Saturday, May 26, 2007

thomas merton's advice to peacemakers

Click here to read: “Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers”

In 1959 Jim Forest was 18 years old and working for the U.S. Navy. At the bus station in New York City he picked up Merton’s autobiography, “Seven Story Mountain”. He was hooked.

A year later, while visiting the Peter Maurin Farm on Staten Island, Jim heard Dorothy Day reading one of Merton’s letters. He was amazed. He had been under the impression that the monk of Seven Story Mountain was cloistered behind walls and had closed the door to the world forever yet here he was corresponding with one of the America’s more controversial figures.

In 1961, upon his discharge from the Navy, Jim joined the Catholic Worker Community in New York thinking that it would be his own stepping stone to the monastery. Knowing of his interest in Merton and attraction to the monastic life, Dorothy began sharing her Merton correspondence with Jim. By this time Jim had read more of Merton’s books. Merton and Jim began their own correspondence.

In late 1961 Merton invited Jim to Gethsemani. Their friendship and correspondence continued until Merton’s death in 1968. (probably longer :-)) Jim went on in life to be a predominant presence in the formation of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His correspondence with Merton is extensive, as is his writing about Merton. His book, “Living with Wisdom”, is one of my favorite biographies of Merton. Jim and his wife, Nancy, now live in Amsterdam.

On June 8, 2007, Jim will give this lecture, “Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers” at the Thomas Merton Society’s 10th General Meeting in Memphis Tennessee.

Reference: Essays by Jim Forest


[drawing by Thomas Merton]
Merton’s prayer life was nourished by the psalms, the public prayer of the Jews. He prayed and sang the psalms every day throughout the day for twenty-seven years.

“Through the words of the Psalter sung in choir with his brothers, he joined himself to the groaning of all creation by the public voicing of its longing, complaint, wonder, trust, and praise at the mysteries of being alive.” (Jonathan Montaldo, “Dialogues with Silence”)
I have added links to the sidebar of this blog to the Universalis web postings of the prayers of the Hours.

waiting, dark hope

The following excerpts are taken from the Introduction to Jonathan Montaldo’s book, “Dialogues with Silence, prayers and drawings”. They capture something of what draws me toward Merton’s personal prayer – or what we can gleam of it from his writings. The not-knowingness, the waiting, the dark hope:

“Monastic life inculcated in Merton [this] heightened awareness, an alertness to the possibilities of the hour, what he called “the grip of the present”. Alert expectancy was a habit he cultivated for a fruitful, examined life. His monastic stability and its enclosed horizons ironically made all the keener his innate tendency to be more ready to depart than to settle down in fixed ideas or perspectives. Merton was never afraid to walk away from himself when, through experience, prayer, and study, he found himself still too narrow and noninclusive to be a thoroughly catholic human being.”

“By appropriating the insights of a long monastic tradition, Merton learned that waiting for a “word” he could not speak to himself was the essence of prayer. Stillness, poverty of spirit, keeping vigil, guarding thoughts, and fasting from one’s own selfishness were essential attributes of his practice of monastic humanism.”

“Merton had learned early to keep vigil in silence with his heart’s eye on the horizon of the next moment. The next moment could reveal in light or in shadow the presence of the Beloved he awaited. He kept his mind’s eye open for the unexpected epiphany. Waiting without projecting his own needs into the next moment became a dark form of hope. In committing some of his personal prayers to writing, Merton’s gift to his readers was his honesty in communicating the darkness what was his rite of passage into God’s presence.”

“Not to know where his life was going was always to begin again in Merton’s journey to love learning and desire God. Ignorance acknowledged was a stimulus to new experience. Ignorance acknowledged was an exciting wisdom that poised Merton for God’s “next thing”.

“Darkness acknowledged kept Merton leaning toward the “thin places” between night and the edge of light that signals dawn.”

- Jonathan Montaldo, "Dialogues with Silence", 2001, pp. xiv-xv

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

holy rocks

The more I read the poetry and writings of Bob Lax, the more I am pulled into the magic of a mysterious and joyful storyteller. Lax is always cued into the underlying song of the world, the light behind the sky, the peculiarity and specificity of the details.

This is one of my favorite passages from Lax’s “Patmos Diary”. It is St. Thomas day (October 6, 1969 – the year after Merton’s death) and Lax is telling of the happenings on the island (a woman had missed the boat and was crying) when he runs into his old friend “siderako”, an 88 year old farmer who is going to the small church (St. Thomas) on the other side of the bay to celebrate St. Thomas Day (would Merton be there?) Lax has a hard time keeping up with him as they walk along …

sometimes a scene, like the (sea-scape) from the road, is more alive and speaks more clearly than the imagination.

it speaks of amazing order and purpose.

islands set out with care & grace (as though for a tea ceremony).

rocks scattered helter-skelter on the hillside, as though after an explosion, as though after an apocalypse: yet each one “perfect” in its place.

a road that leads and bends, bends and runs straight in “just the right places.”

(in just the right places.)

on days when nothing seems right in the world, the island landscape does. patmos does for patmos (& kalymonos for itself).

but patmos rocks are magical, mystical, holy.

the only ones like them I’ve ever seen, and they are only related in spirit, are those around avila.

they are rocks that stand and speak like elders.

some that rise from the sea are clenched like fists.

the rocks look like a person who has “suffered” a great revelation

like a prophet
after the spirit
has set him

even the brambles that grow from them, seem to be part, an essential part, of their visage

when I am alone on the road with the rocks, the whole world falls away, and I am alone & “contained” in a familiar place.

the color of the rocks is the color of fire (the color of pomegranates)

if a rock by the roadside is shaped for sitting, it is well-shaped for sitting (& well-placed, too, for meditation)

the rocks at patmos are vertical rocks; and the hill at patmos rises high

the holiness of patmos is priestly, prophetic, ecclesiastical holiness

the “holiness” of kalymnos is the holiness of life, of a city that is willing to live and willing to die: of one that praises its creator much as a fire does (by consuming itself in flame).

-Robert Lax, "Love Had A Compass", from the Patmos Diary, pp. 232, 233

contracts with life

brush drawing by Thomas Merton. Untitled.
(image size: 3 1/4" h x 2 3/4" w)

It’s time for me to get back to looking at the calligraphies again – these strange markings that Merton made. I appreciate the guidance that Roger Lipsey gives to looking at them. They seem familiar to me, somehow. Like they come from a place where I know this mysterious language.

In the autumn of 1963, Merton drafted notes toward the essay on his art that is published in Lipsey’s book, “Angelic Mistakes – the Art of Thomas Merton”. The following notes are drawn from that essay:

These are contracts with movement, with life, in which no one can be bound except to what was and is now definitive.

Not a question of conjunction of idea and execution.

Inventions yes: but also collaborations with solitude.
Summonses, calls to experiment, trials, gifts, fortunate events.

Neither rustic nor urbane, Eastern nor Western, perhaps can be called expressions of Zen Catholicism.

Rearrangement of forms leads to change of perception: registering certain signs – in order to become aware of certain new possibilities and consonances. Not without

But in what terms! Fidelity to Zen-like experience of wholeness.

Lipsey’s comments on this drawing:

"… escapes interpretation and needs none. It perfectly fulfills Merton’s stated program of offering “signs without prearrangement”, “summonses to awareness”. The image relies on contrasts – heavy and light, lower and upper, axial and diagonal – but to say this is only to describe, not to interpret. It is a sign made by a free spirit, inviting us to be free. Its lightness and spring call out the same in us.”

Monday, May 21, 2007

love and power

"The center of Christian humanism is the idea that God is love, not infinite power."

- Love and Living: 149

Sunday, May 20, 2007

faith and violence

"For some “faithful” – and for unbelievers too – “faith” seems to be a kind of drunkenness, an anesthetic, that keeps you from realizing and believing that anything can ever go wrong. Such faith can be immersed in a world of violence and make no objection: the violence is perfectly all right. It is quite normal – unless of course it happens to be exercised by Negroes. Then it must be put down instantly by superior force. The drunkenness of this kind of faith – whether in a religious message or merely in a political ideology – enables us to go through life without seeing that our own violence is a disaster and that overwhelming force by which we seek to assert ourselves and our own self interest may well be our ruin.

Is faith a narcotic dream in a world of heavily-armed robbers, or is it an awakening?

Is faith a convenient nightmare in which we are attacked and obliged to destroy our attackers?

What if we awaken to discover that we are the robbers, and our destruction comes from the root of hate in ourselves?"

Abbey of Gethsemani

- from the preface to a series of essays: “Faith and Violence”, pp. ix-x

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ruth Calvert Jenkins Merton (1887-1921)

Thomas Merton's mother was an American and an artist. She died of stomach cancer when Merton was 6 years old.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

the news

"What did the radio say this evening? I don’t know.

What was on TV? I have watched TV twice in my life. I am frankly not terribly interested in TV anyway. Certainly I do not pretend that by simply refusing to keep up with the latest news I am therefore unaffected by what goes on, or free of it all. Certainly events happen and they affect me as they do other people. It is important for me to know about them too: but I refrain from trying to know them I their fresh condition as “news.” When they reach me they have become slightly stale. I eat the same tragedies as others, but in the form of tasteless crusts. The news reaches me in the long run through books and magazines, and no longer as a stimulant. Living without news is like living without cigarettes (another peculiarity of the monastic life). The need for this habitual indulgence quickly disappears. So, when you hear news without the “need” to hear it, it treats you differently. And you treat it differently too.

In this perspective you are perhaps able to distinguish the real happening from the pseudo-event. Nine tenths of the news, as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten tenths. The ritual morning trance, in which one scans columns of newsprint, creates a peculiar form of generalized pseudo-attention to a pseudo-reality. This experience is taken seriously. It is one’s daily immersion in “reality.” One’s orientation to the rest of the world. One’s way of reassuring himself that he has not fallen behind. That he is still there. That he still

My own experience has been that renunciation of this self-hypnosis, of this participation in the unquiet universal trance, is no sacrifice of reality at all. To “fall behind” in this sense is to get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly.

When you get a clearer picture you can understand why so many want to stand in the dust cloud, where there is comfort in confusion.

The things that actually happen are sometimes incredibly horrible.

The fog of semi-rational verbiage with which the events are surrounded is also terrible, but in a different way.

And then, beside the few real horrors, there are the countless pseudo-events, the come-on’s, the releases, the statements, the surmises, the slanders, the quarrels, the insults and the interminable self-advertising of the image-makers.

We believe that the “news” has a strange metaphysical status outside us: it “happens” by itself. Actually, it is something we fabricate. Those who are poor artisans make only pseudo-events. These are the tired politicians and businessmen, the educators, writers, intellectuals and the tiredest of all, the Churchmen.

Others are better at it: they know how to make real bad news!"

"Events and Pseudo-Events" - pp. 149-151, FAITH AND VIOLENCE

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

lax on "pure act"

Circus of the Sun is Lax’s best known and most-loved poem. It recounts the passage of a day in the world of a small circus come to town. Lax based the poem on his experiences while traveling with the Cristiani family circus. The poem transforms real-life acrobats and animal trainers into archetypal characters whose day recapitulates the Creation.

At the back of the book of letters between Lax and Merton, “When Prophecy Had A Voice”, there is an interview between Lax and Arthur Biddle. Throughout this interview, Lax brings up, in different contexts, the notion of “pure act”. Without being too confusing, I would like to lift these allusions to “pure act” from the interview.

The friends clustered around Lax and Merton at Columbia University in the late 30’s and early 40’s listened to the jazz music of the times. Occasionally they have their own jam sessions. When Lax reads Merton's early poetry, he senses that Merton is echoing bajan or calypso songs:

“… a lot of the these little poems that Merton writes including the one about Our Lady of Cobre, but especially the little funny ones, I think are intentionally echoes of bajan or calypso songs. I think the rhythm in a lot of them and the way they trail off at the end is just the way ---

“I just realized that nobody has mentioned it, but I always took it for granted too because we used to play those things all the time. When we weren’t playing jazz, we were playing calypso records. … that business we were talking about with “act”.

“I think that goes for me, it goes together with all this business about jam sessions too. At the top of a jam session when things are really going good, it’s as near as a group like that can get to being perfectly in act, perfectly in realization, not IN POTENTIA, but right there. A real jam session is likely to start at three in the morning and get good by five, and by that time all the customers have left, it’s only the musicians playing for each other, to each other, with each other, and they are just astonishing each other by these felicitous turns they find in music.

“With their instruments, they’re talking and they’re playing and it isn’t a competitive thing except in the very best way. All of this is an approach to this idea of complete act, pure act. (p. 435)

About Circus of the Sun, Lax says:

“It has all the business about the sun coming out and Mogodor coming down the field and they way he said hello. Completely casual – hello. They didn’t leave any doubt that they were pleased to see me. They took me right into the family. Mogador and I would go out on the trucks all night and talk. He enjoyed talking. He suggested calling my book “Unfolding Grace.” He had been reading some mystic and he was getting good ideas. He said the thing about a performance or anything like it was throwing everything away. What you’re doing is getting rid of everything by every gesture and everything you do. And then you’ve got this pure thing left.

“… even a somersault on horseback, for example, after it had gotten to be everything you might think it was – like a test of your strength, a test of your power, or a good way to amaze the public – everything it might be except just this thrill act itself – is what you’ve thrown away. It is like a mystical thing.

“… I think it’s what Merton is saying about prayer, - whatever it is, anything in it that is an impurity, that is anything but the act itself, which is practically unnamable. And if it is what it should be, then the poetry is prayer, the acrobatic act is prayer.

“Pure act, I think it’s a metaphysical concept starting with Aristotle and flowering in St. Thomas that God is pure act and that there is no POTENTIA in Him. But that almost everything else in the universe is IN POTENTIA, it’s on its way to being pure act, on its way to unity with God. But only God is pure act. And that made me think about a lot of things. One of them is that business of the purity of an acrobatic performance, of any performance, at the point where it becomes really pure, is at its closest to the divine and closest to that unity.”

“Throwing everything away except the act itself, and I think at that point it also joins with the ideas of Zen, that everything is right here in this moment, and all those same things are being thrown away in what they describe as the Zen act. So if you were living in that kind of purity or call it action, it would be close to the kingdom of heaven. (p. 437-438)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

point vierge

This week's Merton Institute Reflection is one of my favorite Merton readings, and I want to add it to this collection as well:

"The first chirps of the waking day birds mark the "point vierge" [the virgin point] of the dawn under a sky as yet without real light, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in perfect silence opens their eyes. They begin to speak to Him, not with fluent song, but with an awakening question that is their dawn state, their state at the "point vierge." Their condition asks if it is time for them to "be." He answers "Yes." Then, they one by one wake up, and become birds. They manifest themselves as birds, beginning to sing. Presently they will be fully themselves, and will even fly.

"Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it: we are off "one to his farm and another to his merchandise." Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static. "Wisdom," cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend."

Thomas Merton. Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday, 1966: 131-132 Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968: 18-19

"The most wonderful moment of the day is when creation in its innocence asks permission to "be" once again, as it did on the first morning that ever was."

Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander: 131

Thursday, May 3, 2007

photo finish?

Brush drawing by Thomas Merton, "Untitled", 1964
In his book, "Angelic Mistakes", Roger Lipsey comments on Merton's art, saying that some "have secrets" and some do not. He does not sense secrets in the above drawing:
"Merton is again working his diagonals - like innumerable artists before him, he sensed the inherent dynamism of diagonal compositions. Against a rhythmically patterned field, a tight cluster seems to race to the left. And just as one is about to take leave of this image, the thought occurs that, after all, Merton lived near Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, and like all people who live in or near Louisville, whether in monastery or mansion, he was aware of the Derby. This image may well be his delighted and delightful homage to a great local tradition. It looks like a photo finish."

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

truth that is incarnate

"Faith of course tells us that we live in a time of eschatological struggle, facing a fierce combat which marshals all the forces of evil and darkness against the still invisible truth, yet this combat is already decided by the victory of Christ over death and over sin. The Christian can renounce the protection of violence and risk being humble, therefore vulnerable, not because she trusts in the supposed efficacy of a gentle and persuasive tactic that will disarm hatred and tame cruelty, but because she believes that the hidden power of the Gospel is demanding to be manifested in and through her own poor person. Hence in perfect obedience to the Gospel, she effaces herself and her own interests and even risks her life in order to testify not simply to "the truth" in a sweeping idealistic and purely platonic sense, but to the truth that is incarnate in a concrete human situation, involving living persons whose rights are denied or whose lives are threatened."

Thomas Merton. Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968: 18-19

Emphasis is mine. This quote is this week's weekly reflection from The Merton Instutite for Contemplative Living.

Note: I find it interesting that The Merton Institute has taken liberty to change the masculine dominant pronoun of Merton's writing to the feminine -- "she". I am always tempted to "correct" Merton's use of the masculine pronoun references to God to a more inclusive way of writing, which I'm sure he would have adopted if he had lived a little longer. However one of my readers took issue with me, and convinced me that I needed to leave Merton's writing as he wrote them.