Over the weekend, I read Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own. It’s a group biography; I read it because I’m very interested in Flannery O’Connor, and I also wanted to learn more about the writer Thomas Merton – a man who converted to Catholicism at age 24, and become a Trappist monk two years later.
I’d read his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (this book led me to my obsession with St. Therese of Lisieux, actually), and for a long time, I’d wanted to learn more about Merton’s life and read more of his work.
I knew his reputation: wonderful writer, very spiritual, dedicated to the monastic life.
So I was absolutely FLABBERGASTED to learn that while he was a monk, he had an affair. When he was fifty-one, in the hospital for back surgery, he met Margie, a 20-something nurse who was engaged to another man. Their affair wasn’t an isolated moment; they exchanged letters (he told her that by writing CONSCIENCE MATTER on the outside, she could keep the letter private), he called her on the phone from the monastary, they met repeatedly. From what I can tell, this situation involved a fair amount of deception and Merton getting others to lie for him and drive him around. For example, Merton had appointments with a psychologist, and he arranged to use the office to meet Margie when the psychologist was out.
Here was a man who was world-famous, during his life, for his dedication to his vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, and for his devout religious beliefs. I wasn’t shocked, but I was surprised.
As so often happens, just when I was thinking about this, a relevant article floated across my vision: Jeanna Bryner’s Oddly, Hypocrisy Rooted in High Morals article on LiveScience.com about a study that showed that people who consider themselves very moral can become very bad cheats, because they believe that their high virtue exempts them from the rules that apply to ordinary folk.
In fact, those with the greatest sense of moral superiority can become the worst cheaters – if they think of themselves as very virtuous, and at the same time, can justify a dishonest behavior (cheating on a test to become a doctor to help others, say).
This may not have been operating in Merton’s case, of course, but it’s an interesting point. Maybe this also explains one of the dangers of pride. Your pride in your virtue makes you vulnerable to vice.
I’ve been thinking a lot about pride; it’s a very puzzling subject. Many of the greatest religious leaders and philosophers warn against pride, but what exactly does it mean to be prideful? And what is humility?
During the saint-making process for St. Therese, for example, the Devil’s Advocate brought up the fact that during her final illness, she made remarks like, “You know very well you are taking care of a saint, don’t you?” and she told her sisters to keep some petals she’d been holding so they could be given to people after she died.
These statements were held up as a sign of presumption – a potential disqualification. But was it? She WAS a saint. It’s like Churchill, who as a schoolboy, bragged about how important he’d be one day: “In the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.” And he did!
I want to think much more about it. For now, I’ve decided that rather than worry about acting with pride or humility, I should just try to “Be Gretchen,” which means that I must let go of arrogance and boastfulness, defensiveness and insecurity.
I always enjoy checking in with Ben Casnocha: The Blog. Ben Casnocha is a cheerful, nice guy with a good sense of humor with a wide range of interests (these qualities may sound a bit dull, but to my mind, there’s NO HIGHER praise), and it’s always refreshing to dip into his writing.
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