Saturday, April 16, 2016

Zen Catholicism

calligraphy by Thomas Merton

In some notes that Merton prepared for an exhibition of his calligraphic drawings, he writes:
“Neither rustic nor urbane, Eastern nor Western, perhaps can be called expressions of Zen Catholicism”. (from a notebook in the TMC collection)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Spiritual Life

Snapshot of Merton Hermitage
Taken by Jim Forest in November 1964

"As for spiritual life: what I object to about [the phrase] ‘the Spiritual Life’ is the fact that it is a part, a section, set off as if it were a whole. It is an aberration to set off our ‘prayer’ etc. from the rest of our existence, as if we were sometimes spiritual, sometimes not. As if we had to resign ourselves tofeeling that the unspiritual moments were a dead loss. That is not right at all, and because it is an aberration, it causes an enormous amount of useless suffering. Our ‘life in the Spirit’ is all-embracing, or should be. First it is the response of faith receiving the word of God, not only as a truth to be believed but as a gift of life to be lived in total submission and pure confidence. Then this implies fidelity and obedience, but a total fidelity and a total obedience. From the moment that I obey God in everything, where is my ‘spiritual life’? It is gone out the window, there is no spiritual life, only God and His word and my total response."

— Thomas Merton, extract from a letter to Etta Gullick, an Oxford scholar with whom he had an extensive correspondence during the last eight years of his life
The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, ed. William H. Shannon (NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985), p 357.

HT: Jim Forest

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

meeting yourself in the desert

No Better Place to Meet Yourself

--by Moussa Ag Assarid

- See more at:

Moussa Ag Assarid (MAA): I don’t know my age. I was born in the Sahara desert, with no papers. I was born in a nomadic camp of Touaregs, between Timbuktu and Gao, in the north of Mali. [...]

J: What do they do for a living?
MAA: We shepherd camels, goats, sheep, cows and donkeys in a kingdom of infinite and of silence…

J: Is the desert really so silent?
(MAA): If you are on your own in that silence you hear your heart beat. There is no better place to meet yourself.

J: What memories do you have of your childhood in the desert?
MAA: I wake up with the Sun. The goats of my father are there. They give us milk and meat, and we take them were there is water and grass. My great-grandfather did it, and my grandfather, and my father, and me. There was nothing else in the world than that, and I was very happy!

J: Really? It doesn’t sound very exciting.
MAA: It is. At the age of seven you can go alone away from the camp, and for this you are taught the important things—to smell the air, to listen, to see carefully, to orient with the Sun and the stars…and to be guided by the camel if you get lost. He will take you where there is water.

J: To know that is valuable, no doubt.
MAA: Everything is simple and profound there. There are very few things, and each one has enormous value.

J: So that world and this one are very different.
MAA: There, every little thing gives happiness. Every touch is valuable. We feel great joy just by touching each other, being together. There, nobody dreams of becoming, because everybody already is.

J: What shocked you most on your first trip to Europe?
MAA: I saw people running in the airport. In the desert you only run if a sandstorm is approaching! It scared me, of course.

J: They were going after their baggage, ha ha.
MAA: Yes, that was it. [...]

J: What do you dislike the most here?
MAA: Many people here have everything, and it is still not enough for them. They complain. In [the modern world] many people complain all the time! They chain themselves to a bank; many people are anxious to have things, to have possessions. People are in a rush. In the desert there are no traffic jams, and do you know why? Because there nobody is interested in getting ahead of other people!

J: Tell me about a moment of deep happiness for you in the desert.
MAA: It happens every day, two hours before sunset. The heat decreases, there is still no cold air, and men and animals slowly return to the camp, and their profiles are painted against a sky that is pink, blue, red, yellow, green.

J: That sounds fascinating.
MAA: It’s a magical moment… We all get into the tents and we boil tea. Sitting in silence we listen to the sound of the boiling water… We all are immersed in calmness: with the heartbeats tuned to the rhythm of the boiling water, potta potta potta…

J: How peaceful.
MAA: Yes…here you have watches; there, we have time.

Moussa Ag Assarid is the oldest of thirteen children in a nomadic Touareg family. Born in northern Mali in 1975, he moved to France in 1999 to study Management at the University of Montpellier. The above is excerpted from an interview with VĂ­ctor Amela.
- See more at:

Thursday, December 10, 2015

By my monastic life and vows I am saying No to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace.

Today is the 47th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton. The following text is extracted from his preface to the Japanese edition of “The Seven Storey Mountain”:

I have learned ... to look back into the world with greater compassion, seeing those in it not as alien to myself, not as peculiar and deluded strangers, but as identified with myself. In freeing myself from their delusions and preoccupations I have identified myself, nonetheless, with their struggles and their blind, desperate hope of happiness.

But precisely because I am identified with them, I must refuse all the more definitively to make their delusions my own. I must refuse their ideology of matter, power, quantity, movement, activism and force. I reject this because I see it to be the source and expression of the spiritual hell which man has made of his world: the hell which has burst into flame in two total wars of incredible horror, the hell of spiritual emptiness and sub-human fury which has resulted in crimes like Auschwitz or Hiroshima. This I can and must reject with all the power of my being. This all sane men seek to reject. But the question is: how can one sincerely reject the effect if he continues to embrace the cause?....

The monastery is not an “escape from the world.” On the contrary, by being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world. To adopt a life that is essentially non-assertive, nonviolent, a life of humility and peace is in itself a statement of one’s position. But each one in such a life can, by the personal modality of his decision, give his whole life a special orientation. It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole race of man and the world with him. By my monastic life and vows I am saying No to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction.

— Thomas Merton
who died on the 10th of December 1968 while taking part in a conference of Benedictine and Trappist monks
(“Honorable Reader”: Reflections on My Work, ed. Robert Daggy; NY: Crossroad, 1986, p 63-67)

[HT: Jim Forest]

Monday, November 30, 2015

100th Birthday of Robert Lax

Today is the 100th birthday of Robert Lax. I've archived many of Lax's works on this site (see the label LAX), but the one I choose today is from S.T. Georgiou's collection, "In the Beginning Was Love".

the important thing for a drummer or dancer, for example (singer too), is to get to the very center of the rhythm, center of the beat << the nerve >>
to find that first: to start from it as a base, and from it all other things, even very elaborate things, develop.
the captains i like, & the people in general are those who seem to have found that center; it is not that they are either << good >> or << bad >> it is rather that they are fully alive, fully themselves, & that they, again the << best >> of them, seem to have gone through a baptism (of not just water: of fire as well) from which there is no turning back.
Robert Lax, Journal C, p. 38
from S.T. Georgiou's book, "In the Beginning was Love - Contemplative Words of Robert Lax”, #34 pp. 61-62
Here is a short synopsis of Lax's life from a brochure at the lax archives at St. Bonaventure University:
Robert Lax
a lax life

Robert Lax was born in Olean, New York on November 30, 1915. The family moved between Olean and Long Island. The environs of New York City were as much home to the young Robert Lax as was the small town of Olean in upstate New York. Lax attended Columbia University in the 1930s, studying under the likes of Mark Van Doren. At Columbia Lax became fast friends with Thomas Merton, Ad Reinhardt and Ed Rice.

After college Lax worked in a variety of jobs, as a tutor, writing advertising copy, teaching college English and as an editor and writer. He worked on the editorial staff of The New Yorker, was reviewer for Time, a freelancer for Parade, and even worked in the script department of Samuel Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood. Later he was an editor for the short-lived Parisian literary journal New Story, a co-founder and editor of the Catholic culture magazine Jubilee, and the founder / publisher of the poetry broadside Pax.

Although Lax had published many poems in various magazines and journals it was not until he met the graphic artist Emil Antonucci in the 1950’s that his publishing career began to take shape. Antonucci started to publish materials by Lax in small press editions under the imprint of the Hand Press and later Journeyman Books. The most important of these early publications was Circus of the Sun (1959), a cycle of poems about Lax’s travels with the Christiani Family Circus through western Canada in 1949. Another milestone was the publication of New Poems (1962) which became somewhat of a manifesto of Lax’s simplified, pared down poetic line. Other important publications of this time were “sea & sky” (1965) and “black & white” (1966) both appearing in Lugano Review. In the mid 1960’s Lax had gone to live on the Greek island of Kalymnos & later Patmos where he was to remain for 35 years. 

Because of the visual nature of his poetry Lax came to be published more and more in small press editions by graphic artists. In the 1970’s he met the Swiss photographer Bernhard Moosbrugger. Moosbrugger founded Pendo Verlag in Zurich for the purpose of publishing Lax’s writing. These Pendo volumes were issued in English with a German translation on the facing page, opening Lax’s work up to a whole new audience.

A major retrospective of Lax materials was mounted at the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart in 1985. In 1987 Lax began an archive at St. Bonaventure University. In 1990 he became the University’s first Reginald A. Lenna Visiting Professor, and during a special convocation was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University. Lax next returned to the United States in the fall of 2000. He died on September 26 of that years in his family home in Olean. 

The bibliography of Lax’s published writings, and works based on this writings, runs to well over 500 items ranging from single poems, to pamphlets, to books, and includes graphic art, film, video, photography and performance art. He was as well known in art circles as he was in literary ones, and perhaps at time better known in Europe than he was in America.

Lax was brought up Jewish but was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as a young man. Lax saw no great disparity between these traditions, but embraced each of them in their turn. Thomas Merton wrote early on of this friend, “the secret of his constant solidity I think has always been a kind of natural instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God.

[from a brochure at the lax archives, Friedsom Memorial Library, St. Bonaventure University ]

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

happy 100th birthday matthew kelty

Today would've been Matthew Kelty's 100th birthday. He was one of the wisest persons I've had the honor to meet. As this 90 second clip reveals he was also quite a character. Happy birthday Matthew.
Posted by Morgan Atkinson on Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015

the real self

"At the heart of Merton’s spirituality is his distinction between our real and false selves. Our false selves are the identities we cultivate in order to function in society with pride and self-possession; our real selves are a deep religious mystery, known entirely only to God. The world cultivates the false self, ignores the real one, and therein lies the great irony of human existence: the more we make of ourselves, the less we actually exist."
— Robert Inchausti

Monday, November 2, 2015

Monastero di Bose

“There must be monasticism in the twenty-first century!” So said a friend not long ago. Both his implicit protest and his conviction make sense. The landscape of the spirit in the West would be torn and lacking if the monastic way vanished in our time. Even for those who don’t share the same faith, it is a sign—of concentrated intention, deliberate simplicity, ancient truth, refinement of feeling, unconditional willingness to live together. Every real monastery is an ascent. “Who are you?” they ask. And what do we wish? The Bible is a book of signs, from the rainbow above the Ark to the “signs and wonders” of The Acts of the Apostles. We can’t seem to do without signs to orient our lives: landmarks in the air. The monastic community of Bose, terrestrially speaking not quite a two-hour drive toward the mountains from both Turin and Milan, knew from its beginnings fifty years ago that it too must be a sign. “Try … to make the community a sign,” reads the Rule of Bose, its foundation document. “Keep watch over its authenticity, and do not let it become a dull, colorless institution.”

- From an article in Parabola magazine about the Monastero di Bose
 by Roger Lipsey

Friday, October 16, 2015

An Artist's Life of Humility, Simplicity and Poverty

Lax on the overgrown grounds of L'Eau Vive, near Paris where he lived in the 1950s.
Courtesy of the Robert Lax Literary Trust, from the Robert Lax Collection at Columbia University

Michael N. McGregor's book, Pure Act - the Uncommon life of Robert Lax, is good.

I am a long time reader of American poet, Robert Lax, I loved him from the first poem that I read. Not just his writing, but him, even though I knew very little about his life.

Lax is not just a person, but also a Way. His life is Prayer. Readers of Lax somehow know that what Lax is doing with his life is not distinct from his art. As his writings become more and more sparse we sense that his life is also becoming more pure. Less distracted. More honest. More spontaneous and authentic.

The little that we know about Lax's life itself we gather from his journals or what other people say about him. We know that he was odd, different, but in a way that was special and not weird. People liked Lax and liked to be around him. Mothers left their children with him.

McGregor explores this oddness and gives us many details to consider and mull over. We get the inner story as well as the outer one. We can no longer idealize Lax as Lax, himself, idealized the Greek people on the islands he called home. Lax becomes a human being and his world become much more like our own flawed and mysterious one. We see the way he struggles with the cold, with finding a place to live, with finding money.

Through Pure Act we can watch Lax as he finds his way. His journal is his journey. He pays attention. Lax is always listening, always watching, waiting, and reaches deep places of awareness. His writing becomes those precisely chosen notes that can awaken us as well.

Thank you, Michael McGregor, for taking the time to write this book so well.