Sunday, December 31, 2006

not thoughts, but hours of silence

"Emblem", 1964, brush drawing by Thomas Merton

December 10, 1960. "It is not thoughts that matter, but hours of silence and the precious dimension of existence which is otherwise completely unknown, certainly unknown when on thinks, or mentally speaks ... or even writes. It must simply be seen, and is not seen until one has been sitting still, alone, in its own utter obviousness." (Turning Toward the World, p. 73)

"The peculiar quality of Chinese and Japanese art that is influenced by Zen is that it is able to suggest what cannot be said, and by using a bare minimum of form, to awaken us to the formless. Zen painting tells us just enough to alert us to what is NOT and is nevertheless "right there." Zen calligraphy, by its peculiar suppleness, dynamism, abandon, contempt for "prettiness" and for formal "style," reveals to us something of the freedom which is not transcendent in some abstract and intellectual sense, but which employs a minimum of form without being attached to it, and is therefore free from it." (Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 6)

zen catholicism

One cannot understand Merton’s art or his writings on contemplation without an appreciation and openness to Zen. Zen is fundamental.

Zen was Merton’s “touchstone of truth, a code for consciousness, a description of the depths of reality and human nature, a way of being with Nature, a new kind of wit and humor, a finger pointing not just at the moon, but at a universe of meaning …” (The Art of Thomas Merton, by Roger Lipsey, p.10)

Merton moved freely and with ease between Zen and Catholicism.

He was absorbed in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), early Christian refugees from the confusions and politics of religion. Their wisdom and approach to life was immensely attractive to Merton, and he reached back to ancient sources to explore the essence of this desert spirituality.

Not to run from one thought to the next, says Theophane the Recluse, but to give each one time to settle in the heart.

Attention. Concentration of the spirit in the heart.

Vigilance. Concentration of the will in the heart.

Sobriety. Concentration of feeling in the heart.

(The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 97, Note: Theophane the Recluse was a nineteenth-century monastic pioneer in gathering and translating into contemporary language the traditions of the Desert Fathers.)

In Zen, Merton discovered what, in his view, had been lost from Christianity. The spirituality of the Desert Fathers still lived in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. Zen became a major force in Merton’s life and in his quest to recover the fullness of monastic practice.

“I have my own way to walk and for some reason or other Zen is right in the middle of it wherever I go. So there it is, with all its beautiful purposelessness, and it has become very familiar to me though I do not know “what it is”. Or even if it is an “it”. Not to be foolish and multiply words, I’ll say simply that it seems to me that Zen is the very atmosphere of the Gospels, and the Gospels are bursting with it. It is the proper climate for any monk, no matter what kind of monk he may be. If I could not breathe Zen I would probably die of spiritual asphyxiation.”
(letter to D.T. Suzuki, March 12, 1959, Encounter: Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki, p. 5-6)

Merton was not able to receive sustained instruction from a Zen teacher, but the Christian practice of contemplative prayer and his life with his brothers at Gethsemani, had created layer upon layer of receptivity. In many ways, Zen became the mirror for Merton’s Christian faith and practice, and he was able to see it in new light:

“What is really meant … is continual openness to God, attentiveness, listening, disposability, etc. In the terms of Zen, it is not awareness of but simple awareness.” (Day of a Stranger, p.41, written in 1965)

And then, through his art, Merton was able to find in traditional Catholic thought the basis for freedom he had discovered through his exploration of Zen Buddhism.

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)
And that is something that I would like to explore more: Zen Catholicism! Evidently Merton coined this phrase from a book that he valued: Zen Catholicism: A Suggestion by Dom Ailred Graham.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

the ferlinghetti connection

American poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owned the alternative publishing company and bookstore, City Lights, in San Francisco. In 1961 he had published Merton’s “Chant to be used in processions around a site with furnaces” as the lead poem in the first issue of a new magazine, Journal for the Protection of All Beings. Merton and Ferlinghetti met in San Francisco in May 1968.

What seems important to me about the Merton-Ferlinghetti relationship is the way that Merton, as a poet, was reaching into the world. Ferlinghetti was not exactly mainstream, but then, neither was Merton. But the geography of the sacred for Merton was becoming more universal, extending outside of monastery and Church walls.

It was the poet in Merton that kept him in contact with the world, that he was coming to love more and more.

Poets and monks have a lot in common, but even Ferlinghetti admitted that he didn’t know how to classify Merton as a poet, that he was:

“primarily a religious mystic who couldn’t escape the real world and he wouldn’t allow his conscience to escape the real world. So it must have been a conflict all his life between retreat and attack” (from an interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the film biography, “Merton”, edited and produced by Paul Wilkes).
Merton’s life shows the paradoxical quality of contemplativeness, the interplay between a cloistered monk and total social engagement at the deepest levels. As if they go together.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

psalms and tea and the silence

"Untitled" brush drawing by Thomas Merton
January 22, 1966 By mid-afternoon was tired and distracted but psalms and tea and the silence of snow re-ordered everything. (LEARNING TO LOVE, p. 10)
[The drawing is from the book, "The Art of Thomas Merton" by Roger Lipsey. I'm not sure what, if any, permissions I need to use these Merton drawings in this blog.]

Monday, December 25, 2006

definition of contemplativeness

I like this “definition” of the contemplative way that James Finley has given in his book “The Contemplative Heart”. It is slightly paraphrased from the original text.

“The contemplative way is the way of seeing what simply is in its transparent openness to the divine. It is the way of being who we simply are in the rhythmic simplicity of our breathing, in the sovereign simplicity in which day gives way to night and night to day.

“The manner of entering into this ever present way is simple. It consists of learning to sit and be, to slow down and settle in to the precious givenness of who we are right now, just the way we are. It consists of learning to loosen our hold on what we think is the meaning of it all in letting go of the tangled web of noise and concerns that seemingly hold us in its grasp. It consists of learning to become a contemplative person – one who spontaneously gravitates toward the depths of divinity manifested in each and every situation.

“It is all so simple. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if this simplicity were not so painfully elusive, so difficult to attain. Even as our hearts impel us to be who we ever have been, are, and ever shall be in the divinity of now, the longed for intimacy of the contemplative experience remains unconsummated. Somewhere, deep within, we obscurely sense that communion with the divine is already perfectly present in the hidden ground of our very longing to realize it. We sense that contemplative intimacy with the divine is already the reality of who we really are. And yet, all too often, this primitive contemplative wisdom is covered over by illusory obstacles we barely understand.” (p. 29-30)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

silence, part 3 (as in silent night)

The essay in which I most perceive Merton’s thoughts on Christmas is “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room”, which is in the RAIDS ON THE UNSPEAKABLE collection. Around this time of year, there is a poem of sort that is extracted (and some say, watered down) from this essay, and passed around the various internet channels. Last year I posted it as part of a meditation on Prisoners and Christmas, showing that Christmas, itself, is a veneration of outcasts, the dispossessed and forgotten.

The essay, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room” is a sober statement about the climate of our time, and the message of Christmas. I could quote Merton at length – his wording is so strong, precise, and clear – but I wonder what the point is. If anyone who happens to read this is truly interested in Merton’s thoughts on end times and Christmas, they should get the book and read the essay.

It would be better for me to say, in my words, what I hear Merton saying. Let it filter through my psyche and soul.

I have been exploring the nature and role of silence – in Merton’s writing and thought, and in my own reaching for a contemplative way of being in the world. The practice of silence, the essence of silence, is central to my “survival” in a world of constant noise, 24 hour news, rushing, and crowd. It is also the message of Christmas. Not a silence of detachment and evasion from the world, but a silence that responds and speaks. The Word, silently exploding upon the world.

As Merton knew in his time, I know that my own world is in a state of crisis and insanity, riddled with fear. The Time of the End. The symptoms of a world bent upon destroying itself are even more glaring now than they were in 1960. It often seems likely that some sort of Apocalyptic End will happen in my lifetime. Anytime now.

Despite all the *talk* of religion, most of it I find to be cagey and pretending. Another place to hide at best; a prop for power and war-mongering at worse.

Since I was about 6 years old, I have been out-of-step with the “Christmas spirit”. I could never understand the hoopla and cheer, and figured that there was something wrong with me.

Now I am beginning to understand that I was too close to the Inn - the massed crowd - and hypnotized and distracted by the noise. But if I move away from the Inn, and follow the shepherds out a ways, I find that there is a silence too in this world.

If I but walk out into the darkness of night and look at the sky, I can see that there is a star there for me, as well, to follow.

“And one by one the shepherds, with their snowy feet.
Stamp and shake out their hats upon the stable dirt
And one by one kneel down to look upon their Life.”
(excerpted from “A Christmas Card”, FIGURES FOR AN APOCALYPSE, Thomas Merton)
A silent Christmas to all …

Thursday, December 21, 2006

the contemplative heart

Many people have written about Merton over the years. My favorite of all of the about-Merton books is “Merton’s Palace of Nowhere” by James Finley. The book is now in tatters and parts, I’ve read it so much. I love the unique understanding that Finley brings to Merton’s thoughts on contemplativeness, and the way his own writing invites my soul to seek out mysterious places of awareness and God-consciousness.

Finley is a former Trappist monk, and was a novice under Merton. After leaving Gethsemani, he became a husband, father, psychotherapist and writer. Drawing from both Christian and Buddhist teachings, Finley lays a foundation for contemplative awareness that is faithful to one's own truth and inner-being.

When I saw that Finley had a new book (published in 2000, that’s how far behind I am), “The Contemplative Heart”, I ordered it. It came today and I’m just not sure about it. At first glance, it seems a bit “clinical”, practical even! :-)

I may have more to say about this book as I read it. For now I’ll start with the quote that convinced me to buy the book:

“Learning to live a more contemplative way of life in the midst of today’s world – what could be more simple or more difficult?” (p. 29)
That’s my question too.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

silence, part 2 (or jazz as silence)

(photo of trumpeter, Clark Terry - by Ron Hudson)
In my explorations of Merton’s understanding of “Silence”, I have come upon a couple of quotes to share here. My sense is that Merton’s Silence is more related to solitude and listening, than to the absence of sound, and is, perhaps, rooted in the “prayer of the heart” of the Desert Fathers (and the Zen language of “Emptiness”).

Silence is not, not talking; silence is communication

In 1956 Merton had been a monk at Gethsemani for 15 years. Though he was still committed to his life as a monk, he was no longer infatuated with the monastic life. The honeymoon was over; he could see the problems and illusions.

During these years at Gethsemani the “Rule of Silence” was in effect (it has since been relaxed during certain hours). The monks lived and worked in close proximity to each other, and there was little privacy or time for solitude. In a strange way, the Rule of Silence served at times to make the lack of privacy more extreme.

In his journal he writes:

“What a disaster to build the contemplative life on the negation of communication. That is what, in fact, our silence often is – because we are obscuring it without really wanting it (yet needing it nonetheless) and without understanding what it is all about. That is why there is so much noise in a Trappist monastery. The infernal clatter and hullabaloo, the continual roar of machinery, the crash of objects falling from the hands of distraught contemplatives – all this protests that we hate silence with all our power because, with our wrong motives for seeking it, it is ruining our lives. Yet the fact remains that silence is our life – but a silence which is communication and better communication than words! If only someone could tell us how to find it!

The worse part of all is that we think we know.

What we have found is our own noise.

No, that is not true. The Paradox is that in spite of all, we have found God and that is probably the trouble. Such a discovery is altogether too much and we beat a hasty retreat into any kind of protection.
(A SEARCH FOR SOLITUDE, August 19, 1956, p. 71)

Jazz as Silence

In early 1968 Merton was in Louisville taking care of some legal work related to his writings. He stayed for dinner with some friends, and later they went to a new jazz place that had opened in an old warehouse building on Washington Street:

“…Clark Terry, a trumpeter who was with Ellington, is there for four days. It was very satisfying. The only problem – Tommie had invited a lot of people who were not really interested in jazz and who sat around garrulously talking when I wanted to listen. One man kept asking me to *justify* it, explain what could possibly be good about it, instead of listening to it. Still, it was good. The players were stacked up on a high stage in the middle of everyone but facing a wall, practically. It is a long high narrow cellar. Power and seriousness of the jazz. As if they were playing for their own sake and for the sound’s sake and had no relationship to the people around them. And yet for the most part everyone seemed to like it. Without understanding that here was one place in Louisville where something was definitely being done and said. Ron Seitz came with Sally, and Pat Huntington was with me as we formed an enclave of appreciation – maybe. Anyway, that was one place where I felt at home, if only I weren’t in a crowd of uninvolved people. It would have been better at a table, two or three, with nothing to say.”
(THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, February 10, 1968, p.54)

Friday, December 15, 2006

in silencio

Another one of the unread books that I inherited from my father’s stack is “Silence In Heaven”. This is a rather large book of black and white photographs from monasteries around the world. It was published in 1955. The introduction, “In Silencio”, is an essay by Thomas Merton. Merton’s words, as well as other religious writings, accompany the photographs. The book is quite lovely.

“In Silencio” is a poetic accolade, likening the monastic vocation to the wisdom, hiddenness and silence of God.

Again, it is difficult to decide where to quote from this very rich essay. Let me start with this:

“The silence of God drives the hurricanes, and overturns the mountains and stirs up the sea and makes it roar against the cliff. It is from the silence of God that men borrow power for their machines, and it is once again by virtue of something hidden in His silence that we uproariously plough up and dissolve even the material elements that make up our fretful universe.

“It is the silence of God that forms the solid floor on which we fight our battles, and if His silence gave out beneath us we would all fall together with our cataclysms of sound into the depths of oblivion. And so, when the restless agitation of man falls still, and when his machines and his world turn over to go to sleep, everything is once again pervaded by the silence of God. Then those who remain awake – the monks and the solitaries – are able to tell by the sound of the mysterious song returning to their hearts, that all man’s noise and all his works are unsubstantial: that every new thing that can stand up and shout about itself is an illusion, and that only the everlasting silence in things is real: for it is the silence of God, buried in their very substance, singing the song which He alone can hear.” (p. 26 SILENCE IN HEAVEN)

silence, part 1

In every contemplative tradition, silence is central.

Throughout his writings, Merton’s thoughts on silence are fundamental to his perception of contemplation. In his earlier writings, these meditations on silence are concerned with the life of the monk, and were specifically concerned with prayer per se:

“The dialectic between silence and utterance. We have to keep silence for two reasons: for the sake of God and for the sake of speech. These two reasons are really one: because the only reasons for speaking is to confess our faith in God and declare his glory.” (January 8, 1950, ENTERING THE SILENCE, p. 394)
Merton puzzles over the “mystery of silence and speech” in light of the Gospel. He saw Pentecost as the “solution”, the Acts of the Apostles beginning with tongues of fire. Declaring the word of God was the only possible reason for speaking, and must be formed from silence and “bring the soul again to silence” (April 14, 1950, ENTERING THE SILENCE, p. 431)

Gradually, Merton expands his thoughts on silence to include the “noise” of the world: radios, televisions, racket, confusion, chatter, babble, soul-less and hasty repetitions of the rosary, and the need for houses of quiet, both inside and outside the monastery. And though it was true that we must know “how to bear with noise to have an interior life”, to resign oneself to being constantly overwhelmed with noise and activity was “an abuse”. (November 18, 1950, ENTERING THE SILENCE, p. 440)

From this point on, Merton’s writings on silence change. They reflect a different way of addressing silence: silence is not the absence of noise, but is a phenomenon in itself. He no longer treats silence as a monastic tool or technique; silence belongs to the very substance of sanctity.

Though 1953 and 1954, Merton made notes on silence which became part of his book “Thoughts in Solitude”. Many of these meditations were inspired by the Swiss philosopher, Max Picard

[Related website, review of Picard’s book: WORLD OF SILENCE . Quotes from Picard’s “World are Silence” are here.]

“Fundamentally, as Max Picard points out, it probably comes to this: living in a silence which so reconciles the contradictions within us that, although they remain within us, they cease to be a problem (of World of Silence, p. 66-67)
I’m hard pressed to find the quote most representative of Merton’s evolving thought on silence, but this one from “Thoughts in Solitude” reflects the integral nature of silence and contemplative awareness:

"... We put words between ourselves and things. Even God has become another conceptual unreality in a no-man's land of language that no longer serves as a means of communion with realty.

"The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smoke-screen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things. In solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things. And yet we find that the nakedness of reality which we have feared, is neither a matter of terror nor for shame. It is clothed in the friendly communion of silence, and this silence is related to love. The world our words have attempted to classify, to control and even to despise (because they could not contain it) comes close to us, for silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it. ...

"Words stand between silence and silence: between the silence of things and the silence of our own being. Between the silence of the world and the silence of God. When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from God, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality. (p. 92-93, THOUGHTS IN SOLITUDE)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Prison Meditations of Father Delp

I inherited my father’s unread books. My father was a devout Catholic and ran a dairy business, so he was up early. He delivered milk and he attended Mass, often with the monks at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani. He brought home the books that Merton wrote, as they were published, and kept them in a stack on top of a corner cupboard. In 1963 he brought home The Prison Meditations of Fr. Delp (with an introduction by Thomas Merton). For many years I just looked at this book. Whenever I attempted to read it I soon realized how dense, intense and disturbing it was, and put it down. But because it deals with Advent and Christmas, themes that are not clear to me, I kept the book.

A few years ago, during Advent, I began again, slowly, to work my way through it. It has since become my Advent book. Every year I start again.

Alfred Delp was a German Jesuit priest, an inspiring preacher who was especially knowledgeable about Catholic social justice teachings. Under recommendation by his Jesuit provincial, he had become a part of an anti-Nazi group (dubbed the Kreisau Circle by Nazi intelligence) to discuss a more Christian social order that would be built in Germany after the war.

In the summer of 1944 an attempt was made on Hitler’s life. Nazi response was swift, with the arrest and execution of several suspects. Delp was ensnared in the Gestapo's wide net of suspicion. His association with the Kreisau Circle implied a repudiation of Nazism, and constituted high treason – a crime worthy of death.

On July 28, 1944, Delp was arrested and taken to prison. He was 37 years old. He endured nine weeks of interrogation as well as beatings and psychological pressure to abandon the Jesuits for the Nazis, followed by four months of solitary confinement. On February 2, 1945, he was executed by strangulation at the Plotzensee prison, just outside of Berlin.

In chains, face-to-face with his own inescapable death, Delp is alone, helpless, and desperate. He reaches for truth in his meditations on Advent, Christmas, the role of the Church in a Godless world. His writings are dire, naked, and totally free of the myopic platitudes or complacencies of routine piety.

Fr. Delp’s letters were smuggled out of the jail, and, as Merton says in the introduction,

“The truth was granted him, and we share it in this book, awed by the realization that it was given him not for himself alone, but for us, who need it just as desperately, perhaps more desperately, than he did.”
Though we seem to be living in a world where, in spite of wars and rumors of wars, business goes on as usual, and Christianity is what it has always been, according to Merton,

“… somewhere in the last 50 years we have crossed a mysterious limit set by Providence and have entered a new era. We have, in some sense, passed a point of no return, and it is both useless and tragic to continue to live as if we were still in the nineteenth century. Whatever we may think of the new era, whether we imagine it as the millennium, the noosphere, or as the beginning of the end, there has been a violent disruption of society and a radical overthrow of that modern world which goes back to Charlemagne.” (p. viii)

We are in the same dire situation as Fr. Delp. My world is just as devastated, gutted, and faithless as the world of Fr. Delp. Senseless trivialities assume airs of real importance, and I get lost trying to find my way through the confusions. Yet, time is running out.

Fr. Delp speaks directly, writing his meditations on Advent and Christmas as if just for me. From the backdrop of his prison cell and impending physical death, I understand and can hear the voice in the wilderness. Fr. Delp tells me to turn inward, trust the solitary confrontation with an unknown God, be healed by the silence, and recover mysterious inner sources of hope and strength.

He introduces me to the People of Advent - the man crying in the wilderness, the herald angel, Our blessed Lady - and they take on a deep personal significance that I could never find in the oft-heard Nativity story. He goes on to explain to me the import of the People of Christmas – those round the crib, Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men – and I know that he has touched the truth of this story (and my own life) and given it to me.

Sometimes I think that if I could just read and re-read this one book, I would never need to read another religious book.

Finally, Fr. Delp invites me to tap into eternal currents of life, to “know what it is all about”, to become fully alive and claim my own happiness:

“The conditions of happiness have nothing whatever to do with outward existence. They are exclusively dependent on inner attitude and steadfastness … “(p.36)

“… everything is concentrated in expectation, waiting and watching … “(p. 59)

“God is day and night, bondage and freedom, prison cell and the whole world. … God is both the question and the answer …The eve of Christmas is both a proclamation and a mission; a holy night and a night pregnant with promise … “(p. 59)

“… whoever is true to life, however hard and barren it may be, will discover in himself fountains of very real refreshment. The world will give him more than he
ever imagined possible. The silver threads of God’s mystery will begin to sparkle visibly in everything around him and there will be a song in his heart. His burdens will turn to blessings because he recognizes them as coming from God and welcomes them as such … Let us trust in life because we do not have to live through it alone. God is with us.” (p. 69)

All quotes are from THE PRISON MEDITATION OF FATHER DELP, Herder and Herder New York, 1963. I do not believe this book is in print any longer. However these books: Alfred Delp: Prison Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters) and Alfred Delp, Advent of the Heart appear to duplicate the material in my book (without the Merton introduction).

Related Websites about Fr. Delp:

With Bound Hands
Remembering Father Alfred Delp, S.J., Priest and Martyr: A Conversation with Father Karl Adolf Kreuser, S.J.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

When Prophecy Had A Voice

Thomas Merton and Bob Lax were lifelong best friends. The above poem, which Lax wrote for Merton on hearing of his death, is taken from "When Prophecy Still Had A Voice". This book is a collection of the letters between Merton and Lax, edited by Arthur Biddle. The drawings themselves were reproduced with permission by Emil Antonucci. I have taken some Photoshop liberties in making them webable.

This is how Lax tells it:

LAX: Somebody asked me how I felt after Merton died. I said I certainly felt as though I'd lost a correspondent. It wasn't that I'd lost a friend because I don't feel that now either. He's there in that sense, the friend is there. But as a correspondent he's hard to get to.

I think Gladio [Gladys Lax Marcus, Lax's sister] must have sent me a cable to tell me that Merton had died. All I can remember is that right after I received it, I went down to the chapel in Kalymnos where I was living, a nice little family chapel I used to go to. I had to go to town that night and I saw this star and this cloud and this hill and I started writing a poem. It was like the "one stone" poem, just writing it because it was a poem, I usually have a notebook with me so by the time I finished it I probably stopped on the street and wrote it down in the notebook. Whatever it was, when I finished it, and not until I finished it, did I realize it was a poem for Merton.
[Note: I published this Lax poem/drawing last year on the anniversary of Merton's death on my other blog. Lax, and the friendship between Merton and Lax, is important in my knowing of Merton, and I need for this poem to be here on louie, louie.]

the death of Thomas Merton

“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able to strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts; now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?” (The Wisdom of the Desert)

On December 10th, 1941, after a long journey by train and bus from Olean, New York, Thomas Merton arrived at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. He was formally accepted as a postulant 3 days later.

Merton had spent the previous year discerning his vocation, tossing between working and living with the poor in Harlem, and becoming a Trappist monk. On a visit to Gethsemani in April of that year, he had been enthralled:

“I should tear out all the other pages of this book and all the other pages of everything else I ever wrote, and begin here.

“This is the center of America. I had wondered what was holding this country together, what has been keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart. It is this monastery if only this one. (There must be two or three

“This is the only real city in America – in a desert.

“It is the axle around which the whole country blindly turns.” (p.333 “Run To The Mountain)

Finally, it was the conviction that Gethsemani was asking more of him …

“And Harlem will be full of confusions – and I don’t particularly like the idea of working with a lot of girls…

“Going to Harlem doesn’t seem like anything special – it is good, and is a reasonable way to follow Christ: but going to the Trappists is exciting and fills me with awe, and desire: and I return to the idea “Give up everything – everything!” and that means something.”
… that he began his life as a Trappist monk.

Twenty seven years later, on the same day that he had arrived at the monastery - December 10th, 1968 - Merton died in Asia.

On December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Merton made his last journal entry, and said Mass at St. Louis Church in Bangkok. Merton had been invited to the Bangkok conference of Benedictine and Trappist Abbots. He left for Samutprakarn, 29 miles south of Bangkok, for the Sawant Kaniwat (Red Cross) Conference Center, arrived in the afternoon and was housed on the ground floor of Cottage Two.

On the 2nd day of the conference (December 10th), Merton presented his paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspective”. The paper had been on his mind for many weeks, and he was somewhat nervous by a Dutch television crew that had turned up to film his lecture. (His abbot had ordered him to avoid the press.)

Merton’s paper dealt with the role of the monk in a world of revolution …

“to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate it to others.”

Finishing the talk, Merton suggested putting off questions until evening, and concluded with the words:

“So I will disappear.”

He suggested everyone have a coke.

At around 3 PM Father Francois de Grunne, who had a room near Merton’s, heard a cry and what sounded like someone falling. He knocked on Merton’s door, but there was no response. At 4PM, Father de Grunne, worried that something was wrong, looked through the louvers in the upper part of the door and saw Merton lying on the terrazzo floor. A standing fan had fallen on top of him. The door was forced open.

There was the smell of burned flesh. Merton, clearly dead, was lying on his back with the five-foot fan diagonally across his body. The fan was still electrically volatile.

A long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin. There were no marks on his hands. His face was bluish-red, eyes and mouth half open. There had been bleeding from the back of his head. [see footnote]

The priests gave Merton absolution and extreme unction.

Merton’s body was dressed and laid out, and the abbots attending the conference maintained a constant vigil for him.

“In death Father Louis’ face was set in a great and deep peace, and it was obvious that he had found Him Whom he had searched for so diligently.” (Letter from the abbots attending the Bangkok to the Abbot of Gethsemani)

The next day Merton’s body was taken to the United States Air Force Base in Bangkok and from there flown back to the United States in company with dead bodies of Americans killed in Vietnam.

An official declaration of Merton’s belongings came with his body and read:

1 Timex watch, $10.
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise frames, nil
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary, nil
1 Rosary (broken), nil
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child, nil

At the end of the funeral Mass at Gethsemani, there was a reading from The Seven Story Mountain, concluding with the book’s prophetic final sentence,

“That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

His brother monks buried Merton in their small cemetery next to the abbey church.

[Details of the circumstances surrounding Merton’s death are drawn from Jim Forest’s book, “Living With Wisdom” and Michael Mott's biography of Thomas Merton]

Saturday, December 9, 2006


Kanchenjunga, Darjeeling India, 1968
Photo by Thomas Merton
The month before Merton died, he was in Darjeeling (India) struggling with a sore throat and a mountain. The 28,000 foot peak of Kanchenjunga was in view from just about everywhere, including his bungalow window.

In the dim and dawn of the morning haze it was not colored by the sun, but dovelike in its blue grey. Lovely, but difficult to photograph. Throughout his journal entries, Merton is always glancing toward the mountain, commenting on it, until finally he got tired of it and was glad for a day when it was hidden by the clouds. He was somewhat overwhelmed with all that he had seen in Asia, and grumpy with his cold.

When you begin each day by describing the look of the same mountain, you are living in the grip of illusion.” (p. 290 “The Other Side of the Mountain”)

On November 19th (1968) he dreamed about Kanchenjunga:
“I was looking at the mountain and it was pure white, absolutely pure, especially the peaks that lie to the west, And I saw the pure beauty of their shape and outline, all in white. And I heard a voice saying – or got the clear idea of: ‘There is another side to the mountain.’ I realized that it was turned around and everything was lined up differently; I was seeing it from the Tibetan side … “

From that point on, Merton was no longer irritated with the mountain. He knew that there was another side to this mountain and to everything. When he left Darjeeling on November 22nd, Kanchenjunga was hidden. Some of the lower peaks were visible, but the higher peak itself was lost in a great snowcloud.
Merton looked back as they drove toward Ghoom ...
and that was the end of it”. (p. 295)
And then, as they were passing over the hills of Ghoom he got a last sight of Kanchenjunga,
bright and clear in the morning sun … A surprise.”

on photographing kanchenjunga

“Later: I took three more photos of the mountain. An act of reconciliation? No, a camera cannot reconcile one with anything. Nor can it see a real mountain. The camera does not know what it takes: it captures materials with which you reconstruct not so much what you saw as what you thought you saw. Hence the best photography is aware, mindful, of illusion and uses illusion, permitting and encouraging it – especially unconscious and powerful illusions that are not normally admitted on the scene.”
(p. 285 “The Other Side of the Mountain”)

Friday, December 8, 2006


Reclining Buddha, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, 1968

Photo by Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was not a mystic. And though certainly prophetic, he was not a visionary. In his spiritual direction, he cautions against seeking any sort of supernatural experience, or relying too much on religious consolation. His attention was on this world, this life.

However there are two experiences, or insights, that Merton writes about that were especially strong for him: the insight on the corner of Fourth and Walnut (Louisville), and his experience at Pollonaruwa, just a few days before his death on December 10, 1968.

Merton visited Pollonaruwa on Monday, December 1st. Somewhat worried that he had spoiled it by trying to speak of it to acquaintances, he does not write about the experience, in great descriptive detail, until 4 days later (December 4th – pp. 322-324 “The Other Side of the Mountain”).

The place is remote, quiet, uncrowded:

“I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything – without refutation – without establishing some other argument …

“Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. … The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery”. All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya – everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. ….

I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguises. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage, Asian or European or American, and it is clear, pure, complete. It says everything; it needs nothing. And because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it.”

louie louie

I am thinking of starting another blog, this one focused on contemplative awareness in everyday life and drawing especially from how I know Thomas Merton.

This would be a more serious blog, not just off the cuff, and at least inadvertantly, not so personal - but would require deeper thought and meditation. Among other things, I would like to examine better the way Merton took his strong grounding in a Christian (and particularly Catholic) understanding of the world/life toward a Zen awareness. I would like to explore the interpenetration of every day life, ordinariness, and spiritual awakening.

What do you think? I still have a wide variety of interests that I seem to want to say something about (from architecture to food!), but it is contemplative awareness, being a monk in the world, that is the one theme that is constant and persistant. I wonder if I would go deeper, or just burn out? Would it be a way to rein myself in some?