Engaging the World with Merton (Basil Pennington)

A favourite book is Basil Pennington’s Engaging the World with Merton: on retreat in Tom’s hermitage, first published in 1988. This passage is an admonishment to me:

Of course, we can’t all have a carefree life. But we can at least move in that direction. We fill our lives with so many unnecessary cares-even we monks. When the monks here were changing over to private cells, Tom [Merton] urged them to build them as places of prayer and to think of them that way and not as places to establish a private kingdom of which they would have all the care. How much we all tend to clutter our lives with things and projects we don’t really need, and then we have to take care of them. [. . .]

I look at the clutter of my own life. That is really what is at issue. I have to learn to say “no” to the little things that clutter: the book reviews and prefaces, the talks to students and ladies’ guilds. The gardening is OK; I need the fresh air and exercise. But I have to avoid other projects. If I can get a handle on the clutter and the correspondence, my life could be a bit more free. Still, something more radical than that is perhaps needed, at least for a while. As Tom [Merton] says in his Thoughts in Solitude, to be a person implies freedom and responsibility. Both of these call for a certain interior solitude. But a cluttered or too-full life-full of activities and concerns leaves little interior-solitude. Most people are, in fact, afraid of facing their own interior solitude. They flee from it, deliberately filling their lives with people, if they can, and with things. And in so doing they lose their freedom and become irresponsible not responsible to many of the basic human needs around them and even in their own lives. They become addictively dependent on their chosen clutter. I am told that the average American allows television to fill a quarter of his time. What an investment of life! One of the reasons Tom was able to accomplish so much was that he was free from television and spectator sports. [I’m not guilty of this problem!] He preferred to play life’s game rather than watch others play it. He didn’t watch the Vietnam War or the race riots on TV. He heard about them, prayed, and acted, doing all he could to bring healing and peace. An uncluttered life gives a lot more freedom to be a responsive person.
– M Basil Pennington OCSO. Engaging the World with Merton, (Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete, 2005) pp. 103-4.