The Direction of Souls
Thomas Merton and Spiritual Aspiration
Reflecting on the path that would culminate in his monastic vows still many years in the future, Thomas Merton wrote: “The bias which my will was to acquire from the circumstances of all its acts would eventually be the direction of my whole being, towards happiness or misery, life or death, heaven or hell.”
Commenting on the word bias, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary trace it to Old Provençal for “against the grain.” They add, “it seems to have entered English via the game of bowls, where it referred to balls made with a greater weight on one side.” A ball used in the game of bowls, if weighted unevenly, will tend toward that direction to which its center of gravity steers it.
The significance of Merton’s comment is in his use of this word bias, for which we generally tend not to take responsibility. Yet he sees his bias—his disposition or tendency—as one that is a growing, cumulative product of all the acts he has performed. “All” his acts, that weight his “whole being” in a particular direction. A direction that is, as the OED reminds us, against the grain.
The puzzle of free will continues to haunt philosophy and theology alike. “The most contentious problem in metaphysics,” David Hume called it. Augustine and his successors insisted that we can act freely according to our will, but we are not free to choose our will. The atheist Schopenhauer agreed: “we cannot will to will.” In other words, the argument goes, I can give money to the poor if there is something in my nature that leads me to do so: compassion (or the anticipated celebration by others for one’s good deed, or a nagging sense of moral responsibility). But I cannot just will myself to be compassionate. We have all experienced the pain of self-recognition, of realizing our own deficiencies in this regard. We have all come up against our incapacity to will and yearn, to desire and love, what and as we should. Our hearts are not in perfect alignment with God’s, and we cannot simply and suddenly will ourselves to have a holier set of desires and yearnings.
And yet, upon reflection, most of us will realize that we can respond to our own predispositions in different ways. We can reflect on our inclinations, and we can embrace them, or we can resist them. We can aspire to a different, more morally evolved self. This notion of “aspiring” may be the key to resolving the paradox of a freedom that is not limitless, and the moral responsibility we all intuit that we possess. The philosopher Agnes Callard writes that “Aspiration . . . is the distinctive form of agency directed at the acquisition of value.”
If we see that “acquisition of value” as the process of learning to love better and higher things, aligning our heart with God’s, reshaping our nature in holier ways, then her point acquires profound religious significance. This project, she writes, is life-long. “The aspirant must take her bearings from the self she doesn’t yet have.” We cannot suddenly “will to will” differently, but we can make such transformation a deliberate process. We can do so believing—and experiencing—the truth that, as Callard writes, “one’s agency runs all the way through to the endpoint. The nature of that agency . . . is one of learning: coming to acquire the value means coming to see the world in a new way.” Not, she continues, “by way of detached, deliberative distance but rather by immersing herself in the point of view she seeks to acquire.”
This takes us back to Thomas Merton. A million minute actions over which we do have dominion in each passing moment shape the character that will possess us tomorrow. We are always shifting our center of gravity, often in ways too imperceptible to notice. I have found inspiration in Kierkegaard’s insight about the nature of that love which defined Christ—and what is at stake in a “passing moment.” “There was no moment, not a single one in his life, when love in him was merely the inactivity of feeling, which hunts for words while it lets time slip by.”