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June 17, 2024

The New Man: Book Review

By Bernie Pilarski

In the image to the right, look at the topmost edge of the figure. Is it the edge that is in front closest to you, or is it the edge that is to the rear of the figure, furthest from you?

The answer is that it can seem to be either. It is not my experience that it can appear to be both at the same time, and when my perception makes that shift from seeing it one way to the other, it requires a bit of effort on my part to shift my perception back.

This is a harmless game of sorts that illustrates how the brain works to process information it receives from the senses. We do this kind of interpretation of information at quite a few levels. We piece together bits of data from this and from that, and quite frequently the process ends in those "Aha" moments, moments of clarity when things make sense. Or at least you hope they do. What if we are fooled? And what if the matter at hand is not a meaningless puzzle, but a matter of life or death? Thomas Merton in his book The New Man suggests that this is in fact what went on with Adam in the Garden of Eden.

Adam's fall was therefore the willful acceptance of unreality, the consent to receive and even prefer a lie to the truth about himself and about his relationship to God. This lie robbed him of the innocence by which he saw nothing but good in himself, in things, and in God and endowed him with the power to know evil, not only speculatively but by experience. The experience of falsity destroyed in him the instinctive taste for spiritual truth. Illusion entered in to spoil the existential flow of communication between his soul and God. Parrhesia [intimacy with God] was at an end not because God no longer consented to speak with Adam, but because Adam, stripped of his sincerity, ashamed to be what in fact he was, determined to fly from God and from reality, which he could no longer face without a disguise. - The New Man, No. 49 -

With surgically precise prose, Thomas Merton presents the story of Mankind's relationship with God, from Creation in Paradise, through the Fall, and into the present where we struggle to understand how we fit into the world. The New Man is an orderly, rational and coherent account of Christian faith and beliefs, but it is not a dry academic tome, nor is it an esoteric catechism. It is a very personal record of Merton's contemplative experience.

"Contemplation is at once the existential appreciation of our own 'nothingness,' and of the divine reality perceived by ineffable spiritual contact with the depths of our own being. Contemplation is the sudden intuitive penetration of what really IS. It is the unexpected leap of the spirit of man into the existential luminosity of Reality Itself, not merely by the metaphysical intuition of being, but the transcendent fulfillment of an existential communion with Him Who Is. - The New Man, No. 5 -

First published in 1961, The New Man is still available in bookstores and is likely to remain in print for decades to come because it is a truly remarkable literary achievement. There are no wasted or superfluous words in this book. Merton methodically, clearly, inexorably presents a view of the world in which the defining element is man's relationship with God. As with the image above, Merton is able to present his view with such clarity that your perception of reality can at least momentarily be changed into his perception.

You of course are free to believe that what Merton presents is an illusion, and indeed acceptance of Merton's point of view requires that one would have to accept that there is a God, but there are lessons to be learned from Merton the writer as well. He chooses his words carefully, presents his idea well, and uses imagery that connects with the human condition. In describing the relationship of the world to God, Merton suggests that all things praise God by their very existence, and that God is pleased with His creation. Yet, "it is not because they praised Him that He looked at them: they praise Him because they were seen by Him."

Think for a moment about an encounter with a truly famous person. We can, for instance, go to a live performance of our favorite entertainer, and the fact we are in their presence makes it a vastly different experience from listening to a recording, but if that star were to then single us out during the performance, to look at us directly and acknowledge our existence, it would be an exhilarating, unforgettable experience, perhaps a defining moment for us. If there is was a God, and if God took notice of us, it would be a life-changing moment.

Good writing. Effective writing. Writing that allows the reader to connect with what the author intended. Skillful words coupled with accessible ideas. That's the formula that has kept Shakespeare on the shelves for nearly 500 years, and it is why Thomas Merton continues to sell books fifty years after his death.

"Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for," Socrates said. The New Man is a book that has the potential to improve you, both as a writer and a person.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-02-27
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