Wednesday, January 31, 2007

a certainty of tread - happy birthday father louie!

[Yeah, I know I posted this last year on my other blog, but I like it so much, I'm putting it here again this year.]

This is a very fine commentary on Thomas Merton by someone who knew him well. From Bob Lax’s journal dated July 24/69 (less than a year after Merton’s death). Jan 31 is Merton's birthday.

it must be one thing to imagine what a guru is like, another to see one. seeing merton was little enough like seeing an imaginary guru.

yet he had one quality, particularly in the last years, but even (to a large degree) from always, from even before he (formally) became a catholic: a certainty of tread.

that might sound as though he plonk plonk plonked like a german soldier as he walked down the street. actually, he didn’t: he danced (danced almost like fred astaire: bang bang bang; or bojangles robinson, tappety bam bam bam) but he knew where he was dancing.

he did walk with joy. he walked explosively: bang bang bang. as though fireworks, small & they too, joyful, went off every time his heel hit the ground.

this was true when he was still in college. it was true when he was just out of college, and it was true the last time I saw him bang bang banging down a long hallway at the monastery. he walked wth joy; knew where he was going.

first time I noted how he walked was on fifth avenue, near the park, in spring (late afternoon, I guess) as he came from somewhere uptown to meet me. bang bang bang. & that time I thought about fred astaire.

did merton & I make any resolutions as young men? one (& it wasn’t tacit) was to talk simply. merton certainly succeeded in that, & got a lot said in simple (not simplistic) language.

after merton became a catholic, was living & teaching at st. bonaventure’s, and was being fed good soups by the nice german nuns there, he was more determined to write simply, and about simple things: things they could understand & that would help them in their lives.

birthday reflection (from the Merton Institute)

This birthday reflection comes from the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living:

Thomas Merton made the following entry in his journals on January 31, 1965, his 50th birthday (he had been living full-time in his hermitage since August 15, 1965)

Special Reflection for January 31, 2007

“When I enter my house, I shall find rest with her, for nothing is bitter in her company; when life is shared with her there is no pain, nothing but pleasure and joy (Wisdom 8:16).”I can imagine no greater cause for gratitude on my fiftieth birthday than that on it I wake up in a hermitage!..Last night, before going to bed, realized what solitude really means: when the ropes are cast off and the skiff is no longer tied to land but heads out to sea without ties, without restraints! Not the sea of passion but, on the contrary, the sea of purity and love that is without care. (..Through the cold and the darkness I hear the Angelus ringing at the monastery.) The beautiful jeweled shining of honey in the lamplight. Festival!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Rue du 4 Septembre, Prades

Number 1, Rue du 4 Septembre, Prades, France, where Thomas Merton was born on January 31, 1915, still looks much the same.
He was born just after nine in the evening during a snowstorm, and weighed only 2 kilos. His mother, Ruth, was determined that he would be called "Tom".
Merton was always very proud of being French, and proud of being the child of artists.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

communal mystery: boundlessness

Here is another poetic image (there are many) from Jim Finley’s book, “The Contemplative Heart”, that turns me on. It occurs within a discussion of boundlessness – the recognition that we are a part of everything that is, and everything that is, is a part of us. Whether we know it or not, communal mystery beats in our blood.

“When the eaglet, in the first moment of hesitant inevitability, leaps from the nest for the first time into the abyss below, the wind of its free fall meets its outstretched wings with a mighty YES that sends the eagle soaring up into the empty air of its ever present destiny in boundlessness …” (p. 138, “The Contemplative Heart”, James Finley)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

even with motionless movement

"Untitled" brush drawing by Thomas Merton
(image size: 7 1/2" h x 4 1/2" w)

May 11, 1964 “So we must all move, even with motionless movement, even if we do not see clearly. A few little flames, yes. You can’t grasp them, but anyway look at them obliquely. To look too directly at anything is to see something else because we force it to submit to the impertinence of our preconceptions. After a while though everything will speak to us if we let it and do not demand that it say what we dictate.” (Thomas Merton, "Courage for Truth", p. 198)

Notes from Roger Lipsey:
“ … promise begins to be realized … Merton’s brush is now alive, pliant, and quick. We are beginning to see brush-drawn signs of genuine eloquence, sure in motion, sure in structure, at ease with the kinds of things that brush and ink do, thick and thin, wet and dry, contact and release, density and airiness. Merton has moved closer to his models in Zen calligraphy, priest-artists for whom the brush was infinitely varied in expression. And we encounter in this image a key trait of Merton’s visual art: dynamism. This was a man of boundless energy, an his art as it became more freely his own, through technical progress and greater familiarity with the brush, reflected his buoyancy. In his notes, he once described his art as “contracts with movement, with life”. … [His works] convey not thought but sensations of movement, buoyancy, and joy. …”
(“Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton”, by Roger Lipsey, pp. 43-44)

Friday, January 26, 2007

time is rapidly running out

I don't like to harp on Merton's strong writing on social justice and responsibilities for resistance because (1) I feel like I'm "preaching", and (2) I strongly feel that Merton's writing on these issues must be contexted within his ground of contemplativeness. However they are integral to understanding Merton. Merton's urgent voice, even these 40 years after his death, is still strong, relevant, and desperately needed.

“It is no longer reasonable or right to leave all decisions to a largely anonymous power elite that is driving us all, in our passivity, towards ruin. We have to make ourselves heard. Christians have a grave responsibility to protest clearly and forcibly against trends that lead inevitably to crimes which the Church deplores and condemns. Ambiguity, hesitation and compromise are no longer permissible. War must be abolished. A world government must be established. We have still time to do something about it, but the time is rapidly running out.” (“Passion for Peace”, p. 47)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

do not depend on the hope of results

Someone has asked for this Merton quote. It comes from a letter written to Jim Forrest in February 1966, and can be found in the book, "Hidden Ground of Love":

"Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing ... an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to that you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end ... it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

falling off the boat, safe in our undoing

Within the context of a discussion on meditation, I found the following poetic image in Jim Finley’s book “The Contemplative Heart”. It is unique. I have never read a description of contemplativeness quite like this. I find it non-abstract, something I can get my mind around, and right on.

"Imagine that you are on a large boat crossing a vast expanse of water. There are many people on the boat, all of whom are enjoying a party of some kind. In a moment of carelessness you fall off the back of the boat into the water. Everyone on the boat is having so much fun that no one sees that you have fallen overboard. Treading water, you yell and wave to no avail as the boat continues on its way, growing smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing into the distance. Realizing that you cannot tread water for very long, but that you can float for a long time, your strategy becomes that of floating until, hopefully, those on board will notice you are missing and, in doing so, will come back to rescue you. Now in order to float you have to relax, for if you tense up you sink. And so there you are, all alone in the vast expanse of water, floating, relaxing, floating, relaxing. How would you be relaxing out there? Knowing your life depended on it, you would be relaxing very seriously. You would be relaxing with all your heart. Each time fear arises, causing you to tense up, you renew the letting-go embodied in your life-saving relaxation. Tensing up, you relax, tensing up, you relax – a life saving dance in the midst of the sea!

"Then a most extraordinary thing happens – floating there all alone, looking up into a boundless sky, it dawns on you that you are being sustained in a vast Presence that sustains you whether you live or die. While at one level it would be truly tragic to drown, to go under, to face the scary end, at yet another level, too big to think about, there arises a bliss beyond feeling. There is granted a body-grounded realization that even in going under you would remain sustained. You would remain safe in the undoing. Floating there, beyond the dualism of life and death, in a timeless moment beyond time, anchored invincibly in a boundless sky, you realize that in drowning you would become what you already are. You would become one with the primitive sea of unmanifested Presence your presence in the present moment is manifesting.

"If, while floating in this wondrous awakening, you were suddenly to see the boat coming back to get you, you would no doubt experience a profound sense of relief and joy. In being pulled back on board, you might be overcome with emotion and weep that your life was saved. But deeper down within yourself you would know that you were being pulled back on board as one transformed in a great awakening. You would know that in some profound sense beyond the power of thought to grasp, beyond the ability of words to describe, you were saved out there in the midst of the sea, where, in an unto-death dance of choosing to relax, choosing to let go, you found a life beyond life and death.

"As seekers of the contemplative way we have indeed fallen off the boat into the sea. At first the falling was isolated to our moment of spontaneous contemplative awakening in whch we found ourselves momentarily sustained in a body-grounded awareness of the abyss-like nature of the concrete immediacy of the present moment. Each falling ends in being pulled back on board, which is to say, ends in our once again returning to our customary ways of experiencing the things to which we are accustomed. But little by little this pattern of falling and returning, falling and returning forms our character, making us someone whose daily living has become imbued with a quiet, inner desire to live in a more abiding awareness of the ever present depths. Our sitting still and straight in meditation is our free choice to leap into the sea. Or perhaps, more true to the experience, it is our free choice to ease ourselves over and over again into the fathomless sea of presence the present moment manifests. As we become seasoned in the self-transforming power of simply sitting, we become ever more habituated to a sustained state of body grounded serenity. We become ever more habitually at home in a pure and simple awareness of the divinity or the present moment manifesting itself in and as all that arises, all that passes away. "

- “The Contemplative Heart”, James Finley, pp 70-72

Sunday, January 21, 2007

the transformation of simple, unnoticed things

Thomas Merton' worktable at the hermitage
Photo by Thomas Merton

Merton's worktable was a copy of one that his friend, Victor Hammer (artist and printmaker) had at his print shop in Lexington. The redwood table was modeled on a Shaker schoolboy's desk.

As points of departure for his art, Merton gathered grass stems from outside the hermitage, mailing envelopes, and stray objects that he found along the way. He used Higgins India Ink, a common American product, which can be seen in the photo above.

"It all cleared up after High Mass when I saw my only solution is to do what I have always wanted to do, always known I should do, always been called to do: follow the way of emptiness and nothingness, read more of the "nothing" books than those of others, forget my preoccupation with ten thousand absurdities, to know without wanting to be an authority." ("Turning Toward the World", p. 135)

Saturday, January 20, 2007


"Jerusalem", 1960, by Thomas Merton
(image size: 4 1/4"h x 6 1/2"w)

"A prophet is one who cuts through great tangled knots of lies." August 6, 1960

Notes from Roger Lipsey:

Merton surrounded his visual art with as many walls, trip wires, and rabbit traps as he could think of to keep interpreters away. The images are not "drawing of", he said. They are "summonses to awareness" but "not to awareness OF." In case we still miss the point, he insisted that "their 'meaning' is not to be sought on the level of convention or of concept" and "there is no need to categorize these marks." They are "signatures of someone who is not around". In other words, no interpretation is appropriate and no artist is available for discussion. This is the situation as we approach the engaging task of interpreting his art. We are unwelcome.

... His image of Jerusalem is a labyrinth, perhaps reflecting impressions from the distance - he never visited the Holy Land - of narrow streets and stone houses in the old quarters of the city. Looking closely in his "streets," one may also see living things: a figure crouched in prayer, a rooster, who knows what else. The work is not completely realized, it is more sketch than finished work, but its pulsing rhythm and deft handling of geometry are promising ...

("Angelic Mistakes - the art of Thomas Merton", by Roger Lipsey, p. 43)

contemplative art

"War Bird", brush drawing by Thomas Merton, 1965, reproduced from the book jacket of his collected correspondence with W. H. (Ping ) Ferry.

It is when I explore his art that I get lost, no longer able to form any concepts about who Merton was and what he is saying. I fall into my own place of emptiness and nothingness. Is this Zen? I read Mr. Lipsey's commentary and, yes, I can see what he points out, but in myself I am taken to a new place. I love Merton's writings, his ability to reveal the raw nakedness of our lives before God, his articulation of "contemplativeness". His art has a strange power that is similar, perhaps more simple and pure in its wordlessness.

The following is from Roger Lipsey's book, "The Art of Thomas Merton":
"Art making is a discipline of mind, heart, and hand, potentially sacred, potentially linked with deep levels in oneself. It is a path of entry into profound contact with nature, a means of belonging here and now to what one sees, feels, and records with the bruth. It is a Way." ("Angelic Mistakes, the art of Thomas Merton", by Roger Lipsey, p. 31)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

secret grace: a chosen people

This Merton Reflection for this week is from the The Thomas Merton Foundation:

Notes on the race situation before the violence began—1962. . . .Fortunately the Negroes have a leader, who is a man of grace, who understands the law of love,
who understands the mystery of the greatest secret grace that has been given to the Negro and to no other. The grace which the people who first created the spirituals well knew about: the grace of election that made them God’s chosen, the grace that elevated them about the meaningless and trivial things of life, even in the midst of terrible and unjust suffering. There are things the Negro knows that the white man can never know. Things which belong to the pure, unique, spiritual destiny of America, and which have been denied to the white man, will be denied to him forever because of his brutality to the Negro and to the Indian. So, too, there are things the Jew alone can know, things closed forever to the gentile, even to the best of Christians. Yet, unfortunately, this secret heritage, this most precious revelation of God, which one senses in the singing of Mahalia Jackson as well as in some of the very great, obscure artists of jazz can also be lost. The mere fact of being a Negro does not guarantee that one is worthy of this precious inheritance. [112-113] Thomas Merton. Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday and Company,

Thought for Reflection:

To act out of love for truth, “doing the truth in charity” is to act for truth alone, and without regard for consequences. Not that one recklessly does what seems to be good without care for possible disaster, but that one carefully chooses what one believes to be good and then leaves the good itself to produce its own good consequences in its own good time.”
Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander: 118

Saturday, January 13, 2007

the martin luther king jr. connection

The 1960’s were rife with struggle for civil rights in America. Thomas Merton was closely watching the unfolding scenario, and made several attempts to articulate his thoughts on racism in the United States. From the beginning he was captivated by the actions and spirituality of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:

“Reading Martin Luther King [Jr.] and the simple, moving story of the Montgomery Bus boycott. Especially interested not only in the main actions but in the story of his own spiritual development. Certainly here is something Christian in the history of our time.” (“Turning Toward the World”, May 16, 1961, p. 119)

“… Martin Luther King – who is no fanatic at all – is perhaps one of the few really great Christians in America … “(“Turning Toward the World”, June 1, 1963, p. 325)

In 1963 he wrote an essay, “Letters to a White Liberal”, in which he interpreted the efforts of Martin Luther King to solve the race problem by Christian nonviolence. This was followed by several other essays: “From Non-Violence to Black Power”, “Religion and Race in the United States”, “The Hot Summer of Sixty Seven”, and “The Meaning of Malcolm X”.

“In the Negro Christian non-violent movement, under Martin Luther King, the KAIROS, the “providential time, met with a courageous and enlightened response. The non-violent Negro drive has been on of the most positive and successful expressions of Christian social action that has been seen anywhere in the twentieth century. It is certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States. (“Religion and Race in the United States”, p. 130)

Like Dr. King, Merton was convinced that the escalation of the war in Vietnam had a lot to do with the violence at home. Like Dr. King, Merton knew that the problem of racism and the problem of war were intertwined.

“It is perfectly logical that the America of LBJ should be at once the America of the Vietnam war and the Detroit riots. It’s the same America, the same violence, the same slice of mother’s cherry pie.” (“From Violence to Black Power”, pp. 123-124)

Though they never met, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton were each well aware of the other. Some suggest that Merton was advising King on nonviolence, but this is unlikely. Merton communicated with King mainly through his friends, June and John Yungblut, who directed a Quaker house in Atlanta.

In March, 1968 John Yungblut was attempting to arrange a retreat at Gethsemani for Martin Luther King. Thich Nhat Hanh was to join them. The retreat, however, was delayed because of King’s travel to Memphis. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

King’s death affected Merton deeply. He was anxious to show his solidarity with his Bardstown Negro friends, Colonel Hawks, and his daughter Beatrice Rogers, the Willetts. These were close friends of my family too. Merton writes in his journal:

“Hawk with his arm around me saying, “This is my BOY, this is my FRIEND.” … I could cry.” (“The Other Side of the Mountain”, p. 78)

Merton had written a series of eight poems about faith and brotherhood, "The Freedom Songs". These poems were intended to be set to music and sung by black tenor, Robert Williams, at a concert to be held in November 1964 as a tribute to President John F. Kennedy and as a celebration of the commitment and contribution of black people to American culture.

Though set to music, the songs had never been used.

Merton offered the songs to Coretta Scott King, to be used at the funeral of Martin Luther King. The songs were first performed on August 20, 1968, at the National Liturgical Conference in Washington DC. Dr. Alexander Peloquin conducted the Ebenezer Baptist Choir (from Atlanta), in a memorial tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

[See: a secret grace: a chosen people
my 2006 MLK blogpost is here.]

Friday, January 12, 2007

" ... loving becoming a monk ..."

comtemplative practice, monastic routine
drawing by Thomas Merton
Inherent in the monastic way are many practices: continuous prayer, stillness, poverty of spirit, keeping vigil, guarding thoughts, fasting from one’s own selfishness.

Thomas Merton is a good example of the power of the ancient monastic path. Like all of us, he was captive to a tainted ancestry of human selfishness, greed, and violence. In the monastery, he learned the way to root out the thicket of Western culture’s materialism that was lodged in his heart, and discovered a way toward selflessness, generosity, and nonviolence.

James Finley, a former Trappist monk and novice under Merton, left Gethsemani after five years. When he left the monastery, his question was: “How can I live, out here in the world, the contemplative way of life I lived in the monastery?”

That is my question too, and one of the primary questions that I hope to explore in this blog.

One thing is clear – a contemplative practice is essential. Something that is done, day in, and day out.

In his book, “The Contemplative Heart”, Finley advises that one find their “contemplative practice” and practice it! He defines a contemplative practice as “any act, habitually entered into with your whole heart, as a way of deepening and sustaining a contemplative experience of the inherent holiness of the present moment.” (p.46)

Some examples of contemplative practice that he gives are meditation, slow reading of scripture, a simple heart-felt prayer, gardening, writing or reading poetry, drawing or painting, or perhaps running or taking long walks. Being alone, really alone, with no distractions or diversions, could be a contemplative practice.

Or perhaps being with the person with whom you are called to a deeper place. Making love.

The important thing is not so much what the practice is, as “the extent to which the practice incarnates an utterly sincere stance of awakening and surrendering to the Godly nature of the present moment.” (p. 46)

Finley suggests that we will probably not have a single contemplative practice but rather a constellation of practices, and that these practices will change and evolve over time. However, it is very easy for the day’s events to drown out their importance in our lives.

It is faithfulness and commitedness to these simple acts which will make the difference.

In his introduction to "Dialogues with Silence" Jonathan Montaldo beautifully captures the rewards of Merton's faithful commitment to his monastic vocation:

Thomas Merton remained committed to his monastic vocation for 27 years because he could never stop loving becoming a monk. In spite of decades of monastic routine (or indeed precisely because of it), he could must a poet’s concentrated joy for the smallest turns of differences in time or temperature that marked a day as singular and new. Merton’s joy – often muffled below the voicing of his public cares and concerns – situated him among those rare human beings who love the life they are leading and who have found their own true place. He reflects his typical joy as a monk in this journal entry dated May 21, 1963:

“Marvelous vision of the hills at 7:45 A.M. The same hills as always, as in the afternoon, but now catching the light in a totally new way, at once very earthly and very ethereal, with delicate cups of shadow and dark ripples and crinkles where I had never seen them before, the whole slightly veiled in mist so that it seemed to be a tropical shore, a newly discovered continent. A voice in me seemed to be crying, “Look! Look!” For these are the discoveries, and it is for this that I am high on the mast of my ship (have always been) and I know that we are on the right course, for all around is the sea of paradise.” (from the introduction of “Dialogues with Silence”, by Jonathan Montaldo, p. xii)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

prayer, public and private

The life of a monk is one of continuous public prayer. From early morning until bedtime, the day is structured around the Liturgy of the Hours. Thomas Merton prayed and sang the Psalms - the public prayer of the Jews - throughout the day for twenty seven years. As a priest, he celebrated the Eucharist everyday.

Merton’s private prayer is intensely personal, but born from his deep immersion in public prayer.

This prayer was written before midnight Mass in 1941, when he had been at Gethsemani for only a couple of weeks:

“Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of You and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine You, I am mistaken. If I understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy. The darkness is enough.” (“Meditations”, December, 1941, p. 2)

Only once did he ever write explicitly about how he prayed. In a letter to the Sufi, Abdul Aziz, dated January 2, 1966, Merton says:

“I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God. One might say this gives my meditation the character described by the Prophet as “being before God as if you saw Him”. Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind this would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring Him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all. My prayer tends very much toward what you call fana. There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer then is a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence.” (“Hidden Ground of Love”, pp. 63-64)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

blessed art thou a monk swimming

One of my commenters has requested a “Merton Humor” thread. The following is part of a reflection of Dom James Fox, Fr. Louie’s abbot for 20 years. Those who have read the journals know that this relationship was blessed with challenges for Merton. Merton was Dom James’ confessor for the last 15 of those years.

I think this is pretty funny.

One quality that endeared Fr. Louis to all the brethren was his terrific “sense of humor.” His sharp and penetrating intellect enabled him to perceive the amusing and the comic, seconds before almost anyone else. I noticed this, in Chapter talks. “Chapter” is the time, whether in the evening before Compline or Sunday morning after Lauds, when the entire monastic family gathers in a large room outside the Church proper. Usually at that time, the Abbot gives some spiritual conference, and makes any announcements pertinent to the family – such as, for example, new appointments or changes in schedule, etc.

The monks all had seats around the wall, usually in rank of seniority. The monk who sat on one side of Fr. Louis was Fr. Paphnutius. He and Fr. Louis often had jousts of chivalrous, humorous wit – each trying to “outsmart” the other.

One Sunday, Fr. Paphnutius changed his name – who could blame him? It was my duty to announce the change to the Community, so I said: “Our Fr. Paphnutius has received permission to change his name.”

I looked down the line of monks on my right to Fr. Paphnutius. Of course I also saw Fr. Louis. The minute I mentioned Fr. Paphnutius, Fr. Louis was all alert, perhaps wondering to himself, “What’s my sparring partner up to now?”

So I continued, in as serious a judicial voice as I could muster, “Henceforth, he will be known in history as … “ I could see out of the corner of my eye that Fr. Louis was on the edge of his seat. Then I stopped for a few seconds – for effect – and, trying to sound like an astronaut concluding a message to Houston control, barked out: "ROGER!”

With that, Fr. Louis burst into laughter, clapped his hands on his knees, and almost rolled off onto the floor. Fr. Louis’ laughter was ebullient – bubbling over. He looked at his neighbor, the erstwhile Paphnutius. Paphnutius, smiling wryly, looked back at Fr. Louis as if to say: “I put one over on you that time.”
(from “Thomas Merton, Monk – a monastic tribute”, edited by Brother Patrick Hart, pp. 143-144)

(Note: Abbott Dom James and Fr. Louis are buried side by side in the cemetery at Gethsemani.)

Monday, January 8, 2007

drawings and prayers

drawing by Thomas Merton

One of the books that I got for Christmas is “Dialogues with Silence”, a collection of Merton’s drawings and prayers that were compiled and edited by Jonathan Montaldo. The book is simple, yet very powerful. Montaldo has brought together some of Merton’s most intensely personal writing – his dialogue with God, his prayer.

The art is mostly from the 1950’s, before Merton became more calligraphic and abstract. The most mysterious of the drawings are those of women. By temperament, Merton was always tempted to go his way alone, an Adam without an Eve. Yet his dreams are populated with women and feminine images – a Chinese princess, a black foster mother, and the young Jewish girl whom he named “Proverb”. Proverb visited him again and again.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

life and death

This came from Wayne Burns today, who has been emailing daily morning Merton quotes to me for quite awhile. It seems especially poignant these days.

"When life and death lose their proper meaning, that it to say, when they are no longer experienced as what they really are, then the awful and empty power creeps into everything and sickens everything. So when death becomes most trivial, it also becomes most pervasive. It is only 'the end of life.' So all life ends. All is death. Why live?" (LOVE AND LIVING, page 87)

Why live?

apocalyptic leap

I am still ruminating over the writings of Boris Pasternak, and what Merton saw in them. In time, I hope to be able to articulate this (in less than 200 words). I believe that this vision reflects the ground from which all of Merton’s writings on war and nonviolent resistance emanate, as well as being at the core of contemplative awareness. For now, here are words of Pasternak and Merton:

“The reign of numbers was at an end. The duty, imposed by armed force to live unanimously as a people, a whole nation, was abolished. Leaders and nations were relegated to the past. They were replaced by the doctrine of individuality and freedom. Individual human life became the life story of God and its contents filled the vast expanses of the universe.” (“Dr. Zhivago”, Boris Pasternak, p. 413)

“… if Pasternak is ever fully studied, he is just as likely to be regarded as a dangerous writer in the West as he is in the East. He is saying that political and social structures as we understand them are things of the past, and that the crisis through which we are now passing is nothing but the full and inescapable manifestation of their falsity. For twenty centuries we have called ourselves Christians, without even beginning to understand one tenth of the Gospel. We have been taking Caesar for God and God for Caesar. Now that “charity is growing cold” and we stand facing the smoky dawn of an apocalyptic era, Pasternak reminds us that there is only one source of truth, but that it is not sufficient to know the source is there – we must go and drink from it, as he has done.” (“The Pasternak Affair”, Thomas Merton, p. 67)

Saturday, January 6, 2007

boris pasternak - sacramental revolution

Throughout his writings, Merton attempts to define and articulate a “way of being” in which one can be fully human and “free”. Though he delves deeply into the various aspects of monastic history and reform, his thoughts are not just for the monks, but for all of us. Merton repeatedly speaks of the “new man”.

Boris Pasternak represented, for Merton, a man who had tapped into human truth and freedom as expressed by the individual, and become a “new man”. In many ways, Pasternak is the mirror image of the Zen monk. His writing is filled with Christian images, beauty, love, human emotion, the specifics of life. Merton calls Pasternak’s images: “primitive, pre-Christian”, deeply sincere and utterly personal.

Pasternak was repressed, pressured and bullied by the Communist government. In 1958 the Nobel Prize for literature was offered to him. Under Soviet pressure, Pasternak refused the prize. He also refused an opportunity to “escape” from Soviet Russia, saying that he did not feel he could be happy anywhere else.

Merton says that Pasternak was not a rebel, but a true revolutionary, like Gandhi:

“Pasternak is then not just a man who refuses to conform (that is to say, a rebel). The fact is, he is not a rebel, for a rebel is one who wants to substitute his own authority for the authority of somebody else. Pasternak is one who CANNOT conform to an artificial and stereotyped pattern because, by the grace of God, he is too much alive to be capable of such treason to himself and to life. … Though different [from Gandhi] in so many ways, his protest is ultimately the same: the protest of life itself, of humanity itself, of love …” (p.11)
This seems very important to me: how to protest. - how to stand, with one’s life, in opposition to the crass materialism, violence, falsity and blasphemy that parade around as “the real world”.

Merton explored and developed the theme of “protest” throughout the 1960’s, finding the living roots of nonviolence in people like Boris Pasternak, whose vision of the world was liturgical and sacramental - life as a living mystery - and whose response to a mad world was genuinely human.

photograph of God

"the only known photograph of God"
photography by Thomas Merton
(courtesy of the Merton Legacy Foundation)

Friday, January 5, 2007

why contemplativeness can't be planned

Contemplative is the word that I use to describe the way in which I want to live my life. The contemplative way embodies something that feels most authentic, most real, and most alive and awake to me. For most of my life I have been attracted to writers, artists, and people who, in some way, reflect this way of life.

At times, my reaching for contemplativeness has not been clear, and I have felt as if I were juggling a lot of balls trying to be simple -- trying very hard to not try hard. And I fall into a sort of abandonment to the confusion and mush of life only to emerge again, attempting to find and stay on the road.

In his book, “The Contemplative Heart”, James Finley acknowledges the inevitable shortcomings of repeated “efforts” toward contemplative practice:

“Those of us who have been on this contemplative journey for very long know full well how ineffective our plans for contemplative living tend to be. We can look back over our shoulder to see a trail of abandoned spiritualities, like so many cars that have run out of gas. Each, for an enthusiastic moment, seeming to be the long awaited point of arrival. Each leaving us, all too quickly, once again a malcontent in discovering ourselves to be, even after all our efforts, our plain old distracted self. …”

And the dangers of self-absorption:

“ … If we are not careful our efforts to commit ourselves to living a more contemplative way of life become suspiciously limited to an exclusionary process of attempting to rise above or leave behind all that is broken and lost within ourselves and others …”(THE CONTEMPLATIVE HEART, James Finley, p. 38)
Finley suggests that the way through this tangle of misguided efforts is to engage contemplatively in the dilemma of how difficult it is to live contemplatively.

This more generous approach consists, not of attempts to overcome our ignorance, but rather of a willingness to gaze deeply into it, learning its ways as we learn to get up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night …

In this humble self-knowledge there is the growing realization that this whole journey of contemplative self-transformation is not simply or primarily about “me’ in my private quest for inner peace. Rather it is about entering into the homelessness of the whole world being uniquely expressed in my experience of it. Likewise, we begin to discover that the journey on which we find ourselves is not one of rising above or leaving behind our unaware self. Rather, the journey consists of waking up and coming home to the divinity at once hidden and revealed in the dance of the now so near now so far away, the now so noble now so Oh-my-God-what-have-I-done stuff of our own life and lives of those around us.” (“The Contemplative Heart”, James Finley, p. 39)

Thursday, January 4, 2007

a sign of freedom, a sign of truth

"Untitled" brush drawing by Thomas Merton

(image size 10 1/4"h x 6" w)

The "new being" of the Christian ... is the effect of an inner revolution which, in its ultimate and most radical significance, implies complete self-transcendence and transcendence of the norms and attitudes of any given culture, any merely human society. This includes transcendence even of religious practices ... There is in the depths of man's heart a voice which says: "You must be born again." It is the obscure but insistent demand of his own nature to transcend itself in the freedom of a fully integrated, autonomous, personal identity.

(Love and Living pp. 193-194)

Sounds a lot like the way Merton knew Boris Pasternak.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

" ... the truth that was in him ..."

“In one word, Pasternak emerged as a genuine human being stranded in a mad world.” (p.5)

“… he stirred up the unsatisfied spiritual appetites of men for ideals a little more personal, a little less abstract, than modern society seems to offer them.” (p.5)

“In bursting upon the heads of all, Zhivago inevitably deluged first of all those simple and pontifical souls whose Gospel is passive conformity with the politicians and bigshots, with the high priests of journalism and the doctors of propaganda: upon those who though they no longer decorate their paunches with cheap watch chains, still thrive on conformity with the status quo, on either side of the iron curtain.” (p.9)

“Both as a writer and as a man, Pasternak stands out as a sign of contradiction in our age of materialism, collectivism, and power politics. His spiritual genius is essentially and powerfully solitary. Yet his significance does not lie precisely in this. Rather it lies in the fact that his very solitude made him capable of extraordinarily intimate and understanding contacts with men all over the face of the earth … for all the evils of the world: it was the man himself, the truth that was in him, his simplicity, his direct contact with life, and the fact that he was full of the only revolutionary force that is capable of producing anything new: he is full of love.” (p. 10-11)

All quotes are from The Pasternak Affair, an essay by Thomas Merton

the pasternak connection

Perhaps it is because I so love the movie, “Dr. Zhivago” that I have long been intrigued with Merton’s correspondence with the Russian poet and writer, Boris Pasternak. Pasternak was not a “religious” man, but Merton found him to be the embodiment of a truly spiritual man.

I would like to make some notes (quotes) that are taken from The Pasternak Affair, a rather lengthy essay that Merton wrote about Pasternak’s literary works, particulary his poetry and “Dr. Zhivago”. The essay “The people with watch chains”, which was published in Jubilee magazine in 1959, is included in this longer essay, The Pasternak Affair.

Because I hope to keep my entries limited to less than 200 words, the Pasternak quotes will be spread across several days.

[Jubilee magazine was the Catholic magazine founded by Ed Rice and edited by Merton and Bob Lax.]

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist

"Untitled" brush drawing by Thomas Merton
(image size: 10 1/2"h x 7 1/2 "w)

October 29, 1964. Next month in Louisville I astound the population with an exhibit of incomprehensible abstract drawings which will cause the greatest possible amount of perplexity on all sides and will perhaps bring everyone into a state of inarticulate stupor in which all things and especially the drawings will immediately be forgotten and everyone will rush to indulge in something else that is capable of being advertised.

(The Courage for Truth, pp. 200-201)

more on zen/christianity

"Zen is
not kerygma, but realization,
not revelation but consciousness,
not news from the Father who sent his son into this world,
but awareness of the ontological ground of our own being here and now,
right in the midst of this world."

(Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 47. The word, kerygma, from the Greek meaning "herald", refers, in the period of the early apostles, to their dissemination of the new faith.)