badly the Church has failed to follow through on the spirit of those times, but then a later piece in the collection accurately predicts the problems of the enterprise, in outline if not in detail.

The presentation of the material is not perfect. On the one hand, we are given to understand that this is a kind of commonplace book for occasional jottings; on the other hand, the text has been revised and expanded for publication. It would have been better to have a more thematic treatment, and better yet to have an index. As it is, it reads a bit more like random ramblings of a middle-aged monk than it really deserves to. ( )
  nwhyte | Aug 19, 2010 |
Although Merton prefaces the book by saying that this book is a random assortment of his journal entries and should be read as such, I was not expecting it to lack as much cohesion as it did. Many of his books seem to have this format, which I've grown accustomed to, but I just could not reconcile it as much in this. This made it hard to enjoy, and while there certainly are wonderful Merton nuggets in this work, it falls short because there also seems to be "filler"(for lack of a better word) which spread out the goodness within. ( )
  jd234512 | Feb 9, 2009 |
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In this series of notes, opinions, experiences, and reflections, Thomas Merton examines some of the most urgent questions of our age. With his characteristic forcefulness and candor, he brings the reader face-to-face with such provocative and controversial issues as the “death of God,” politics, modern life and values, and racial strife–issues that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is Merton at his best–detached but not unpassionate, humorous yet sensitive, at all times alive and searching, with a gift for language which has made him one of the most widely read and influential spiritual writers of our time.

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