Thomas Merton and Why I Quit Facebook
About five years ago, I sat in a coffee shop reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. During the preceding weeks and months, I considered deleting my Facebook account on several occasions but never found the courage to follow through on my thoughts. I graduated from college in 2005. Somewhere around the second semester of my junior year, Facebook made its first appearance on my college campus. At that time, only users with a valid education email could create a Facebook account. As one of the earliest adopters of Facebook, the social media website became a major part of my life for around a decade. I used Facebook to keep in contact with former classmates, friends who lived in other towns, and extended family members. Then, I read a few lines from Merton’s book, and they spoke so immediately to me that I went home and promptly deleted my Facebook account.
What is Contemplation?
At the beginning of New Seeds, Merton answers the question, “What is contemplation?” He defines it variously as “spiritual wonder,” “spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life,” and “a vivid realization” that our life is given to us by our Creator (1). While such a definition sounds philosophical and theological, the reality of contemplation is personal and experiential, not intellectual. Merton makes this clear, saying that contemplation goes “beyond philosophy, beyond speculative theology” (2). In many ways, the goal of theology is to speak accurately and appropriately about the nature of God. The goal of contemplation, by contrast, is to know and be known by God. Merton says that “contemplation reaches out to the knowledge and even to the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible God” (2).
As the title of the book indicates, Merton argues that “every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul” (14). As with Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mt 13), so many of these seeds never grow or flourish. However, in a few cases, the seeds of spirituality take root and grow into a life of contemplation and union with God.
Merton goes on in the book to discuss how one can cultivate the intentional spiritual practice of contemplation. One chapter argues that all things are holy when they are used for God. Another chapter discusses the appropriate way to practice solitude. Towards the latter half of the book, Merton covers topics like detachment and mental prayer.
Thomas Merton and Facebook
As I mentioned above, I read Merton’s New Seeds at a point in my life where I was thinking about how to be more intentional in my spiritual life and was considering disconnecting from Facebook. In the middle of that journey, I read the following passage:
“Do everything you can to avoid the noise and the business of men. Keep as far away as you can from the places where they gather to cheat and insult one another, to exploit one another, to laugh at one another, or to mock one another with their false gestures of friendship. Be glad if you can keep beyond the reach of their radios. Do not bother with their unearthly songs. Do not read their advertisements” (84).
It is hard to say exactly what Merton would think about Facebook and other social media platforms, but I submit that Merton would find them antithetical to a contemplative life. The news feed is a constant barrage of noise. The comments section often becomes a battleground for political ideologies and religious beliefs. News stories with sensational headlines and questionable credibility turn into memes. Friends who aren’t particularly close connections re-emerge each year to pass along heartfelt birthday wishes.
While social media certainly has the capacity to form meaningful human connections and be a positive force in society, these forums are often filled with the noise, insults, advertisements, and false gestures of friendship that Merton urges us to avoid. For me, at that moment in time, Merton’s words spoke directly to my inner dilemma regarding Facebook. Later that day I deleted my account.
The Challenge of Living the Contemplative Life
Before I misrepresent myself as an ascetic and mystic, I want to say one last important thing. Deleting my Facebook account has not been some kind of magical silver bullet. In spirituality, there are no magic silver bullets. Yes, it eliminated one particular form of noise from my life, but the “noise and business of men” did not entirely vanish. Truthfully, these days I find myself scrolling through sports scores or music reviews as a replacement to scrolling through Facebook status updates. I removed one form of noise and two others took the place.
Even though removing myself from Facebook did not automatically make me more contemplative and in tune with God’s presence in my life, there is still some value in making intentional choices to remove distractions from our daily lives. Merton says, “You will never find interior solitude unless you make some conscious effort to deliver yourself from the desires and the cares and the attachments of an existence in time and in the world” (84). As long as we live in this earthly world, there will be many things vying for our attention, love, and devotion. To help us live with a more “vivid realization” of our existence in God, it can be good to intentionally let go of things in this life. While this does not necessarily make us more contemplative, it plants the seeds that can eventually grow into a life where we experience more and more “spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life.”
Featured image of the Abbey of Gethsemani from Flickr user Jim Forest. Used under creative commons license.