Wednesday, February 28, 2007

hagia sophia

Merton’s writings reveal much exploration of God’s feminine aspect, and perhaps no tribute is more beautiful than his prose poem, Hagia Sophia.

Merton was fascinated with those passages in the Book of Proverbs in which “Wisdom is ‘playing in the world’ before the face of the Creator. In 1958 Merton had written to Boris Pasternak about his dream of Proverb, the Jewish girl whose passionate but virginal embrace had moved him so deeply. He realized that it was an encounter with Hagia Sophia – Holy Wisdom. He thanked her for loving in him …

“something which I thought I had entirely lost, and someone who, I thought, had long ago ceased to be … I love your name, its mystery, its simplicity, and its secret.” (Journal, March 4th, 1958)
In April 1959 Merton was visiting Victor Hammer in Lexington, and glimpsed Proverb, again, in a painting done by Hammer. As in his dream, she was a young Semitic woman. In the painting she was placing a crown on Christ’s head.

The poem, Hagia Sophia, is a celebration of the discovery of the feminine dimension of God. It is a prayer, really, divided into the “hours”: Dawn – the hour of Lauds, Early Morning – The Hour of Prime, High Morning – the hour of Tierce, Sunset – the Hour of Compline. Here are some excerpts:

“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.

“I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.

“It is like being awakened by Eve. It is like being awakened by the Blessed Virgin. It is like coming forth from the primordial nothingness and standing in clarity, in Paradise.

“She is in all things like the air receiving the sunlight. In her they prosper. In her they glorify God. In her they rejoice to reflect Him. In her they are united with Him. She is the union between them. She is the love that unites them. She is life as communion, life as thanksgiving, life as praise, life as festival, life as glory.

“Sophia is the mercy of God in us. She is the tenderness with which the infinitely mysterious power of pardon turns the darkness of our sins into the light of grace. She is the inexhaustible fountain of kindness and would almost seem to be, in herself, all mercy. So she does in us a greater work than that of Creation … she is in us the yielding and tender counterpart of the power, justice and creative dynamism of the Father.

“… But she remains unseen, glimpsed only by a few. Sometimes there are none who know her at all.”

[Note: Thomas Merton died before gender neutral language used to reference "God" became common.]

See also: hagia sophia tryptich by victor hammer

Sunday, February 25, 2007

lax on wisdom, part one

sometimes, i have conversations with an imaginary guru, naturally one who lives inside me. he used to be a psychiatrist: at least in the old days a lot of my conversations were started with, & a lot of problems heard out or resolved by, an imaginary viennese who listened carefully, often accusingly, & showed me with a few apt technical phrases how far i had erred in my thinking, or behavior. the viennese fellow has disappeared; comes back if ever for very short visits; but has been replaced by chuang tzu (sometimes merton, or sometimes chuang tzu in merton translation) who tells me other wisdoms: usually the wisdoms of abstinence & avoidance; of retreat, prayer & preparation, of non-attachment, of “sitting quietly doing nothing,” of seeking smallness, not greatness, or of seeking nothing at all.

as i don’t think i really understood the “psychiatrist” half of the time, i’m not sure i really understand “chuang tzu.” i respect him though, don’t resent him, as i often did the psychiatrist; feel that he knows i don’t know but that little by little there’ll be things i can learn. i picture him with shaved head, a listener (& yet practical man), a listener who appreciates, a listener with humor; a storehouse – but very light storehouse – of wisdom; made like modern electronic ears of light, light materials, but of great receiving strength.

what he promotes is wisdom, what he promises is grace. zen wisdom, perhaps; zen grace, but certainly wisdom & grace.

one feels that all philosophies, zen & yoga are ways of approaching wisdom & “enlightenment” – they are ways of approaching an enlightened state in which one’s behavior is always or almost always “spontaneously” right.

to be “enlightened” is not to shine; nor to bring multitudes to the hill where one sits cross-legged, to listen.

it is rather to know what one is doing (& even, perhaps, to enjoy it).


- Robert Lax, July 22, 1969, from the “A Greek Journal” published in the book “Love Had A Compass”, pp. 208-209

[See: lax on wisdom, part two (under water) and lax on wisdom, part three (survival) ]

Saturday, February 24, 2007

the monk is a bird who flies very fast

brush drawing by Thomas Merton, "Untitled"
(image size: 8 1/2" h x 8 1/2" w)
May 11, 1964. “The monk is a bird who flies very fast without knowing where he is going. And always arrives where he went, in peace, without knowing where he came from.” (“The Courage for Truth”, p. 198)

“I wish I had more charity. Perhaps I should say I wish I had at least a little charity. I wish I were less resentful of dead immobilism: the ponderous, inert, inhuman pressure of power bearing down on everyone to keep every beak from opening and every wing from moving. Authority sitting in its office, with all the windows open, trying to hold down, with both hands, all the important papers and briefs, all the bits of red tape, all the documents on all the members of the Body of Christ. I wish I could stop hoping the whole mess would blow away.” (“Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”, p. 228)

“Elias becomes his own wild bird, with God in the center.” (“The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton”, p.245)

Notes from Roger Lipsey: “Fish are not the only species in Merton’s visual art and writings. … Not surprisingly, there are birds and birdlike signs in his art that compel attention. [This drawing] suggests a rush of activity, the headlong flight of an eagle – pure Merton in its energy and overall elegance. ...” (“Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton”, by Roger Lipsey, p. 45)

Friday, February 23, 2007

merton & friends

An excellent review of the upcoming book, Merton & Friends, by Jim Harford is here. The review is by Jim Forest for The Catholic Worker.

I am especially interested in this book because it chronicles the life (1953 – 1967) of Jubilee magazine – a Catholic publication founded by Rice and co-edited with Merton and Lax. The magazine was meant to be, among other things, a “bridge between the religious and the secular”.

It was a constant voice of encouragement to anyone who was drawn to Christianity's deeper waters.

Those people that I know who remember the magazine say that it was "brilliant”, and “a treasure”.

I hope to see some of the magazines soon, and will report here on my findings!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

enough self-respect to attend to this mystery

Brush drawing by Thomas Merton, "Untitled", 1964
image size: 3" h x 5" w

December 18, 1966. “ The need to open up an inner freedom and vision, which is found in relatedness to something in us which we don’t really know. This is not just the psychological unconscious. It is much more than that. Tillich called it the ground of our being. Traditionally it is called “God”, but images and ideas of the deity do not comprehend it. What is it? … The real inner life and freedom of man begin when this inner dimension opens up and man lives in communion with the unknown within him. On the basis of this he can also be in communion with the same unknown in others. How to describe it? Impossible to describe it.” (“Witness to Freedom”, pp. 329-330)

“Gabriel Marcel says that the artist who labors to produce effects for which he is well known is unfaithful to himself. This may seem obvious enough when it is badly stated: but how differently we act. We are all too ready to believe that the self that we have created of our more or less inauthentic efforts to be real in the eyes of others is a “real self”. We even take it for our identity. Fidelity to such a nonidentity is of course infidelity to our real person, which is hidden in mystery. Who will you find that has enough faith and self-respect to attend to this mystery and to begin by accepting himself as unknown?” (“Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”, p. 134)

Comments of Roger Lipsey: “A later image, dated 1964, draws the traditional Christian icon entirely into his own world of signs, the world he described as teeming with “shapes, powers, flying beasts.” This image bears some resemblance to aboriginal cave art but also to Zen calligraphy and to the art of Paul Klee, the only twentieth-century artist with whom Merton felt a reverential link well beyond simple admiration. Leaving nothing to be desired, it can be counted among Merton’s quiet masterpieces. It shows us how to swim – perhaps without utter clarity of vision, but with energy, committed weight, and direction.” (“Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton”, by Roger Lipsey, p. 45)

Friday, February 16, 2007

not a shadow but a sign

Brush drawing by Thomas Merton, "Untitled"
7" h x 6 3/4"w
“The nineteenth-century European and American realists were so realistic that their pictures were totally unlike what they were supposed to represent. And the first thing wrong with them was, of course, precisely that they were pictures. In any case, nothing resembles reality less than the photograph. Nothing resembles substance less than its shadow. To convey the meaning of something substantial you have to use not a shadow but a sign, not the imitation but the image. The image is new and different reality, and of course it does not convey an impression of some object, but the mind of the subject: and that is something else again.” (“Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” p. 133-134)

“True artistic freedom can never be a matter of sheer willfulness, or arbitrary posturing. It is the outcome of authentic possibilities, understood and accepted in their own terms, not the refusal of the concrete in favor of the purely “interior”. In the last analysis, the only valid witness to the artist’s creative freedom is his work itself. The artist builds his own freedom and forms his own artistic conscience, by the work of his hands. Only when the work is finished can he tell whether or not it was done “freely”. (“Answers on Art and Freedom”, in “Raids on the Unspeakable”, p. 175
Comments of Roger Lipsey: “[This image] offers Merton's transformation of the most fundamental icon of Zen: the brush-drawn circle, or enso. ... Merton was drawn to this traditional form, but he had difficulty finding his way with it From Merton's brush, the unadorned traditional circle is tentative, awkward. He experimented with various inks and papers and effects, but the deceptive simplicity of the circle somehow defeated him as an artist, so the evidence indicates, until he dynamized it or made it more intricate. Then he was again on home ground ... in the fish multiple turns of the brush and cheerful tail fins convert the solemnity of the traditional enso into another spirited fish for the Christian aquarium. When Merton intuitively found a way to dynamize the circular form - to convert it into a fish, as here, or into some other creature on the move - his art is sure, captivating, and in this case even entertaining. He made the enso his own, not by imitation of the traditional icon but through it transformation.” (“Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton”, by Roger Lipsey, p. 47)

prayer and the law

"You realize that prayer takes us beyond the law. When you are praying you are, in a certain sense, an outlaw. There is no law between the heart and God."


from "Thomas Merton in Alaska" p. 118

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

love had a compass

Lax improvises on the prologue to St. John’s Gospel in his poem, The Circle of the Sun:

And in the beginning was love. Love made a sphere: all things
grew within it, the sphere then encompassed
beginnings and endings, beginning and end. Love
had a compass whose whirling dance traced out a
sphere of love in the void: in the center thereof
rose a fountain.

exile and pilgrim (lax)

Lax in Patmos, photo by Nicolas Humbert

While they were students at Columbia University, the circle of talented and articulate friends gathered around Merton – Lax (Robert), Rice (Ed), Knight (Jim), Reinhardt (Ad), Giroux (Robert), Berryman (John) – all referred to each other by their last names only, so I will do the same.

Merton and Lax, almost from the start, were the closest.

Lax is not well known as a poet in the United States, but enjoyed a considerably larger audience in Europe. Some see his “Circus of the Sun” poems as comparable to the work of T.S. Eliot.

Lax chose to be obscure. He was quiet and shy, but not self-conscious. He spent the better part of his life as rootless and expectant as a beggar. He was a solitary, but not a recluse. He once said that he could never have been a hermit because he didn’t know how to chop wood!

In 1964, after having (among other things) worked as a staff writer for the New Yorker and traveled around Europe with an Italian circus family, Lax arrived on the Greek island of Patmos.

Lax began to keep a journal, which I find rather remarkable in its simplicity and profundity. I begin to understand that simplicity – its centrality as a human virtue and the necessity of its cultivation – is at the heart of Lax’s poetry and his spirit.

The following is the introduction that Lax wrote for his journal. I think that it shows how faithfully Lax followed and trusted life, without ever pretending to lead the way.
When I left New York for Greece I had hoped only to find a quiet place to live for a while and write some poems. Quiet and inexpensive. If I could have found an uninhabited island where I could forage for myself, I think I’d have gone there. I did not come looking for people, or for nature, much less for history: just for quiet. I thought I needed it for my work, as a photographer needs a darkroom.

Quiet? A place to get away from people? Bright light, loud noises, and a constant presence of people (and of birds, goats, fish) is more the style. You are never alone in Greece. Someone is always with you, right with you or watching from across the hill: watching, listening, never sleeping, gathering data for a fund that’s been growing for the past several thousand years, watching for any flick of variation in patterns already known of human behavior. Wherever you live in Greece, whatever you do, wherever you sleep, you are doing it on a brightly lighted stage. Each day is judgement day.

I see this now. I hardly did when I first came to the islands in the early rainy months of 1964. The people who lived on the island were charming: they would not be overlooked. I tried to write about them quickly as I could, to get over my first impressions, to get on with writing the poems I’d come to do.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lax - an innate sense of the living God


I have long been fascinated with Merton’s friend, Robert Lax. Merton and Lax worked together on the Columbia University humor magazine, The Jester. Later, along with Ed Rice, they edited the Catholic literary and photo-magazine, Jubilee.

Lax’s writings reveal unique insights into contemplativeness that I want to add to this blog, a little at a time.

Merton describes his lifelong friend as his spiritual superior, a man born with an innate sense of the living God:

“… he was a kind of combination of Hamlet and Elias. A potential prophet, but without rage. A king, but a Jew too. A mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate. In his hesitations, though without embarrassment or nervousness at all, he would often curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to fine a word with which to begin. He talked best sitting on the floor.

“And 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. Lax has always been afraid he was in a blind alley, and half aware that, after all, it might not be a blind alley, but God, infinity.

“He had a mind naturally disposed, from the very cradle, to a kind of affinity for Job and St. John of the Cross. And I now know that he was born so much of a contemplative that he will probably never be able to find out how much.

“To sum it up, even the people who have always thought he was ‘too impractical’ have always tended to venerate him – in the way people who value material security unconsciously venerate people who do not fear insecurity…” (Seven Story Mountain, p. 181)

compassionate love

Throughout his discussion of contemplativeness, (“The Contemplative Heart”), James Finley returns again and again to the underlying theme of compassionate love:

We are continually failing, falling back into our ego needs and a private quest for inner peace and holiness. We want to become holy by rising above our ignorant and unaware selves. Finley advises us to engage contemplatively in the dilemma of how difficult it is to live contemplatively. Contemplativeness is about entering into brokenness, “entering the homelessness of the whole world being uniquely expressed in my experience of it.” (p. 39)

The big paradox is that when we are most broken and humbly embrace our lost-ness with compassionate love, we are closest to contemplative awareness – the compassionate love of God. Perhaps we are all too often like the good son who stays home and keeps all the rules - and remain clueless as to what compassionate love is all about.

A psychotherapist, Finley examines many of the ways that we lose the message of our own preciousness, and become shame-based:

“If this shame-based stance toward ourselves is not recognized and healed by compassionate love, our spiritual endeavors can become themselves shame-based attempts to establish as much distance as possible between ourselves and our own frailty and shortcomings. The seemingly lofty and holy self we imagine we are becoming feels secure in making an ascent that leaves far behind the fragile, childlike self that can barely walk on level ground, much less scale the steep inclines of spiritual perfection which we are seeking to master.

“Imagine that you have the following dream: You are climbing a high mountain. In the dream you know that the valley below is the place where you grew up and in which you experienced painful things and make all sorts of mistakes. It is this valley of painful memories and self-doubt that you are now trying to transcend and leave behind by reaching the summit on which you will be sublimely holy and one with God. Suddenly, the summit comes into view, and in that same instant the wind, coming up from the valley below, brings with it the sound of a child crying in distress. Just as suddenly you realize there is no real choice but to renounce the hard fought goal of reaching the summit to go back down the mountain to find and help the hurting child.

“Turning back, you descend down into the valley. Following the child’s cries as your guide, you are amazed to discover that you have been led (just as, deeper down, you knew you would be) to the homes you tried to leave behind in setting out to make your ascent to holiness! Sensing the ungraspable and momentous nature of the moment, you gently open the door and look inside. Sitting there, perhaps in a comer on the floor, is our own wounded child-self – that part of yourself that holds the feelings of powerlessness and shame that you tried so hard to leave behind. Respectfully approaching this hurting child, you sit next to it on the floor. Perhaps for a long time you say nothing, but simply sit there, grateful that you finally had the common sense to come back to this precious enigma of your own wounded child-self. Then a most amazing thing happens. You suddenly realize you are on the lofty summit of union with God! Suddenly, the Christ-event of God going forth to identify with the preciousness of us in our brokenness is realized in and as your compassionate love for the preciousness of yourself in your brokenness.” (“The Contemplative Heart”, James Finley, pp. 163-164)

Friday, February 9, 2007

a questing fish

Thomas Merton brush drawing, "Untitled"
(image size: 5 1/2" h x 8" w)
January 25, 1964. I am aware of the need for constant self-revision and growth, leaving behind the renunciations of yesterday and yet in continuity with all my yesterdays. For to cling to the past is to lose one’s continuity with the past, since this means clinging to what is no longer there.

My ideas are always changing, always moving around one center, and I am always seeing that center from somewhere else.

Hence, I will always be accused of inconsistency. But I will no longer be there to hear the accusation. (“Dancing in the Water of Life”, p. 67)

Late 1965. To say that I am a child of God is to say, before everything else, that I grow. That I begin. A child who does not grow becomes a monster. The idea “Child of God” is therefore one of living growth, becoming, possibility, risk, and joy in the negotiation of risk. In this God is pleased that His child grows in wisdom and grace.
(“Dancing in the Water of Life”, p. 334)

Comments from Roger Lipsey on this drawing: “Merton could be counted on to produce a lively school of Christian fish, and he does no disappoint. …The early work is jaunty and optimistic, slightly awkward, again full of promise. That sort of dynamism – energy large enough to swim against the current – was evident in Merton’s art from start to finish.

“As Merton gained mastery of the brush, he continued from time to time to explore the emblem of the fish in ways increasingly impressive. … This fish is not one to cradle in safe places, nibbling dreams. It is a fish on the move, a questing fish
. …” (“Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton”, by Roger Lipsey, p. 44-45)

Thursday, February 8, 2007

waiting for a "word" that one cannot speak

"The true contemplative is not one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but is one who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect to anticipate the words that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is "answered", it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself, suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God." (THE CLIMATE OF MONASTIC PRAYER - one of the last books Merton prepared for publication before he died.)

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

moving on

Merton stayed in one place (Gethsemani) for 27 years. Staying in this one place, he was able to delve deeply into the meaning of his unfolding life and the unfolding history of his times.

Spiritually, Merton was always moving. His innate tendency was to depart rather than to settle down into fixed ideas or perspectives. He was never afraid to walk away from himself when he found himself too narrow or non-inclusive.

Toward the end of his life, Merton realized that his “fans” had an illusive idea of who he was that was “completely out of touch”:

“They have trusted me in building a house I myself once built and then destroyed. I frighten them! But there is no question that my world and that of Thompson Willett have nothing in common. And neither of us wants to pretend.” (p. 298, "Learning to Love”)

Merton puzzled and prayed (and even agonized) over the seeming conflict and confusion that he experienced between himself and Mr. Willett. He did not want to alienate people in order to maintain his sense of identity, but he also knew that his vocation required that he faithfully follow a certain path.

“In the end – it just seems I’ve reached a corner I’ve got to turn, and there is a whole suburb that has to be left behind and never revisited. I am headed for some other city and had better get going!” (p. 287, “Learning to Love).

[Note: Thompson Willett and his family were good friends of my family. I grew up with his children and one Sunday afternoon when I was a teenager, Thompson taught me how to make bread in his big hearth fireplace/oven. I was in his daughter’s wedding. And I was aware, as a teenager, that Fr. Louie visited Thompson at his home. I love them all very much. And I also understand well what kind of “Catholic” Thompson was because it was the same Catholicism that I grew up with.]

Sunday, February 4, 2007

surrendering to the divinity of night

Here is a contemplative exercise from Jim Finley’s book, “The Contemplative Heart” (pages 154-156). I have taken some liberties with adapting, condensing, and sometimes rearranging the wording …

“Go to your room about an hour before sunset. Prop a few pillows on the floor against a wall facing an open window. Sit on the floor. Do not read anything. Do not write anything. But simply settle into the single minded intention of being with God while it gets dark. Continue sitting silent and still in the slowly darkening room for a full hour or so once the room has become dark.

“If you sit with any intention other than that of simply being with God in the deepening darkness of day’s end, you may or may not succeed. Sitting with the intention of simply staying awake, you might fall asleep. Sitting with the intention of falling asleep, you might have insomnia and sit there wide awake. Sitting with the intention of finding inner peace, you may be agitated. Sitting with the intention of having certain religious experiences, you might find yourself bereft of any felt sense of God’s presence …

“But if you sit there in the darkening room with no intention save that of being with God while it gets dark, you will succeed without fail, no matter what. …

“Sitting with all one’s heart in a darkening room seems strange only to the extent that you have allowed yourself to become a stranger to this child-like vulnerability to the divinity of the day’s end … You come home at night drained by the day’s ventures, ruminating over what tomorrow might bring, distracting yourself with this or that diversion, then get into bed, slipping off to sleep without ever stopping to renew your mindfulness of the divinity of day’s end.

“Knowing how easily you lose this awareness of the day’s end, you sit, intent upon being with God while it gets dark. You allow yourself to fall into the eternal silence of the darkening room.

“At first, your ego will fight the descent into the divinity of the night, and struggle with time spent with no agenda, no goals but this unmanageable situation of nothing to manage, nothing to control. Little by little, your ego melts into the darkness, and you discover yourself to be resting in and one with the no-place-to-go plenitude of the darkened room in which you sit. Sitting thusly, for an hour or so in the darkness, you stand and without turning on any lights, undress in the dark. Getting into bed, you drift off to sleep as one graced in having been intimately awakened and surrendered over to the divinity of night.”

Saturday, February 3, 2007

the thich nhat hanh connection

Thomas Merton with Thich Nhat Hanh
Photograph by John Heidbrink


In May 1966 Merton had a visit from Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Naught-Han), a Buddhist monk, Zen Master, a poet from Vietnam, and a peace activist. During the Vietnam War, Nhat Hanh worked tirelessly to reconcile the warring factions of his country. He came to the U.S. to present a picture of Vietnam that was not given to us by our news media – that of the innocent people who suffered.

Merton immediately recognized in Nhat Hanh someone very like himself. They had both been in monasteries for many years, both were poets, and both had written a poem to a brother killed in war. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed didn’t seem to matter, “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton said in writing a preface for a book on the Vietnam War by Nhat Hanh (also published as an essay “Nhat Hanh Is My Brother”):

“He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.” (Faith and Violence)

When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.”

This, Merton said to the monks at his Sunday lecture, was truly a monk’s answer, revealing the essence without wasting a word. Merton described the rigorous formation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. “Before you can learn to meditate,” he said quoting Nhat Hanh, “you have to learn how to shut the door.”

Merton was intrigued with Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of Zen as a “rare and unique sense of responsibility in the modern world”:

“Wherever he goes he will walk in the strength of his spirit and in the solitude of the Zen monk who sees beyond life and death.” (“Nhat Hanh Is My Brother”)

Nhat Hanh was banned from Vietnam in 1966 and has been living in exile at a retreat center in southern France. He continues to teach mindfulness and what he calls “Engaged Buddhism” – the effort to respond to suffering.

Merton envied the danger of Nhat Hanh’s role in the world, “…do for Nhat Hanh whatever you would do for me if I were in his position. In many ways I wish I were.”

Several years ago I had a book by Nhat Hanh: The Miracle of Mindfulness. The book was probably my first practical introduction into slowing down: looking at what was before me, tasting what I was eating, learning how to wash the dishes. Recently I discovered a website devoted to SLOWNESS – The Slow Movement. I find that I need all of these helps and reminders to keep from being swallowed up in the mad rush. Mindfulness and a refusal to rush are the both the seed and the fruit of contemplativeness, and they are integral to Nhat Hanh’s message.

doing God's will, dynamically

"Merton understood that God's "will" was revealed most personally in the responses demanded of him through his relationships with his neighbors in the widest sense of that reality. Merton's neighbors were all beings with whom he shared his life. Every relationship in which we find ourselves asks us to respond flexibly, with justice and mercy, to what is the often unspoken need of our neighbor.

"We live contemplatively so that we can live dynamically in response to the changing needs of the neighbor before us."

- from BOOK ONE of the "Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton" series. Edited by Jonathan Montaldo & Robert G. Toth of the Merton Foundation. p. 36-37

"Unfortunately, many people view the will of God rather like a ten-ton elephant hanging overhead, ready to fall on them ... Actually the word which we translate into English as will comes from both a Hebrew and a Greek word which means yearning. ...

" ... Thus, the will of God is dynamic ... When we pray "Your will be done", we are not thinking about a script of our lives God has destined from all eternity. Rather we are referring to the choices we must make ..."

- Wilkie Au, "By Way of the Heart" (excerpted from Book One of the Bridges series book)

Friday, February 2, 2007

an inner dynamism

Brush drawing by Thomas Merton, "Untitled"
image size: 11 3/4" h x 7"w
This is very powerful if you take the time to read it slowly and carefully:
December 23, 1967. "We must face the challenge of the future realizing that we are still problems to ourselves. Where the religious dimension enters in is not just in pious clich├ęs but in a radical self-criticism and openness and a profound ability to trust not only in our chances of a winning gamble, but in an inner dynamism of life itself, a basic creativity, a power of life to win over entropy and death. But once again, we have to pay attention to the fact that we may formulate this in words, and our unconscious death-drive may be contradicting us in destructive undertones we don’t hear.

"In other words, we have all got to learn to be wide open, and not get closed up in little tight systems and cliques, little coteries of gnostic experts." (“Witness to Freedom, p. 73)

"In the case of a Zen artist, there is then no artistic reflection. The work of art springs “out of emptiness” and is transferred in a flash, by a few brush strokes, to paper. It is not a “representation of” anything, but rather it is the subject itself, existing as light, as art, in a drawing which has, so to speak, “drawn itself”. The work then is a concretized intuition: not however presented as a unique experience of a specially endowed soul, who can then claim it as his own. On the contrary, to make any such claim would instantly destroy the character of “emptiness” and suchness which the work might be imagined to have. " (The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p. 264. This text was first published in “The American Benedictine Review” in 1960.)

Notes from Roger Lipsey: "In any sound approach to abstract imagery, it helps to be alert to the afterimage or recessive image – an evocative form that is barely present, so that one can’t be sure of it, yet one falls under its spell. One senses that “something else,” difficult to name, is there. [In this image] the subliminally sensed image is of a standing, robed figure, perhaps distantly akin to ancient Chinese figures of the Buddha in which the robe flares out in elegant pleated folds. I cannot say that this is so; I can only say that there is the bearing of a standing figure in this dynamic yet stately image." (“Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton”, by Roger Lipsey, p. 44)