Sometimes it’s very necessary to remind myself that conflicting statements or viewpoints among my favorite spiritual writers reflect not the universal relationship in which our being subsists with Ultimate Reality but with a particular and private take on that relationship which is trying to be conveyed in words that are inadequate. This may create a dilemma.
Meister Eckhart has said that the greatest of all virtues is detachment, while Thomas Merton has said the mystical influx of the spirit [in us] is meant to affect not just us but others. What example might be given, in terms of these two opinions, of the efficacy of life? I mean, if we look to Eckhart it would seem that the focal point of a fruitful spiritual life is a reaching toward an indifference to everything but God. What might be extrapolated from this is that the ideal and fullest form of life would be eremitic. Yet the voice of Merton (himself so desirous of the eremitic life) seems to say that the ideal life is that of a channel to others for God’s graces, which, as a detached hermit, would seem to counter this idea.
Certainly Eckhart never read Merton, but I suspect Merton did read Eckhart, and I don’t think he’d dispute his statement out of hand. Merton maintained a seemingly minimal detachment of things leaving the impression that something of the goodness and love of God could be found in almost everything. I may be wrong but I get the feeling that Merton wanted to be a hermit not so much to be detached as to cultivate the best atmosphere for prayer and writing. There are those for whom the efficacy of life is being a “transmitter” like Merton; and there are those for whom it is like being a “receiver” in the detached mode Eckhart is talking about. It is not that there is no crossover. The spiritually richest may be those who realize the importance of detachment without idolizing it.