Monday, January 22, 2007

Merton on humility against despair

      Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.
      In every man there is hidden some root of despair because in every man there is pride that vegetates and springs weeds and rank flowers of self-pity as soon as our own resources fail us. But because our own resources inevitably fail us, we are all more or less subject to discouragement and to despair.
      Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God and thereby acknowledge that He is above us and that we are not capable of fulfilling our destiny by ourselves.
      But a man who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.

- Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, 108.

8 comments:

Christopher said...

Apologies for the long quote, but I think it is relevant to Merton's point.

But the more consciousness there is in such a sufferer who wants in despair to be himself, the more the despair intensifies and becomes the demonic...If it should now happen that God in heaven and all the angels were to offer to help him to be rid of this torment - no he does not want that...he prefers to rage against everything and be the one whom the whole world, all existence, has wronged, the one for whom it is especially important to ensure that he has his agony on hand, so that no one will take it from him...

Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death

Joanna said...

I think Merton is absolutely right.

I have through experience known that it is also sad that despair is often mixed with depression (which I don't think is necessarily the sufferers fault), but I think he's right that despair is the ultimate self-love. When you are that sad, you've no time to spare for the sadness of anyone else...

Ron said...

Thank you for that pertinent quote, Byron.

Am I right to presume that the word "capable" in the 3rd last line should be "incapable"?

Halden said...

Keep these Merton quotes coming, Byron. As soon as I saw the one on sin, I went out and bought that book. This is really great stuff, and very pertinent to the "issues" that so many of us share.

byron said...

Ron - you're absolutely right. Mistake corrected. There should have been a 'not'. Thanks.

Joanna - Yes, a good point. Sometimes depression can itself become a weapon with which the depressed can beat themselves up. This is part of the tragedy of the condition: that you lose the ability to escape it on your own.

Christopher - thanks, very relevant. And nice to finally have a pic of you!

byron said...

Halden - glad that they've been stimulating - I'm almost finished the book. I've been reading a chapter (which are quite short) each morning as I walk up to radiotherapy and thinking about it as I lie catching my rays each morning. Some are better than others.

charlie said...

From experience or at least as a possibility despair is comprehensible to all people. But how does it fit into a Christian world-understanding? Lots of questions in my brain, I'll try a few with some thoughts:

Merton identified despair as the absolute extreme of self-love, and states that the humble person cannot despair. But to me this suggests humility as a comfortable cul-de-sac. Isn't humility (faith?) more like a tight-rope walk? On the one side is self-love (to give only to yourself), on the other is to give-up: to despair of giving to (or receiving from?) anyone, yourself, others, God.

In fact doesn't the possibility of despair lie right in the middle of humility. In part, humility is acknowledging your own weakness. As is despair. ?

Another way to ask the question: what is the opposite of despair? The thesaurus had the unhelpful "cheer, happiness, and joy" but also the promising "hope" and "hopefulness".

I suspect discussion of despair holds out something beautiful for the depressed or despairing person: it teaches what faith is. Because there's a lot more in common between faith and despair than we often admit (is there?).

Hrm, thinking, this may be why Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death (all about despair) is the only place where I remember strong and direct definitions of faith in his writing:
"The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.
... This formula in turn, as has been frequently pointed out, is the definition of faith." (But what does it mean?)

(Thanks for the Sickness Unto Death quote Christopher - I had just reached for my own copy as I clicked the read comments link of this post!)

byron said...

charlie - great thoughts. Merton does go on the in the rest of the chapter to discuss the alternatives and traps of humility. I do not think that in the end he is guilty of treating it as a comfortable cul-de-sac. Though I like your linking of humility to despair: the difference (and this is the crucial thing for Merton) is the role of God. When despairing of the self, one either rests there in despair or finds hope in God instead. Such hope can only be born in self-despair that we call humility, but without such hope, is simply despair. Thus perhaps self-despair + God-hope = humility.