Learning from Merton’s early experiences: ‘the horrible humility of hell’
The description of Merton’s realisation that he might not be able to become a Franciscan and his subsequent thinking is powerful because it so well illustrates those hot and cold moments when one realises who one is in the light of some situation or how people have ‘wrongly’ assumed how one is from an immediate impression. Merton calls such self-knowledge ‘anguish’. He links it to a type of humility in hell – which is not the humility of the saints that leads to peace but is rather a ‘false humility of hell which is an unending burning shame.’ It is part of self-love because it is our pride based on how we see ourselves that is hurt and it is this pride that has to be burned away by God. This is of course Merton at his most zealous, unsubtle and unforgiving:
‘It is the proud that have to be burned and devoured by the horrible humility of hell … But as long as we are in this life, even that burning anguish can be turned into a grace, and should be a cause of joy.’
There is something familiar to be taken from this dismay as we read how Merton comes to see that when he was meeting the various monks none of them knew ‘who I really was’.
‘They knew nothing about my past. They did not know how I had lived before I entered the Church. They had simply accepted me because I was superficially presentable, I had a fairly open sort of face and seemed to be sincere and to have an ordinary amount of sense and good will.’
Merton describes his agitation whilst waiting for the decision to be made and then experiencing his anguish and restlessness. He prayed to God for God’s will to be done.
‘My own mind was full of strange, exaggerated ideas. I was in a kind of nightmare. I could not see anything straight.’
After hearing that he was being turned away Merton goes to confession – which again because he is in deep distress goes badly wrong.
‘The priest was in no mood to stand for any nonsense, and I myself was confused and miserable, and couldn’t explain myself properly, and so he got my story all mixed up…The whole thing was so hopeless that finally in spite of myself, I began to choke and sob and I couldn’t talk any more. So the priest, probably judging that I was some emotional and unstable and stupid character, began to tell me in very strong terms that I certainly did not belong in the monastery, still less the priesthood and, in fact, gave me to understand that I was simply wasting his time and insulting the Sacrament of Penance by indulging my self-pity in his confessional.’