The sleeper (pun intended) hit of a rather weak summer for movies has been the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle Inception
. One reason that it has done so well is that many people have been returning for a second or third viewing, most likely so that they can get some inkling of what’s going on. The film is, to say the least, confusing. It has to do with a team, led by DiCaprio’s character, Cobb, who specialize in the invasion of people’s dreams so as to extract hidden information from their unconscious minds. As the movie opens, a wealthy client approaches Cobb with the novel request that instead of extracting an idea, he implant one in the mind of one of the client’s business rivals: hence the “inception” of the title. If I were to rehearse the details of the plot, we’d be here all day; suffice it to say that in order to pull off this implantation, without the subject’s being aware of the ruse, Cobb has to open up an entire series of dream worlds: dreams within dreams within dreams. As the film unfolds, the characters move back and forth between these universes and it’s never entirely clear to the viewer (at least to this viewer) precisely where they are and, to riff on Aretha Franklin, “who’s dreamin’ who.”
Now what struck me about Inception
was not so much its special effects or twisty plot, but its relentless secularism. As the characters plumb the depths of their own and one another’s psyches, as they delve into the furthest reaches of who they are and what motivates them, neither God nor salvation, nor even psychological growth ever even come up for consideration. The entire purpose of the Inception team is to make money by helping their clients uncover or implant some practically useful bit of information. And this is such a let-down, precisely because the deep exploration of the self has long been appreciated, both in the eastern and western spiritual traditions, as a privileged means of encountering God.
In his magnificent Mind’s Road to God
, St. Bonaventure outlined a spiritual program which involved finding God in the order, harmony, and beauty of the outside world and then even more dramatically in the interiority of the soul. In this, he was mimicking his master St. Augustine who gave us, in his Confessions
, a masterpiece of spiritually informed introspection. By “interrogating himself,” Augustine discovered the God who is relentlessly at work within his thoughts, feelings, and motivations. In the sixteenth century, St. Teresa of Avila composed her great text entitled The Interior Castle
in which she laid out an itinerary for journeying into the God who is found at the depth of the soul.
One of the most powerful and moving texts in this tradition comes from the pen of the American spiritual master Thomas Merton. Having spent his youth in pursuit of sensual pleasure and literary fame, Merton, in 1941, entered the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsameni outside of Bardstown, Kentucky. There he entered deeply into what the monastic tradition calls “the interior life.” In 1952, after eleven years as a monk, Merton wrote a text that Jacques Maritain referred to as the greatest piece of spiritual writing in the twentieth century. It is called “Fire Watch
” because it deals with a practical task that the monks carried out on a rotating basis, namely, checking the monastery for fires. Merton puts on a pair of sneakers (so he won’t wake his sleeping confreres) and takes a flashlight and commences his careful examination of the abbey. He begins on the basement level, with its dirt floors and exposed wiring. He then moves through the laundry room and the humid kitchen. He shines his light briefly into the dormitory where his brothers are dreaming and then examines the library with its thousands of volumes. Next, he illumines the monastery church, which smells of incense and candle wax and seems still to echo the chant of the monks. Finally, he climbs the steep and dangerous stairs of the bell tower and pushes his way through a trap door. Crouching down at the tip top of the monastic complex, he gazes at the “frozen stars” and hears the thrum of the insects and frogs.
What I hope is clear is that this is much more than a vivid description of a routine task. Merton takes his night journey through the monastery as a symbol for the inner examination of his own soul. The lower reaches of the abbey are evocative of Merton’s largely unconscious instinctual life; the kitchen speaks of his sensual appetites; his sleeping brothers symbolize his dream life; the library is his mind; the church is his spiritual longing, and the bell tower is that part of him that aspires to the heights of God. All the while, he shines his flashlight into these places, bringing to them, as it were, the light of Christ, and seeking in them knowledge and peace. Toward the end of his life, Merton was asked how best to find God, and he said simply, “look within.”
How important, how vital it is to go deep down. But one should do so, not in the spirit of a mercenary but in the attitude of a spiritual adventurer.
Father Robert Barron is the Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.