Saturday, March 31, 2007

let the hours of the day saturate you

photography by Thomas Merton
Merton was convinced that if you let the hours of the day saturate you, and you gave them time, something would happen. He said that one of the best things that happened to him when he became a hermit was ...

"... being attentive to the times of the day: when the birds began to sing, and the deer came out of the morning fog, and the sun came up ... The reason why we don't take time is a feeling that we have to keep moving. This is a real sickness ... We must approach the whole idea of time in a new way. We are free to love. And we must get free from all imaginary claims. We live in the fullness of times. Every moment is God's own good time, His kairos. The whole thing boils down to giving ourselves in prayer a chance to realize that we have what we seek. We don't have to rush after it. It was there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us ... There is in all this a sense of the unfolding of mystery in time, a reverence for gradual growth."

John Howard Griffin quoting Brother David F. K. Steindl-Rast quoting Merton, "Recollections of Thomas Merton's Last Days in the West", p. 3

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

that is what it means to be a christian

brush drawing by Thomas Merton
(image size 6 1/2" h x 4 1/4" w)
March 25, 1960. In emptying Himself to come into the world, God has not simply kept in reserve, in a safe place, His reality and manifested a kind of shadow or symbol of Himself. He has emptied Himself and is all in Christ. … Christ is not simply the tip of the little finger of the Godhead, moving in the world, easily withdrawn, never threatened, never really risking anything. God has acted and given Himself totally, without division, in the Incarnation. He has become not only one of us but even our very selves. (A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life, p. 381)

That is what it means to be a Christian: not simply one who believes certain reports about Christ, but one who lives in a conscious confrontation with Christ in himself and in other men. This means, therefore, the choice to become empty of one’s self, the illusory self fabricated by our desires and fears, the self that is here now and will cease being here if this or that happens. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p.

March 29, 1968. Christ not as object of seeing or study, but Christ as center in whom and by whom one is illuminated. (The Hidden Ground of Love, p. 643)
Notes from Roger Lipsey
“This perfectly grand image of the Crucifixion was found in a booklet, a kind of diary of drawings, as just one among ten or so brush drawings, the others of no special interest. Though monumental in “feel” and impact, it is factually a small print produced by inking and printing with the edge of an envelope or something of the kind. The method could hardly be simpler; the result could hardly be more majestic. This image recalls medieval carvings of the Crucifixion to which Merton was exposed as a boy in France, especially of the Romanesque period before the elaborations of Gothic art.
… this image of Christ Crucified draws together, remarkably, the values he most cared for as a contemporary artist and the values he most cared for as a monk …”

(Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton, by Roger Lipsey, p. 53)

christ comes through the ruins

brush drawing by Thomas Merton
(image size: 8 1/2" h x 5" w, on gray card)

July 5, 1965. The greatest comfort is to be sought precisely in the Psalms, which face death as it is, under the eye of God, and teach us how we may also face it. They bring us, at the same time, into contact or rather communion with all those who have so seen death and accepted it before us. Most of all, the Lord Himself, who prayed the Psalms on the cross. (Dancing in the Water of Life, p. 265)

Slowly, slowly
Comes Christ through
the ruins
Seeking the lost disciple
A timid one
Too literate
To believe words
So she hides.
(The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, p. 449)

The monk who is truly a man of prayer and who seriously faces the challenge of his vocation in all its depth is by that very fact exposed to existential dread. He experiences in himself the emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity, the “lostness” of modern man. … The monk confronts his own humanity and that of his world at the deepest and most central point where the void seems to open out into black despair. The monk confronts this serious possibility, and rejects it … The option of absolute despair is turned into perfect hope by the pure and humble supplication of monastic prayer. The monk faces the worst, and discovers in it the hope of the best. From the darkness comes light. From death, life. From the abyss there comes, unaccountably, the mysterious gift of the Spirit sent by God to make all things new, to transform the created and redeemed world, and to re-establish all things in Christ. (The Climate of Monastic Prayer, p. 25)

Notes from Roger Lipsey:
“ … the Celtic cross reflects what Merton once called Zen Catholicism – a phrase borrowed from Dom Ailred Graham, a Benedictine abbot and author whom Merton admired. This is a magnificent rendering, uncanny but still comfortable and settled in its fusion of freely brushed Zen calligraphy with the unique design of the Irish medieval cross. Here is the Zen brush-drawn circle yet again, at home in an unexpected place. …”
(Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton, by Roger Lipsey, pp. 48-49)

Monday, March 26, 2007

the spiritual value of Christian public prayer

This quote came from The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living today:

“Contemplation is a gift of God, given in and through His Church, and through the prayer of the Church. St. Anthony was led into the desert not by a private voice but by the word of God, proclaimed in the Church of his Egyptian village in the chanting of the Gospel in Coptic—a classical example of liturgy opening the way to a life of contemplation! But the liturgy cannot fulfill this function if we misunderstand or underestimate the essentially spiritual value of Christian public prayer. If we cling to immature and limited notions of “privacy,” we will never be able to free ourselves from the bonds of individualism. We will never realize how the Church delivers us from ourselves by public worship, the very public character of which tends to hide us “in the secret of God’s face."

Seasons of Celebration [SC]. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950: 26-27

Friday, March 23, 2007

the john howard griffin connection, part two

I don’t know who took this photo because both Merton and John Howard Griffin are in the picture!

The occasion was the visit of Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, whom Griffin had brought to Gethsemani. It was early autumn (October 6, 1966) and Merton was entertaining them in his hermitage, serving coffee in plastic water glasses. The group included Maritain and Griffin, Fr. J. Stanley Murphy, C.S.B., Fr. Dan Walsh and Dr. John Ford. It was an extraordinary time, and all were aware of an overwhelming joy to be together in that time and place. Both Merton and Griffin photographed the unusual gathering freely and extensively.

Griffin and Merton had known each other since the early 60’s when they began corresponding about civil rights. In 1963 Griffin approached Father Abbot, James Fox, asking to begin a photographic archive of Merton’s life and activity. Griffin had done this with other famous people, including Jacques Maritain. He did not intend to publish the photos, but felt that they should be made for history’s sake. He did not expect to receive permission.

Surprisingly, Father Abbot gave permission, also asking that an “official” portrait be made of Merton so that they could replace the youthful one that was still being used in newspapers and magazines.

When Griffin showed up, Merton was fascinated with the cameras. And thus began his own photography endeavors. Griffin loaned Merton cameras to use, developed his film, and advised him about photographic technique. He also came to know Merton very well. They had a lot in common: they were both writers and artists, both profoundly contemplative and friends of Jacques Maritain, and they shared a common concern for civil rights in America, particularly regarding race.

After Merton’s death, Griffin was appointed the official biographer of Thomas Merton. Unfortunately Griffin became too sick to accomplish this task before his own death in 1980.

Here is something that Griffin said about Merton that I like (from “A Hidden Wholeness / The Visual World of Thomas Merton):

“… Merton’s extraordinary personality permeated his works. To understand anything about this personality, popular pietistic images about contemplatives have to be discarded. Merton was a mystic and a poet, with an ability to see many facets of the same object and to combine within himself seeming opposites. He was simultaneously a man of profound discipline and astonishing freedom; a man who expressed himself eloquently concerning the spiritual life but who kept his own secret prayer private; a man of profound religious abandonment who refused to veil his humanity in the gauze of pietism; a man of the intellect who relished the simplest of manual labor. He combined strength and toughness with a faultless courtesy to others. He possessed a high sense of humor and showed great personal warmth in his relations with others, but had not time to waste on what he called “silliness” or “foolishness” and could terminate such encounters with masterful tact. He would not wear religious masks or pretend, for anyone’s edification, to be other than what he was: a man whose interior life was not for display and who was not going to act out anyone else’s version of what a contemplative should be.” (pp 1-2)

See also: the john howard griffin connection, part 1
"life in its totality" - an addendum to the Maritain visit

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Books can speak to us like God, like men or like the noise of the city we live in.

They speak to us like God when they bring us light and peace and fill us with silence. They speak to us like God when we desire never to leave them.

They speak to us like men when we desire to hear them again.

They speak to us like the noise of the city when they hold us captive by a weariness that tells us nothing, gives us no peace, and no support, nothing to remember, and yet will not let us escape.

Books that speak like God speak with too much authority to entertain us.

Those that speak like good men hold us by their human charm; we grow by finding ourselves in them. They teach us to know ourselves better by recognizing ourselves in another.

Books that speak like the noise of the multitudes reduce us to despair by the sheer weight of their emptiness. They entertain us like the lights of the city streets at night, by hopes they cannot fulfil.

Great though books may be, friends though they may be to us, they are no substitute for persons, they are only means of contact with great persons, with men who had more than their own share of humanity, men who were persons for the whole world and not for themselves alone. ...

Christ, the Incarnate Word, is the book of life in whom we read God.

Thoughts in Solitude, pp 62-64

Sunday, March 18, 2007

lax on wisdom, part three (survival)

knowing how to stay alive & healthy (well-fed & with adequate air and sleep) is also part of wisdom.

the wisdom of survival.

wisdom for survival.

he who is imbued with the wisdom of survival is not only fit for “survival” himself, but for teaching it to others. (even to generations of others.)

“The survival of the fittest” – not of the fiercest, not of the fastest – the fittest, among men, may, after all, be the wisest.

not every place in the world, at every time and in every condition would be a good school for wisdom. but wisdom is a “culture” (as yoghurt is) and where it begins to grow it develops regularly. wise generations, for a while at least, follow the generations of the wise.

wisdom and moderation certainly have something to do with each other. he who does not know how to moderate an action (to moderate, in fact, all his actions) cannot be wise.

pan metron ariston say the greeks; every good thing in measure (wise words from the ancients.)

not too little, and not too much: the meaning of moderation.

most refusals to do this or that, to eat or drink this or that, in Greece, have to do with moderation: the observance of a clearly perceived (if seldom verbalized) inner law.

to live among greeks (and especially, perhaps, among kalymnians) is to live in an atmosphere of wisdom.

where among kalymnians is the greatest degree of wisdom to be observed: I think, almost certainly, among the fishermen.

what are the wise things they say and the wise things they do? only to be living among them, watching them carefully, listening attentively can one learn from them gradually.

learn to be a fisherman? learn slowly, to be wise.

to live among wise people is to learn wisdom gradually. can wisdom be learned? can all men learn wisdom? I think almost all men can gain somewhat in wisdom and can gain more in wisdom by living among the wise.

for wisdom is a language, and he would learn something of their language. he might not learn to use it with great ability, but every year for a while he would learn a little, if by nature, he was incapable of learning more.

what is the value of wisdom? many values, but perhaps the most obvious, the most nearly tangible: the value of survival.

is survival, too, a matter of dubious value? it may be for some, (I doubt that it is for the wise.)

- Robert Lax, July 22, 1969, from the “A Greek Journal” published in the book “Love Had A Compass”, pp. 216-217
[See: lax on wisdom, part two (under water)
and lax on wisdom, part one]

Thursday, March 15, 2007

the sense of the holy

Brush drawing by Thomas Merton, 1964, "Untitled"
(image size: 5" h x 4 1/2" w)

March 18, 1960. The sense of the Holy, that lays one low, as in Isaias. To read Hallaj makes one lament and beat his breast. Where has it gone, this sense of the sacred, this awareness of the Holy? What has happened to us? … Is there no one left to wrestle with the angel, like Jacob and … Hallaj? (Witness to Freedom, p .276 note: Merton was reading Louis Massignon’s French translation (1957) of writings by Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, the celebrated Sufi mystic and martyr.)

December 9, 1964. The only response is to go out from yourself with all that one is, which is nothing, and pour out that nothingness in gratitude that God is who He is. All speech is impertinent, it destroys the simplicity of that nothingness before God by making it seems as if it had been “something”. (Dancing in the Water of Life, p. 178)

Notes from Roger Lipsey:
“This image must be counted among Merton’s masterpieces. Not even remotely entertaining, it breathes the spirit of what Miguel de Unamuno memorably called the tragic sense of life. … yet another transformation of the traditional Zen enso, [this image] is one of [Merton's] strongest emblems, though it does not give its secret away. Dark and heavy on the right, open and spacious on the left, it reports some enigmatic perception of what we are or the larger design of things. The pattern is circular, but the eye soon enough registers a subtle horizontal flow across the circle (from Merton’s humble grass stems, here serving as a lattice like mask in the printmaking process). This is a message-bearing enso, however difficult the message may be to put in words; it is full of darkly sparkling life. It must have surprised Merton as much as it surprises us: there are textures he could surely not have predicted. Chance and providence cooperated well.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

update on "the only known photograph of God"

Jim Forest has informed me that "the only known photograph of God" (shown also in the left sidebar) was originally a very simple color snapshot that Merton made before John Howard Griffin gave him a better camera to use. The theological commentary is pure Merton.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals

I have suspected, for a while, that my preoccupation with Merton has something to do with my own sense of exile from the Catholic Church. Merton is a bridge that keeps me somehow connected (and reaching for deeper communion).

Which is probably why I ordered Beggars for Heaven, a biography of Jacques and Raissa Maritain. Jacques Maritain was the French Catholic philosopher whose writings were instrumental in the conversion of Merton and John Howard Griffin. Both men considered him their spiritual mentor. Raissa, a Russian-born and Jewish poet rooted in Hasidic mysticism, married Jacques and together they discovered and explored the deeper meanings of Catholicism. Merton translated many of her poems from French into English.

The Maritain marriage was special, drawing many lives into their passion for truth. T.S. Eliot, Marc Chagall, Merton and Griffin are just a few of the people who were drawn into the enchanted circle.

“Too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals” is how one reviewer describes the Maritain way. I relate to that and remember a Catholic Church that used to also be that way (or so I perceived it).

Sunday, March 11, 2007

the john howard griffin connection, part one

“The world has always been saved by an Abrahamic minority.... There have always been a few who, in times of great trouble, became keenly aware of the underlying tragedy: the needless destruction of humanity.” – John Howard Griffin

Somewhere in my early teenage years (1962?), between the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and “Gone with the Wind”, I read Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. It was the most profound book to have thus far come to my attention. A white man deliberately darkened his skin and then wrote about his experiences while traveling the Deep South as a black man. This book, more than any other, ignited my passion for social justice.

John Howard Griffin was what is known as a “Renaissance Man” – a person with broad intellectual interests who is accomplished in both the arts and the sciences. Born in Texas in 1920, he was 5 years younger than Merton. His mother was a classically trained pianist and his father an Irish tenor and radio personality.
At the age of 15, Griffin left the United States to study in France, receiving certificates in French, literature, music, and medicine. As a musicologist he specialized in medieval music, particularly Gregorian chant. As a medical intern, he conducted experiments in the use of music therapy for the criminally insane.

At age 19, Griffin began serving as a medic in the French Resistance Army, evacuating Austrian Jews to safety. He then served 39 months with the United States Army Air Corps in the South Seas during World War II. Caught in a Japanese bombing raid, his eyes began to deteriorate.

From 1946 – 1957 John Howard Griffin was blind. He returned to Texas to live with his family and raise cattle. He wrote 5 novels during this time. He became a Catholic. He associated himself with a Carmelite monastery, desperately seeking some kind of “spiritual union with God”. French Catholic philospher, Jacques Maritain, was his spiritual mentor.

In 1957, sight was miraculously returned to Griffin. A blockage of the circulation of blood to the optic nerve suddenly opened and he saw his wife and 2 children for the first time. He began photographing what he could see. His most acclaimed photographs are his portraits.

In 1959 Griffin traveled to New Orleans. There, with the help of drugs, dyes, and radiation, he darkened his skin, shaved his head, and “crossed the line into a country of hate, fear, and hopelessness – the country of the American Negro.” For two months he traveled through the Deep South, later publishing his observations in a magazine series and the widely acclaimed book Black Like Me.

Though the book received many prestigious awards, reaction was also hostile. Griffin's body was hung in effigy on the main street of his town and his life was repeatedly threatened until he died in 1980.

See also: the john howard griffin connection, part two

Saturday, March 10, 2007

contemplative photography

Photograph by Thomas Merton

"…for him, the best images were silent but communicative. In his writing he used words, with their implied sounds, to explore and express silence. He struggled toward an expression of silence through the visual image, in photographs that communicated the essence of silence without any implied sounds."
- John Howard Griffin, "The Hidden Wholeness", p. 4

Friday, March 9, 2007

lax on wisdom, part two (under water)

as the life of the body is made up of many elements in lively motion and lively interchange (and in strict but deeply mysterious order) so is the life of the town.

exchanges are made by words and gestures, even, most importantly, by glances: life imparted from one being to another: given without loss, but taken with gain. given & taken (& ready to give again).

as the living body, whole body, out & in, has a texture, so has the life of the town. a tone & a texture, changing from moment to moment & yet in many aspects remaining the same.

this is the texture of life, a texture that is woven as closely as on a continent, and as closely on a rock (with one living man) as on an island.

it is to perceive this texture that we have seeing eyes, hearing ears and feeling hands. it is not only to be warned by it of dangers, nor invited by it to desire, but to enjoy, to appreciate it from moment to moment in its life and in its passing.

our contact with life, with the flow of life, is a physical contact: spiritual, too – but physical none the less.

to touch life, to know life, we must somehow bang into it: though if we stand off it, it will come, & grasp us.

I swam again today. clear water. slow-moving shadows over the rocks. the rocks themselves not white or grey: more pink & white; blue & grey. a strange man, gardener, comes and swims too: scrambles lithely over the rocks and undresses behind one. naked swimmer, washing the dust of the garden, he says, from a thin & muscular brown and white body, looks amphibious, even on land, and most at home in the water.

the undersea vision, even at shallow depths, is almost narcotic. whatever is seen is seen with such peace, such composure. to look thus wide-eyed at all phenomena would surely be a kind of joy, a kind of psychic nourishment. we glide above objects, seeing them through glass, through the heavy, light-charged water: fallen rocks are the walls of a valley: below them a sleeping plain of smooth, white sand.

sea calls to the blood, waking those members farthest removed from the heart to a new circulation: the blood within, the brine without, calling to each other as day to night, night to day.

- Robert Lax, August 21, 1969, from the “A Greek Journal” published in the book “Love Had A Compass”, pp. 215-216

[See: lax on wisdom, part one and lax on wisdom, part three (survival)]

Sunday, March 4, 2007

photo of a dream - finding your way

photo by Thomas Merton, December 6, 1968 - Bangkok

When John Howard Griffin’s camera was returned to him from Gethsemani after Merton’s death, he found that there was still film in it.

Griffin carefully developed the film and discovered a scene viewed from some high place, downward past the edge of a building and a foreground of shore across a broad body of water from which reflected sunlight glinted back into the viewer’s eyes – a universal, all–embracing view of men and boats and water, seen from the perspective of height and distance.

Merton had taken the photograph looking down from his penthouse room at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok on December 6th (3 days before his death).

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1966. In this book Merton recounts a dream:

“I dreamt I was lost in a great city and was walking “toward the center” without quite knowing where I was going. Suddenly I came to a dead end, but on a height, looking at a great bay, an arm of the harbor. I saw a whole section of the city spread out before me on the hills covered with light snow, and realized that, though I had far to go, I knew where I was: because in this city there are two arms of the harbor and they help you to find your way, as you are always encountering them.” (Conjectures, 188-189)
I had been looking for this photograph for some time. I found it on the last page of “A Hidden Wholeness/The Visual World of Thomas Merton”, a collection of photos by Merton and Griffin which was published in 1970. The book is now out of print and I have no idea what kind of copyright laws (if any) I may be breaking in posting a scanned copy of that photo here.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

hagia sophia painting by victor hammer

Hagia Sophia
painting by Victor Hammer
"Wisdom will honor you if you embrace her - she will place on your head a fair garland - she will bestow on you a crown of glory." (Proverbs 4: 8-9)
"... One day Father Louis (Thomas Merton) our friend came from his monastery at Trappist, Kentucky to bring an ill novice to the hospital in Lexington. (I had known Father Louis since 1955 when I visited him for the first time. Later we printed several of his books.) We had prepared a simple luncheon and I welcomed him to sit with us at the table. From where he sat he had a good view of the tryptich on the chest and he often looked at it. After awhile he asked quite abruptly, "And who is the woman who is behind Christ?" I said, "I do not know yet". Without further question he gave his own answer. "She is Hagia Sophia - Holy Wisdom - who crowns Christ." And this she was - and is."

-Victor Hammer

[See also: hagia sophia]