IVP - Strangely Dim - Virtual Contemplatives amid Structural Agnosticism, or Something Like That

October 17, 2007

Virtual Contemplatives amid Structural Agnosticism, or Something Like That

The book I'm writing has me reading a lot of stuff by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk of the mid-twentieth century. That sounds so exotic that you'd never believe he lived in Kentucky, but there you go. (All respect to Kentucky, of course.)

Where was I? Oh yes, Merton. Though he eventually landed in Kentucky, his life took him all over the world, even from his early youth. After his mother's death, for example, his father took him to France to build a home and paint the days away. They found themselves in the rustic, pungent bourg of St. Antonin. "And . . . the center of it all was the church."

The town was set in a valley and structured so that a cathedral sat in its middle. All other structures, both professional and domestic, and even the view from the hills all around the town, looked toward the church. As if that weren't enough, every so often someone at the church would ring a bell, reminding everyone who couldn't not see it that it was still there, marking the town's time, centering the town's universe.

Oh, what a thing it is to live in a place that is so constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative! Where all day long your eyes must turn, again and again, to the House that hides the Sacramental Christ!

A virtual contemplative in a pre-Internet Trappist monastery in Kentucky, reflecting on his childhood experience in rural France. The mind boggles.

Contrast Merton's experience in a rural throwback to medieval France to the contemporary experience of a post-industrial post-Christendom. There's a sense in which we can never recover that medieval centrality of faith: our cities are not built around churches anymore. While sacred spaces in the United States still don't have to pay real estate taxes, neither do they get a pass from local zoning boards, nor do they get the pick of the litter when it comes to prime properties.

Of course, part of the reason for that is that there are so darn many churches gobbling up real estate. The church (in the more abstract sense) is itself decentralized, in a whole variety of ways. The net effect for the church is a shift from the center of a community's culture to some peripheral other point--or points, for that matter. A friend of mine (according to the Facebook understanding of friendship) lists his "religious views" as "I can see 4 churches from my window." Har har.

Nevertheless, a structural reminder of Christ's proper place at the center of the universe has its appeal. I hear from a lot of people that they'd like the future church to link back to the ancient church, and there are ways, I'm sure, of doing that in personal and even communal ways. Merton's way of framing it goes even further, daring to suggest that the whole community--in the church or out of it--benefits from an explicit reminder that its center is not the individual or the family or channels of commerce or politics, but a God who rightly orders the universe he has made.

I'm curious how people who fancy themselves virtual contemplatives these days recover this luxury of having their eyes turned, again and again, in spite of themselves, toward Christ at the center of creation.

Seriously, I'm curious. Please post your suggestions.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at October 17, 2007 11:47 AM Bookmark and Share


The living-with-church-bells thing (and the "I can see 4 churches from my window" thing) reminds me of a recent episode of The Sarah Silverman Program, where bells wake her up and she storms into the middle of a church service in her PJs to demand that they cut it out (This, in turn, reminds me of an episode of The Young Ones in which Vivian is similarly awakened after a night of heavy drinking, pushes his head out the window and yells, "Shut! Up! You! Bastards!" (both of which things have severely hampered the ability of church bells to remind me of Merton's "virtual contemplative" in any meaningful way.)))

Nevertheless, I am forced to remember the church calendar and weekly scripture readings in a more modern sense of the word "virtually" every week as I sit down in front of my computer to typeset my church's bulletin. Since the entire service is contained in said bulletin, from scripture readings to worship songs, it can be like participating in a midweek service, as the songs from the emailed Word file start singing themselves in my head, and I give at least a cursory glance to the lessons as I copy and paste them from the Liturgical calendar website into the InDesign file. I'm trying to discipline myself to read them all devotionally, but it's difficult because so often I'm trying to finish up quickly so that I can turn on the TV and watch The Sarah Silverman Program. Still, it definitely qualifies as an "in spite of myself" turning of my eyes, and I heartily recommend it.

Comment by: Mark Eddy Smith at October 17, 2007 6:37 PM

Now I feel awkward . . .

Comment by: Mark Eddy Smith at October 21, 2007 11:30 PM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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