Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Funeral of Thomas Merton - a white celebration

photo by John Howard Griffin
"Earth's a good place to die from." - Ron Seitz on the day of Merton's funeral, December 17, 1968.
"Abbot Flavian and several monk went to Louisville to receive Tom's body. They then took it to New Haven (near the Abbey of Gethsemani) where
the coffin opened
to his brothers bending close -
silent now those lips
the body was identified.
"The casket was closed again, this time for good, then taken to the Abbey of Gethsemani. Rather than a morning funeral as scheduled in Brother Pat's telegram,the liturgy and burial services were pushed back till late afternoon. ...
... What Tom especially wouldn't want in death - some kind of incense-wailing over his coffin, all that weepy mourning, sad tears and sinking gloom, the black of it. And why I'm sure (and glad) that his brother monks gave him a white celebration ...

"So, down there in the Abbey church for Tom's funeral Mass there would not be any of us "interrupting the smiles with our sobs" because his brothers, the good monks were Hallelujahing! The Abbot welcoming us with open arms, smiling, "Lord no. Won't be any of that sadface weeping. We're not that way about it down here. - Father Louis' death ... Why, we'll be coming out white and joyful!"
- Ron Seitz, SONG FOR NOBODY
And from Matthew Kelty:
“It was perhaps at his death, and the funeral and burial following, that the true dimensions of Gethsemani’s relations with Father Louis became manifest. It is rare for a monastic funeral to have such an impact as his had. It is not that in the death of other monks we were less concerned with love, for there is genuine love here, but the intensity of this particular experience escaped no one. And it was as the man himself, a combination of contradictions. For it was very sad and grief-ridden, but at the same time something brim-filled with joy and a kind of rapture. I have never in my life assisted at such a joyous funeral; it was more of a wedding celebration! And yet the anguish of knowing that he was no longer with us was a great weight on the heart. All in all, it was a community experience of great love, a testimony to the great mystery of love among us in the power of Christ, a love hidden in some way, yet there, as the great inner reality, the core of our life together. The comings and goings, the brightness and the dullness, the stupid and the silly as well as the brilliant and the accomplished – the whole fabric of the life of day to day was laid bare, and there for all to see was this glorious presence of love behind it all, beneath it all. It was evident that the man loved us. And it was evident that we loved him. And this love is the evidence of the presence of Christ.
“… he was a kind of dividing spirit, a sign spoken against, a sort of question demanding an answer. Thus, he raised issues, and there was no way out but to reply one way or other. In this he was unsettling, disturbing, not comfortable to live with. Put in other words, there was a kind of truth about him that got under your skin, into your heart. He belonged to nobody, free as a bird. He could not be categorized, labeled, pigeonholed. And he had vision … "
- from an essay, “The Man” by Matthew Kelty, included in the book THOMAS MERTON - MONK, p. 34

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Last Communion

Brother Patrick Hart and Thomas Merton on Sept. 9, 1968: 'Merton remembered that he had some unused film in his camera, and so he began at once taking pictures of the three of us. We took turns with the camera so that we had photographs taken with him in front of the hermitage and in the surrounding woods.'

Brother Patrick Hart’s 40 year reflection of a last Mass with Merton was published in the Courier Journal last week.

... We all joined in the Prayers of the Faithful; Phil read the Epistle, and Merton read the beautiful Gospel narrative of the Good Samaritan, after which he surprised us with a brief but deeply moving homily. He compared himself to "the traveler" who had been attacked by robbers on the road to Jericho, and was then left half dead along the way. He went on to describe how each of us in our own way had been Good Samaritans to him, helping him "to get out of the ditch." He embarrassed us by expressing his appreciation for all we had done for him and concluded by saying he was offering this Mass for our intentions. Before Communion he embraced each of us with the "Kiss of Peace." We received under both Species, and I remember he addressed us personally, using our first names: "The Body of the Lord, Phil, etc." It was as beautiful and as meaningful a Mass as I have ever experienced. ...
The entire reflection is published in the Courier Journal.

Brother Patrick Hart, Thomas Merton and Brother Maurice Flood - photo taken by Philip Stark.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

the monk/poet's journey toward silence


photo by John Howard Griffin


On the 40th anniversary of Merton's death, the Louisville Courier Journal published the following reflection by Frederick Smock, chairman of the English Department at Bellarmine University.



On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Thomas Merton's death, I want to think about silence. Certainly, Merton took a vow of silence, and he was occasionally silenced by the Vatican. But I am not thinking of those forms of silence. Rather, I want to think about silence and the poet's art.


Much of a monk's life is spent in silence. Much of a poet's life is spent in silence, too -- a poet spends a fraction of his time actually writing poems. Merton was both a monk and a poet, and thus well-acquainted with silence. Like meditation, and like prayer, poetry is surrounded by silence. Poetry begins and ends in silence. Silence is also inherent within a poem, like the silences between notes in music. As the greatChinese poet Yang Wan-li said, a thousand years ago, "A poem is made of words, yes, but take away the words and the poem remains."

Still, when we think of silence, we do not necessarily think of Merton. He was a voluble man, and a prolific writer. He continues to publish, posthumously. He always seems to be speaking to us. Bookshelves groan under the accumulating weight of his oeurvre. However, late in his life, Merton lamented the fact that he had written so many editorials, and not more poems and prayers -- forms that partake of silence. "More and more I see the necessity of leaving my own ridiculous 'career' as a religious journalist," he wrote in his journal (Dec. 2, 1959). "Stop writing for publication -- except poems and creative meditations."


"What do I really want to do?" Merton asked himself, in his journal (June 21, 1959). "Long hours of quiet in the woods, reading a little, meditating a lot, walking up and down in the pine needles in bare feet." What a man commits to his journal is, at once, the most private and the most authentic version of his self. Books written for public consumption are not errant, just not as heartfelt. In his journal for the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (March 7, 1961), Merton wrote, "Determined to write less, to gradually vanish." He added, at the end of that entry, "The last thing I will give up writing will be this journal and notebooks and poems. No more books of piety."


Life is a journey toward silence, and not just the silence of death. Youth talks a lot --is noisy. Old age is reticent. There is so much to consider, after all. Older men tend to hold their tongues. They know the wisdom of forbearance. To have seen many things is to reserve judgment. In this modern era, when news and politics are dominated by endlessly talking heads, silence becomes a precious commodity. The mere absence of speech sounds like silence. But true silence is a presence, not an absence. A fullness. A richness that depends for its worth on the purity of intent, not just the lack of distractions.


In a late journal entry (Dec. 4, 1968), Merton wrote of visiting the grand stupas of Buddha and Ananda at Gil Vihara, Sri Lanka. "The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing...." Speaking of the figure of Ananda, Merton concluded, "It says everything. It needs nothing. Because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered." He also photographed these statues, focusing on their beatific serenity.


When we are silent, we can hear the wind in the trees, and the water in the brook, and is this not more eloquent than anything that we ourselves might have to say? Of living in his newly-built hermitage, Merton wrote in his journal (Feb. 24, 1965), "I can imagine no other joy on earth than to have such a place and to be at peace in it, to live in silence, to think and write, to listen to the wind and to all the voices of the wood, to live in the shadow of the big cedar cross, to prepare for my death...."


Is it ironic for a writer to praise silence? No more so, perhaps, than to praise ignorance, which is what Wendell Berry does in his poem "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front." There Berry writes, "Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered, he has not destroyed." So, perhaps we should praise silence, for as much as a man has not said, he has not lied.


Praise of silence runs throughout Merton's meditations. For just one example: of his teaching of the novices at Gethsemani, he wrote (July 4, 1952), "Between the silence of God and the silence of my own soul stands the silence of the souls entrusted to me."


Certainly, since his death, Merton has been silent -- if not silenced. There is also the soft rustle, just out of hearing, of the poems and prayers he did not live to write.


Frederick Smock is chairman of the English Department at Bellarmine University. His recent book is Pax Intrantibus: A Meditation on the Poetry of Thomas Merton (Broadstone Books).

Monday, December 1, 2008

"Action is an Epiphany of Being"

Last week I was rummaging through the Jubilee magazines in the archives of the St. Louis University library, and I stumbled upon an article about Jacques Maritain. It was titled: “Action is an Epiphany of Being”. The article was a collection of Maritain quotes from different sources, and photos that were taken during Maritain’s visit with Thomas Merton. The photos were probably taken by John Howard Griffin, but I didn’t notice an acknowledgement.

Though I'm captivated with the title of the article: "Action is an Epiphany of Being", I can’t remember any of the quotes exactly. But what I came away with was the notion that Truth – the rhyme and reason of our existence – is, in fact, knowable, and that the Catholic Church can, in some way, relay this truth among the peoples of the ages. One does not need to be an intellectual or even studious, to be able to grasp this truth, but once grasped, one’s life would be changed (or perhaps “charged” is a better word).

I don’t believe that the Catholic Church is the only way that one can come to this truth, Merton’s conversations with Asian religions showed his awareness of other ways. But to his last day, Merton remained steadfastly grounded in a Catholic sacramental and liturgical response to Reality.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Living with Wisdom - new and improved

Jim Forest's revised edition of Living With Wisdom is available now. This is the Merton biography that Bob Lax said that he would give to his nieces and nephews. It has long been my favorite of the Merton bios.

Here is Jim giving his own review of the book.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Christ the Tiger


The following story, from Megan McKenna’s book, “The Hour of the Tiger – Facing Our Fears” is attributed to Merton. I hope to locate the original in his journals.

“Once upon a time there was a tiger with three young cubs. They were young and playful, but the mother tiger was trapped and killed. Eventually two of the cubs died but the other one wandered, eating grass and trying to survive. It came upon a meadow filled with sheep and goats, and even though it was very hungry he ate grass with them and settled down. He would butt heads with them, roll on the grass and sleep with them. And he grew stronger and larger. He was always hungry. Sometimes he would catch a small creature and chew contentedly on it. And sometimes he would look at what they’d taste like – but they were already like kin to him.

“Then one day a tiger appeared on the hill and the goats and sheep bleated and ran in terror, but the cub stayed. It watched as the tiger loped down the hill so graceful, so strong and free, and fast! They stood and faced each other, full grown tier and small cub. Then the cub thought to play and put down its head and butted the tiger! The tiger looked at it and took its great paw, pulled in its claws and batted the cub, sending it rolling over the grass. The cub was stunned, but did it again. This time the tiger batted him harder and he rolled farther. A third time he put his head down and ran for the tiger. This time the tiger pulled out his claws and gently but firmly hit the cub. The cub crouched and whimpered. The tiger went and picked it up in her mouth, as tigers carry their young, and walked off with the cub in her mouth – down to the river. At the river’s edge, she dropped the cub. The cub looked at itself in the water, its eyes wide. Then it looked at the tiger beside it and its eyes grew huge. It looked back and forth from the water to the tiger. Then the tiger roared, shaking the valley and filling the air, and then the cub tried it – letting out a weak growl. The tiger roared again and again, followed by the cub until they were both roaring together. Then Merton says … ‘I never knew I was that tiger cub until God came mysteriously into my life and batted me once, then again and again, then picked me up in his mouth and carried me to the river that revealed to me my real nature and then I learned to roar. I think the first time I was batted by that great paw I woke up and looked at myself truthfully. The second time I got hit with that paw, claws still held in, I became a Catholic. The third time I became a Trappist monk, and now every Advent and Lent I know that paw is coming and I’m to be swatted again, taken up into the mouth of God and dropped by the river’s edge to once again learn to roar and become more of what I was born to be.’”


Megan McKenna, "The Hour of the Tiger", pp. 9-10

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Birthday of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement
November 8, 1897 - November 29, 1980


November 8:It's the birthday of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, friend and mentor of Thomas Merton (see: The Dorothy Day Connection).

She was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1897.

"People say, 'What good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?' They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time. We can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jubilee - A Magazine of the Church & Her People

First Edition of Jubilee, May 1953
I finally found them.

Ever since I first heard about the Jubilee magazines, I have been anxious to see them. There were many reasons I was intrigued with the magazine: the name (I even named my dog, “Jubilee”), the connection to Merton and his college friends, the Catholic era in which it was published. Many of my older friends remembered the magazine with fondness - “I used to have a whole box of them” - but no one could seem to put their hands on one. I researched around and found that the libraries of many Catholic Universities had some of the magazines on hand, but I never seemed to be in the vicinity. Until now.

I find myself temporarily situated just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Every now and then I attend the noon Mass at St. Louis University – and finally it dawned on me that those magazines had to be in the University library.

Last week I approached the librarian at the University Library, asking if they had any copies of Jubilee – a Catholic magazine published in the 1950s.

“A magazine of the Church and her peoples?” she asked.

“That’s it!”

Her computer indicated that there were at least a few, maybe more, in the Lewis Annex. So she directed me to an elevator that I should take up to 2R, then exit the elevator from the back, cross the room, and take another elevator down to the 3rd floor. There I would find my magazines: BX801.J8

I easily made my way through the maze of books and, lo and behold, there they were,on the top shelf. The full set, from the very first issue – May 1953 – to the last – July 1968 – each year bound into an orange book. Fifteen years.

My gosh, each issue would take me a month to digest, and I only had an hour or so. I spent most of this time reading the very first magazine, May 1953, but I also quickly scanned through some of the later, and last, editions.

The photography was stunning. I assume that much (most?) of these are the work of the editor, Ed Rice. The magazine truly is “unique … because it is the first national picture magazine for a Catholic audience.” And though it is a national (American published) magazine, its scope appeared to be international, with many articles about the European Church.

The very first article of the first magazine was political, “The Church and Cold War”, with much discussion of “the heresy of Communism” (quoting Maritain).
The first edition also included an article about the men who worked New York City’s docks, the longshoremen, a poem by Robert Lax about the Cristiani Circus family, First Communion dresses that could be adapted for other occasions, an archeological story about the place in Turkey where Mary went with St. John after the Crucifixion, and 8 pages of frame-able woodcuts by artist, Walter Melmen. All for 35 cents.

Each issue contained a story for children about the adventures of Don Camillo, a young and ardent defender of the Faith. Large families are celebrated.

The art and tone changes in the later issues. Here are some photos that I took, mostly just randomly, of some of the pages.



The very last page of the last issue is an advertisement for the National Catholic Reporter, which is, perhaps, the true successor of Jubilee.

I intend to go back to the St. Louis University library to read more of the Jubilee magazines. I'll probably have much more to say about them. Don't you love the name? (I wish I could identify and find that font.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More on Silence

Update: there is an excellent review of Sara Maitland's book, "A Book of Silence", here. It begins:

Trying to write a book on silence sounds a bit like an artist attempting to paint the invisible. Silence is the antimatter of the book world and to choose it as a subject is courageous. But people such as Thomas Merton and Max Picard, both 20th-century Christian writers, have written brilliantly about silence in the past and it remains a great subject: mysterious, enigmatic and - in our bustling, noisy age - very countercultural.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"A Book of Silence" - Sara Maitland

When I first started this blog, on December 8th 2006, I intended for it to be primarily centered on contemplative awareness and drawing from the writings of Merton. The blog has tended to be mostly Merton, and still generates quite a bit of traffic – over 25,000 hits, about 1000 a month – even when I don’t add any new material.

Occasionally I come across contemporary material that echoes the contemplative awareness that I first recognized in Merton. Such was this review of a book, “A Book of Silence”, by author Sara Maitland (“a very unlikely modern hermit”).

I am intrigued with the book, the review, and the author, herself. For one thing, she is exactly the same age as I am. She’s written several novels and has this to say about the tension between narrative and silence:


"Before I was deep into this stuff about silence," she recalls, "I was already having the doubts of my life as to whether narrative could carry meaning in a fragmented book. That didn't mean I couldn't write the books. But now I am at a point where it is phenomenally hard to think I'm ever going to write another one."

Her new lifestyle, which at first seemed to hold out the promise of relocating her muse, now seems to have set up a fresh obstacle to novel-writing. "There is a tension between silence and narrative. I've identified it in this book, but I haven't resolved it." It is not so much to do with the power of words – even when written not spoken – as breaking silence.

Here is an excerpt from the book:


'...Silence is a lack, an absence, a void – silence is the negation of speech, and therefore of meaning and freedom. In the beginning was the word. I go on being certain that this is wrong, but I cannot pin down quite why it is wrong. I have been ... experiencing so many strongly positive instances of silence.'
With that, I’m thinking that I may turn a corner with this blog, and venture more into subjects of contemporary contemplativeness. [Hat tip to Jim Forest for the book review.]

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Election Benediction

"Let us hope that what we will see in the next few years will surprise us by being less bad than we fear, and that God may show His Face and His truth in our history, in spite of the pride of men. And that we may reach a period of peaceful development, if it be possible."

-Thomas Merton, "The Courage for Truth", page 207

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Merton in Asia

From October 15 - December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton was journeying in Asia.

Forty years later, Rob Pollock, a minister in the United Church of Canada, is accompanying Merton, day by day, with an e-pilgrimage blog: Merton in Asia.

I find this blog especially intriguing because Pollock includes other news of the day, giving a cultural backdrop for the world in which Merton lived in 1968. For example, on October 22, 1968, the Apollo 7 splashed down, showing the excitement surrounding the space race between Russian and the United States.

I look forward to accompanying Rob and Merton on this day-by-day e-pilgrimage: Merton in Asia.

I've been interested in Thomas Merton for a number of years. I thought I'd like to discover a little more about his life so am remembering him 40 years after his pilgrimage to Asia in 1968. I'll be reading "The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton" (AJTM), studying some of the background texts, looking at the historical events of Merton's time, and generally using the opportunity to discover more about Thomas Merton and his message for today. - Rob Pollack

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Robert Giroux Connection

Robert Giroux, the great writer and editor, and publisher of such literary giants as Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac and many others has died at the age of 94. The New York Times had this moving obituary on September 6.

Giroux published his friend Thomas Merton's writing in The Columbia Review, while the two were undergraduates there. He went on to work for publishing companies, including Farrar Straus & Giroux, and to publish many of Merton's books.

On October 11, 1998, the NY Times published an essay by Giroux which also served as an introduction to a new edition of "Seven Story Mountain". It provides very interesting insights into the relationship between Giroux and Merton, and what was going on behind the scenes before "Seven Story Mountain" hit the press. It is online here. The quote below is excerpted from this essay.

'Several years later, when I was working at Harcourt Brace & Company as a junior editor, I was asked to evaluate a novel by Thomas James Merton, submitted by Naomi Burton of the Curtis Brown literary agency. The hero of ''The Straits of Dover'' was a Cambridge student who transfers to Columbia and gets involved with a stupid millionaire, a showgirl, a Hindu mystic and a left-winger in Greenwich Village. I agreed with the other editors that the author had talent but the story wobbled and got nowhere. Merton was an interesting writer but apparently not a novelist.

Then, in May or June 1941, I encountered Tom in Scribner's bookstore on Fifth Avenue. I had been browsing and felt someone touch my arm. It was Merton. ''Tom!'' I said. ''It's great to see you. I hope you're still writing.'' He said, ''Well, I've just been to The New Yorker and they want me to write about Gethsemani.'' I had no idea what this meant and said so. ''Oh, it's a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where I've been making retreats.'' This revelation stunned me. I had had no idea that Merton had undergone a religious conversion or that he was interested in monasticism. ''Well, I hope to read what you write about it,'' I said. ''It will be something different for The New Yorker.'' ''Oh, no,'' he said, ''I would never think of writing about it.'' That told me a great deal. I now understood the extraordinary change that had occurred in Merton.'

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

opening oneself to salvation

This is another of the weekly quotes from the Merton Institute. I don't want to lose it so I am adding it to this site:

[In the last analysis what I am looking for in solitude is not happiness or fulfillment but salvation. Not "my own salvation" but the salvation of everybody. Here is where the game gets serious. I have used the word revolt in connection with solitude. Revolt against what? Against a notion of salvation that is entirely legal and extrinsic and can be achieved no matter how false, no matter how shriveled and fruitless one's inner life really is. This is the worst ambiguity: the impression that one can be grossly unfaithful to life, to experience, to love, to other people, to one's own deepest self, and yet be "saved" by an act of stubborn conformity, by the will to be correct. In the end this seems to me to be fatally like the act by which one is lost: the determination to be "right" at all costs, by dint of hardening one's core around an arbitrary choice of a fixed position. To close in on one's central wrongness with the refusal to admit that it might be wrong. ..I am here [in solitude and in the hermitage] for one thing: to be open, to be not "closed in" on any one choice to the exclusion of all others: to be open to God's will and freedom to His love, which comes to save me from all in myself that resists Him and says no to Him. This I must do not to justify myself, not to be right, not to be good, but because the whole world of lost people needs this opening by which salvation can get into it through me.

Thomas Merton. Learning to Love. Christine M. Bochen, editor. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997: 345.

The big reasons for solitude: the true perspectives- leaving the "world"-even the monastic world with its business, vanities, superficiality. More and more I see the necessity of leaving my own ridiculous "career" as a religious journalist. Stop writing for publication- except poems and creative meditations.

Solitude-witness to Christ-emptiness.
Thomas Merton. A Search for Solitude. Lawrence S. Cunningham, editor. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996: 350.

Monday, August 4, 2008

the gift of being "nothing"

from Merton’s article, “The Spiritual Father in the Desert Tradition”, in the book, Merton & Hesychasm – the Prayer of the Heart.

"... it is in solitude that the monk most completely comes to discover the true inner dimensions of his own being, at once "real" and "unreal". The conviction of one’s “self” as a static, absolute and invariable reality undergoes a profound transformation and dissolves in the burning light of an altogether new and unsuspected awareness. In this awareness we see that our “reality” is not a firmly established ego-self already attained that merely has to be perfected, but rather that we are a “nothing," a “possibility” in which the gift of creative freedom can realize itself by its response to the free gift of love and grace. This response means accepting our loneliness and our “potentiality” as a gift and a commission, as a trust to be used – as a “talent,” in the language of the parables. Our existence is then at once terrible and precious because radically it belongs not to us but to God. Yet it will not be fully “His” unless we freely make it “ours” and then offer it to Him in praise. This is what Christian tradition means by “obedience to the Word of God.” The monk must learn this for himself. (p. 298)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

my zen is in the slow swinging tops of sixteen pine trees

My zen is in the slow swinging tops of sixteen pine trees.

One long thin pole of a tree fifty feet high swings in a wider arc than all the others and swings even when they are still.

Hundreds of little elms springing up out of the dry ground under the pines.

My watch among oak leaves. My T-shirt on the barbed wire fence and the wind sings in the bare wood.

Thomas Merton. A Search for Solitude. Lawrence S. Cunningham, editor. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996: 232.

Sweet afternoon! Cool breezes and a clear sky!

This day will not come again.

The bulls lie under the tree in the corner of their field.

Quiet afternoon! The blue hills, the day lilies in the wind. This day will not come again.

Thomas Merton. Turning Toward the World. Victor A. Kramer, editor. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997: 128

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Retracing Merton’s steps: The Piazza Barbarina (more Roma Photos from Jim Forest)

Photos by Jim Forest - Piazza Barbarina and Bernini's Tritone Fountain, Roma
When 18-year-old Merton was in Rome in 1933 he stayed at a pensione at the intersection of Via Sistina and Via Tritone – the Piazza Barbarina. Jim guesses that the pensione that Merton stayed is the ochre one to the left in the photo above. It overlooks the Bernini “Tritone Fountain” that Merton mentioned in Seven Story Mountain.

In an unpublished early novel "Labyrinth," Merton writes:
“I found a place to live, a pension for Italians, people who worked in offices, not tourists. It took up a floor of a building on the corner of the Via Sistina and the Via Tritone. It was cheap and its windows caught all the sun. From my room I could look out on the Piazza Barberini where Triton blew his wreathed horn sending a thin stream of water high up into the warm air. On the other side of the Piazza, over some low buildings, cedars and cypresses lifted their head in the gardens of the Barberini palace. Outside the street door, on Via Sistina, both directions led uphill on one side to the obelisk in front of Santa Trinita dei Monti, on the other where the street came to the top of the Quirinal at Piazza Quattro Fontane. If I walked up there, I would look down another hill, and up another rise over toward the two towers of Santa Maria Maggiore.”

You can see more of Jim’s photos of the Piazza Barbarina here. To go to the next photo, just click on the right-hand-most thumbnail at the side. In the Piazza Barberini series, there are 11 or 12 images in all.

The main focus of Jim’s Pilgrimage to Rome is on the ancient churches of Rome, the ones Merton searched for so avidly during his stay in 1933, when he notes he first crossed the border from tourist to pilgrim. The complete set of photos is here.
Thank you again, Jim and Nancy, for so generously sharing your journey and your photos! They add a wonderful dimension to louie, louie especially for those who use the site to research Merton.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Theophan the Recluse


During his last years, while living as a hermit, Merton was reading “The Art of Prayer”, a compilation of instructions on the preconditions of “praying with one’s heart” by Eastern Orthodox authorities. He highlighted passages liberally, and made many notes in the margins. Since Merton was no longer a novice master, his intense reading of these instructions was primarily for the enrichment of his own prayer life in solitude.

Jonathan Montaldo collected the notes and passages – the “marginalia” - that Merton made in his 1966 British edition of the book. Montaldo’s research shows that Merton was mainly interested in the sayings of Theophan the Recluse, a 19th century Russian saint who is especially known for his instructive writing on prayer.

I got an email today alerting me to a missive from the Vatican urging tourists to forego energy intensive vacations in the interest of a greener planet.

I immediately thought of the following saying of Theophan the Recluse, as noted in Merton’s marginalia:

“For someone who has not yet found the way to enter within himself, pilgrimages to holy places are a help. But for him who has found it they are a dissipation of energy, for they force him to come out from the innermost part of himself. IT IS TIME FOR YOU NOW TO LEARN MORE PERFECTLY HOW TO REMAIN WITHIN. YOU SHOULD ABANDON YOUR EXTERNAL PLANS.”

[Underline and capitalization are Merton's.]

Merton and Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart


“… all reality mirrors the reality of God”. –Thomas Merton

Yesterday I was talking with a friend – a Catholic priest – and I mentioned that I was reading the book, “Merton and Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart”. I didn’t know how to pronounce the word “hesychasm”, because I have never heard it spoken. My friend, who has been a priest for over 50 years and is quite educated, was astounded that he, as well, had never before been aware of the word. He got out his big dictionary and “hesychasm” was not listed – but “hesychast” was. The same is true of the online dictionary.com.

The book is a collection of essays that explore Eastern Orthodox Christianity through the lens of Merton’s life and writings. Some of the essays are from Merton – the long prose poem, “Hagia Sophia”, the correspondence with Boris Pasternak, writings on the Desert Fathers, etc. – but most are from respected scholars, reflecting upon Merton’s encounter with the thought of Eastern Christian theologians and writers. The scholarship, to name just a few, includes Bishop Kallistos Ware, Jim Forest, John Eudes Bamberger, Basil Pennington, and Rowan Williams.

“Merton and Hesychasm” is the 2nd volume of The Fons Vitae publishing project to study world religions through Merton's writings. The first book of the series is “Merton & Sufism: The Untold Story”. Future volumes will include studies on Merton and Judaism, Merton and Taoism, Merton and Buddhism, Merton and Protestantism, and Merton and Art.

I have some more things to post here on louie, louie about Merton and the Prayer of the Heart, but I wanted to first introduce where it was coming from.

Hesychasm is, according to Bishop Kallistos Ware, the prayer of inward silence, the prayer of the heart. It is ...
“… not world-denying but world-embracing. It enables the hesychast to look beyond the world toward the invisible Creator; and so it enables the hesychast to return back to the world and see it with new eyes. To travel, as it has been often said, is to return to our point of departure and to see our home afresh as though for the first time. …”
(from the Foreward of “Merton and Hesychasm” p. xi)

Monday, June 23, 2008

if there is no silence ...

This week's reflection from the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living:

If there is no silence beyond and within the words of doctrine, there is no religion, only religious ideology. For religion goes beyond words and actions, and attains to the ultimate truth in silence. When this silence is lacking, where there are only the "many words" and not the One Word, then there is much bustle and activity, but no peace, no deep thought, no understanding, no inner quiet. Where there is no peace, there is no light. The mind that is hyper-active seems to itself to be awake and productive, but it is dreaming. Only in silence and solitude, in the quiet of worship, the reverent peace of prayer, the adoration in which the entire ego-self silences and abases itself in the presence of the Invisible God, only in these "activities" which are "non-actions" does the spirit truly awake from the dream of a multifarious and confused existence.

Thomas Merton. Honorable Reader: Reflections on My Work.
Edited by Robert E. Daggy (New York: Crossroad, 1989): 115.]

If you want a spiritual life, you must unify your life. A life is either all spiritual or not at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.

Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1958): 56.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

San Lorenzo


Photographs of San Lorenzo Fuoiri le Mura, by Jim Forest

There is now a short essay about Jim and Nancy Forest's last day of pilgrimage in Rome when they went to the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuoiri le Mura (St Laurence Outside the Walls). This turned out to be among the best preserved and most beautiful ancient churches in Rome. Probably it was one of the churches Merton found in his search for early Christian iconography.

Jim wrote an essay to accompany the day at San Lorenzo here. Without having to search through guidebooks and history books, you will be able to see the photographs with much knowledge and understanding. The photographs from this day are in a folder on Flickr here.

Thank you again, Jim and Nancy, for sharing your pilgrimage. The photos are so stunning, I keep looking at them again and again. Like ikons, they convey silence and so much mystery.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

the person and the individual

Awhile back there was a theatre review in the New Yorker magazine of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play “Top Girls”. The review included the following quote from Thomas Merton, describing the individual:

“I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me.”

Does that sound like Merton?

Correspondence among Merton friends resulted in finding the source of the quote on page 48 of New Seeds of Contemplation. What was missing was context. One understands it much better when the previous sentence is included:

"The man who lives in division is not a person but an 'individual.'

"I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me
" [here the New Yorker had a period; it should have been a semicolon];

Then here is what follows:

"... at times this even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on my death....

"The man who lives in division is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be is a bad dream...."

[Thanks to Jim Forest and his friends for this conversation.]

Friday, June 6, 2008

Rome Pilgrimage


Santa Maria in Trestevere


The ceiling of the St Zeno Chapel of Santa Praxedes
Photographs by Jim Forest
(are these photos not absolutely gorgeous?!)
Jim Forest has been in Rome with the Canadian Thomas Merton Society, and keeping a photo journal (on Flickr) that includes the catacombs, monasteries, and the Christian iconography that survives in some of Rome’s most ancient Churches.

As Jim notes in his introduction to the photo journal, Merton traveled to Rome in 1933 when he was 18 years old and was especially drawn to the ancient churches and the art from Christianity’s first millennium.

“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and ... all the other churches [among them Saints Cosmas and Damian, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Sabina, the Lateran, and Santa Costanza] that were more or less of the same period.... Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.” (Seven Story Mountain)

Jim’s own pilgrimage through these same churches is extraordinary, with references to the particular Churches and icons that Merton mentioned in his autobiography. The Flickr photo journal is here.

Jim Forest is the author of a number of books about Merton, and the recent, “Praying with Icons”. Thanks, Jim, for sharing your photographs, they are wonderful!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The RFK Connection

June 5, 1968 Ember Wednesday, Pentecost

8:45 a.m. A few minutes ago Fr. Hilarion and John Willett came up in the truck with a 5 gallon of water and told me Robert Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles, after winning the California primary. A young 25-year old man shot him almost at point blank range “to save my country” – a right-wing fanatic? Kennedy was still alive and being operated on. I hope he survives! Above all for the sake of his family.

8:15 p.m. I said Mass for Robert Kennedy when I went down today. News kept coming through: bullet removed from his brain, he is alive but will remain in critical condition for 36 hours. About the assassin – all kinds of rumors.
- “The police won’t reveal anything about him.”
- According to Br. Wilfrid, the man “couldn’t speak a word of English and nobody could understand him – probably a Communist.”
- According to someone else he had worked all evening side by side with Kennedy in the campaign Headquarters – probably a “Democrat”!
- Tonight it is said he came originally from Jordan. Though he is an American citizen his statement that he shot K. “because I love my country” is to be interpreted as pro-Arab and anti-Israel. It remains to be seen if this if really the story. It sounds a bit fishy to me, so far.

June 6, 1968

More sorrow. I went down to the monastery with my laundry – saw the flag at half-mast and asked someone if R. Kennedy was dead. Of course, he was! The news was very depressing: there seemed to have been so much hope he would survive. I sent a telegram to Ethel. [Merton had been corresponding with Ethel Kennedy, RFK’s wife, since 1961] I wonder where Dan [Berrigan] is.

A murder is bad enough in itself – but a political assassination of one whose brother has already been the victim of one, and when R.K. was in a good position to get the Presidential Nomination and even the presidency, it is shattering. He was liberal enough – though not by any means an ideal candidate: but he had possibilities and the country as a whole liked him: would have accepted him.

The most disturbing thing about it is something hard to formulate: but it seems to be another step toward degradation and totalism on part of the whole country. It will be used as an excuse for tightening up police control – “law and order” – and then in fact not to stop murderers but to silence protest, and jail non-conformists. And to prevent the kind of change Kennedy might have wanted to effect politically. The situation to me seems very grave.

I don’t expect McCarthy to be nominated. Johnson’s machine is too powerful. If it is a choice between Humphrey and Nixon, Tweedledee and Tweedledum – in fact, two nonentities – I can’t vote at all. Still less for a goof like Reagan. And how vote for Rockefeller? He may be fairly capable but, like all the others, he will push the Vietnam War to its limit.

If McCarthy is not nominated I don’t see my way to voting for anybody.

I wonder what effect this will have on the country – the people, or does it matter?They will be perhaps more docile about accepting another step toward a police state.

Meanwhile, of course, there will be more murders. They will become more and more part of political life. The definitive way of making one’s point – i.e. for right wingers and fanatics of any kind.

- The Other Side of the Mountain. pp. 126-127.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

thou art that

Photograph by Thomas Merton, taken on May 13, 1968 on the Pacific Shore, "Low tide. Long rollers trail white sleeves of foam behind them, reaching for the sand, like hands for the keyboard of an instrument."

May 22, 1968

John Griffin sent one of my pictures of Needle Rock, which he developed and enlarged. I also have the contact. The Agfa film brought out the great Yang-Yin of sea rock mist, diffused light and half hidden mountain - an interior landscape, yet there. In other words, what is written within me is there, "Thou art that."

- The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 110

Sunday, May 11, 2008

dag hammarskjöld


"In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." - Dag Hammarskjöld
I do not recall Merton ever mentioning Dag Hammarskjöld, yet they were contemporaries. Hammarskjold was born in 1905, Merton in 1915. They traveled in different circles: Merton in a religious, literary world, Hammarskjöld in a secular, political one. But they were on the same page.

As the Chairman of the Bank of Sweden, Sweden’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and later Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld’s life was in the public arena. Yet he was a private person. The contemplative undercurrents of Hammarskjöld’s life were not fully realized until the publication of “Markings” in 1963, two years after his death.

“Markings” reveals the central role of a surrendered spirituality in a life that is totally engaged with the historical tasks of the world. The monastic withdrawal so essential to contemplativeness happened in Hammarskjöld’s inner-world simultaneously with an outward life that was immersed in world affairs. The same could be said of Dorothy Day.

Hammarskjöld named his diary, “Signposts” – “a sort of ‘white book’ concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God”. This is the only attempt that I know of by a professional person to unite in one life the via activa and the via contemplativa - two sides of a single self-consistent person.

For most of my life I have used “Markings” as one of my primary books of meditation. I am forever discovering new insights in the more than 600 entries. Here is just one:


8-4-59

To have humility is to experience reality, not in relation to ourselves, but in its sacred independence. It is to see, judge, and act from the point of rest in ourselves. Then, how much disappears, and all that remains falls into place.

In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each man a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity is simple, but it opens to us a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.

-"Markings", Dag Hammarskjöld

Thursday, May 8, 2008

the freedom of thomas merton

“ … there is still so much to learn, so much deepening to be done, so much to surrender. My real business is something far different from simply giving out words and ideas and “doing things” – even to help others. The best thing I can give to others is to liberate myself from the common delusions and be, for myself and for them, free. Then grace can work in and through me for everyone.”
- Thomas Merton, June 29, 1968, p. 135, The Other Side of the Mountain

prayer in america

“It is not easy to talk of prayer in a world where a President claims he prays for light in his decisions and then decides on genocidal attacks upon a small nation. And where a Catholic Bishop praises this as a “work of love.”

Paralyzing incomprehension – what does one do when he realizes he is part of an organization whose members systematically try to “make a fool of God”? I suppose I begin by recognizing that I have done it as much as the best of them …”

-Thomas Merton, July 5, 1968, pp. 138-139, The Other Side of the Mountain

Monday, May 5, 2008

remembering merton (part 3) - fearlessness

One of the lines from the round table discussion that jumped out at me was Jim Forest’s remark about Merton’s fearlessness:

"This was another quality. I would call it the quality of fearlessness. That I think is one of the most important attributes of Merton: that he communicated to so many people what it is like to live a fearless life." - Jim Forest
I have been musing over this quality of fearlessness the past few days – what it is to live without fear or anxiety, with each day truly a gift and adventure. I believe that both Merton and Dorothy Day tapped into a wellspring of Life, living water that allowed them to live without fear. They both found within the context of Catholicism an incredible freedom and a way that opened out toward previously unimaginable possibility.

I wonder if, like Jim suggests, one can "catch" this freedom by being around a person who has discovered it? Can one point the way for another? Is it even possible for you to discover your own fearlessness by yourself? Or is it pure gift? Is it gift that is always given, but we discover how to accept?

Jim Forest goes on to add …


"If you read, as I am at the moment, the first of these volumes of his journals that are being published, you might keep it in the back of your mind while you are reading it, how open he is, how unprotective he is about himself, his future, and so on. There is some place where he just says that you have to abandon yourself completely, to love God and love your neighbour. This sense of abandonment. Not to be worried about the future and what will happen. Will you have the house? Will you have this and will you have that? Will people care about you? Will you be important etc. etc.? Although he didn't speak about it very often and perhaps never spoke about it so transparently as in these early journals, this theme that we see picked up very early in the journals is of simply abandoning yourself so that you can live very freely in the Resurrection because there is nothing actually to worry about. There's nothing we can do to prevent our death. There's absolutely nothing we can do to prevent a good deal of suffering in our own lives. It's all going to happen. And so you just say well that's going to happen. The form it will take remains to be seen. The only thing that actually matters is just simply living in obedience, living in attentiveness to this wonderful creation that's been given to us and which will carry us along in whatever way is necessary. This sense of the providence of God. Whenever you meet somebody like that, it's a life-changing experience. As much as people talk about it, when you encounter the reality of somebody who lives with that kind of absolute confidence in the providence of God, you are never the same again. It's very freeing."

Saturday, May 3, 2008

remembering merton (part 2) - "I'm Thomas Merton!"

This post is going to be categorized under “humor” because it captures that whimsical nature of Merton that is so delightful.

Tommie Callaghan was a Louisville woman who had gone to school both in Bardstown and at Manhattanville Sacred Heart in New York where Dan Walsh was her philosophy professor. She and Dan stayed in touch, especially after he moved to Kentucky, and he introduced her to Merton. Tommie helped Merton get around to his various appointments in Louisville, and being the mother of 6 children, she says she was good at this. Merton became good friends with Tommie and her family. Before his death, Merton asked Tommie to be on the Board of Trustees, which oversaw his literary collection at Bellarmine College.

Tommie Callaghan relayed the following incident at the round table discussion of Merton’s friends held in the late 1990’s.

"You know, Donald, when you say that he didn't want anybody to know who he was - the man from Nelson County story - I had an occasion. I had taken my sister . . . I was very careful about going out and taking people to meet Merton or even discuss him. I felt that our friendship was not something built on his literary works, it was simply a friendship and that was that. But my sister was in town and he had said bring her out to the hermitage and I did. When we got there he said, "Listen. There's this jazz band playing down on Washington Street and I'd like to go". And I said "Tonight ?" And he said "Yes." Well, my husband, Frank, who seems to disappear out of the country when anything big is going on, was in South America, I guess, so Megan and I drove Tom in (I had seven children at that point) and I fed them dinner. Tom helped Kathy with her homework and I gathered some mutual friends, Ron and Sally Seitz, Pat and Ben Cunnington, Megan, myself, my brother and his wife, and we all went down to Washington Street to this jazz band.

There was a bass fiddler there who Tom just thought was great and he insisted we bring him over and buy him drinks, and guess who's buying the drinks? And Tom is just taken with this guy who's from Boston and he's saying to him, "I'm a monk." "I'm a Trappist monk." and [the bass player] he's saying, "Well, I'm a brother too." And Tom said " I live out at the monastery." and he said, "Oh, we have a church up in Boston". And it goes on like, "Can you top this ?" and so Tom says, "I am a priest," and this guy says, "Brother, I'm a preacher." They're hitting it right off and the man is, in the black vernacular, a great jazz musician, just great. And then Tom says, "I'm Thomas Merton." And this guy says, "Well, I'm Joe Jones !" And I mean Tom could get absolutely nowhere and I loved it, I just loved it. I called my brother to take him back that night because I really did have to get home to the seven children and get them up for school the next day. As I'm getting ready to leave, Tom stops me and says "Wait a minute. Waitress, give her the bill !" "

~Tommie Callaghan

Friday, May 2, 2008

remembering merton (part 1) - finding unity deeper than our differences

I happened upon a transcript of a round table discussion of some of Merton’s friends: Tommie O’Callaghan, Donald Allchin, Jim Forest, and John Wu, Jr., which was held in the late 1990's (1996?). These memories of Merton are especially personal, and make Merton feel much more real to me, so I will be excepting some from that transcript.

Isn't that interesting the way Jim Forest refers to Merton as "one of the great conservatives of the twentieth century"? I'd concur, and I agree with what Jim says about Merton being rooted in traditional and liturgical Catholicism, but I tend to think that Merton was radical - not conservative or liberal. He went deeper, to the root.

"... the sense that Merton had of the unity of the church. Now we can all see how deeply divided the church is, how mercilessly divided it has been by events in history. It's quite amazing when you encounter somebody who was so deeply nurtured by what is at the root of Christianity, the traditions of spiritual life of which the icon is one example. It's a very important one for him. That love of the stories of the early church, the spiritual practices of the early church, his readiness to receive from any part of the church, from Orthodox, from Baptist, from Episcopalians, Anglicans and so forth and so forth, and then we go outside Christianity to all the different traditions of spiritual life that he found so amazing, so interesting, so helpful, so important, this deep underlying sense of the connectedness, the oneness that stands beneath divisions. And it was never a denial of division but that the way to deal with this division was to go more deeply. That some events of a healing nature occur because we go more deeply. And it's not to heal the divisions that we go there but simply because we are in a process of coming closer to God.

I'm trying to think of moments with Merton where one could see something of this. It may not seem immediately relevant but I recall sitting on the porch of his hermitage with a Polish visitor to the monastery who had come with me from the Catholic Worker – he had arrived a few days later – an artist who had had some difficulty in his relationship with the Catholic church and was asking Merton to explain the Mass. And I have never heard anybody explain the Mass the way Merton did that day. He explained it as a dance, which I would only understand much later in my life really. It would just continue to sit in the back of my mind some place. Because I frankly didn't see the dance element very often in the Masses that I was attending, and less and less, one might say, as the years passed. But none the less gradually it became clear to me that it should be and sometimes is a dance. And how remarkable it was that he could see that and that it would occur to him at that moment to explain worship in terms of that graceful movement, the ancient ritual motions that we engage in if we are lucky. It's a very original way, it may seem, of explaining liturgical life but actually it's simply a return. Merton who was seen by so many as a radical turns out to be one of the great conservatives of the twentieth century, bringing back to us so many forgotten bits and pieces of the church that we simply forgot were there, just crumpled up in some sack in the attic somewhere, thrown into a sea-chest, that he would lovingly recover and present to us as news, which it was. "

~Jim Forest

Thursday, May 1, 2008

the way of chuang tzu


In the mid 1960’s, Merton published a little book, “The Way of Chuang Tzu”. He had been studying, meditating, and making notes on the Chuang Tzu texts for a few years. Merton calls his notes “imitations”, or interpretive readings, that grew from his comparing four different translations (2 English, 1 French, and 1 German) of the original Chinese. He realized that all translations of Chuang Tzu are largely “guessing”, which reflect not only the translator’s degree of Chinese scholarship, but also their grasp of the mysterious “way” described by a Master 2500 years ago.

This “way” is characteristic of a certain mentality found everywhere in the world: a taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push, and the self-importance that one must display in order to get along in society.

It is a “way” that prefers not to get anywhere in the world, or even in the field of some supposedly spiritual attainment.

The “Little Way” of St. Therese of Lixieux could be said to correspond to the deepest aspirations of Chuang Tzu.

The “way” of Chuang Tzu is mysterious because it is so simple that it can get along without being a way at all.

The “way” is not a “way out”, but when you enter upon this kind of way you leave all ways, and in some sense, get lost.

[Information above was drawn from and paraphrased from the “Note to the Reader” that prefaces Merton’s book, “The Way of Chuang Tzu”.]

Friday, April 25, 2008

merton on nonviolence

[Note: The following collection of notes of Merton’s writings on protest and nonviolence were an effort to, in my own life, find some way through the personal stalemate of my work with a young friend’s excessively harsh prison sentence, as well as the war. In both cases I had been angry and felt stuck. In many ways, my struggle for justice for my prisoner friend and my exasperation with world politics felt like the same thing.

I have decided to add these writings of Merton on nonviolence without taking them out of the original context in which I explored them in 2005.]


I have come to see that there is something in myself that needs to be transformed. Like the old saying: “you have to be the change that you want to see in the world”. But just what is this change? And how will it happen?

According to Thomas Merton, what is missing in protest movements is compassion. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those that they see as responsible for injustice and violence, and even toward those who uphold the status quo. Without compassion, the protestor tends to become more and more centered in anger and may easily become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others.

And the angrier we get at the Judge’s decisions, the obstinacy of the prosecution, the more they dig in their heels.

“[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.” (Merton letter to Jim Forrest, Jan 29, 1962)

Without love, especially love of opponent and enemies, neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur:

“It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.

“ To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the impersonal “law” and to abstract “nature.” That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, its demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who “saves himself” in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.” (Merton letter to Dorothy Day, 1961)
Peace movements identify too much with particular political groups and ideologies. Any actions taken must communicate liberating possibilities to all involved in the conflict. The message that the opponent will also be “free-ed” has to be clear. A way out of the “we-they” standoff.

“One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and deemphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension …” (Merton letter to Dorothy Day, 1961)

Peacemaking is rooted in spiritual life, not politics.

If I can, in some way, incorporate (become a channel for) nonviolence (peacemaking) in my struggle for Taylor, then perhaps this power can be unleashed in the world.

Important: The truth can never be used as a weapon. We are the instruments of truth, truth is not our instrument.

This is especially true with Taylor’s case, for we do, indeed, have the truth. But we cannot use it to taunt the opponent. We have to use the truth to open the opponent’s eyes:
“One of the problematic questions about non-violence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations … It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. …

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence. … In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds, race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation …We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.” (Merton letter to Jim Forrest, February 1962)

“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 what 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 …

Sunday, April 20, 2008

the dorothy day connection, part 1

“Poverty for Dorothy Day is more than a sociological problem; it is also a religious mystery.” - Thomas Merton (written for the book jacket of Dorothy’s book, “Loaves and Fishes”)

The two most influential persons to rise from American Catholicism in the 20th century are Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Merton and Dorothy corresponded regularly, and Merton contributed essays to the Catholic Worker newspaper. His letters to her show the special respect, even reverence, in which he held her.

In becoming a Catholic, Dorothy Day did not repudiate her social and political conviction; instead she found much that bolstered those convictions in the Gospel. Her role in the American Church was prophetic as she combined a radical position on social issues with a conservative and unquestioning theology of Church and sacraments.

Dorothy lived as one who was poor among the poor, her home was the soup kitchens of New York City's lower East side.

I’d say that Dorothy was Merton’s guide.

counterculture: war, the pope, merton

The newspapers are reporting that the Pope is jarring the faithful with his word “countercultural”. I applaud Benedict. Counterculture is the very foundation of Christianity – opposing the commonly held values and behavior of society. Like exploiting the poor, accumulating wealth, killing our unborn and our prisoners.

But I wish that Benedict could be clearer and more specific about the climate of war that is unabashedly promoted and justified in our world.

In his “Cold War Letters”, Merton also regretted the absence of a clear statement from the Vatican on war:

One would certainly wish that the Catholic position on nuclear war was held as strict as the Catholic position on birth control. It seems a little strange that we are so wildly exercised about the “murder” (and the word is of course correct) of an unborn infant by abortion, or even the prevention of conception which is hardly murder, and yet accept without a qualm the extermination of millions of helpless and innocent adults, some of whom may be Christians and even our friends rather than our enemies. I submit that we ought to fulfill the one without omitting the other. (Cold War Letters, page 19)

Friday, April 18, 2008

the power of silence

More from Wayne:

"The Desert Father Ammonas disciple of St. Anthony, said:
Behold, my beloved, I have shown you the power of silence, how thoroughly it heals and how fully pleasing it is to God. Wherefore I have written to you to show yourselves strong in this work you have undertaken, so that you may know that it is by silence that the saints grew, that it was silence that the power of God dwelt in them, because of silence that the mysteries of God were known to them."
(CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER, page 42)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

love, openness, and meditation

From Wayne Burns this morning:

"Many of the obstacles to the life of thought and love which is meditation come from the fact that people insist on walling themselves up inside themselves in order to cherish their own thoughts and their on experiences as a kind of private treasure. They interpret the gospel parable of the talents, and as a result they bury their talent in a napkin instead of putting it to work and increasing it. Even when we come to live a contemplative life, the love of other and openness to others remain, as in the active life, the conditions for a living and fruitful inner life of thought and love. The love of others is a stimulus to interior life, not a danger to it, as some mistakenly believe."


(CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER, page 39-40)

Monday, April 14, 2008

awakening according to merton: chesed ("not necessarily like the movies")

The Merton Institute continues to expound on "chesed" in its weekly reflection. I find it essential in understanding Merton, as well as what is really at the bottom of the Gospel.

The mystery of the Good Samaritan is this, then: the mystery of chesed, power and mercy. In the end, it is Christ Himself who lies wounded by the roadside. It is Christ Who comes by in the person of the Samaritan. And Christ is the bond, the compassion and understanding between them. This is how the Church is made of living stones, compacted together in mercy. Where there is on the one hand a helpless one, beaten and half dead, and on the other an outcast with no moral standing and the one leans down in pity to help the other, then there takes place a divine epiphany and awakening. There is "man," there reality is made human, and in answer to this movement of compassion, a Presence is made on the earth, and the bright cloud of the majesty of God overshadows their poverty and their love. There may be no consolation in it. There may be nothing humanly charming about it. It is not necessarily like the movies. Perhaps the encounter is outwardly sordid and unattractive. But the Presence of God is brought about on earth there, and Christ is there, and God is in communion with man.

Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950): 181-182.

Thought for the Day

Chesed, mercy and power, manifests itself visibly in the chasid, or the saint. Indeed the saint is one whose whole life is immersed in the chesed of God. The saint is the instrument of the divine mercy. Through the chasid the love of God reaches into the world in a visible mystery, a mystery of poverty and love, meekness and power.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

heart of silence

"Whatever one may think of the value of communal celebration with all kinds of song and self-expression--and these certainly have their place--the kind of prayer we here speak of as properly 'monastic' (though it may also fit into the life of any lay person who is attracted to it) is a prayer of silence, simplicity, contemplative and meditative unity, a deep personal integration in an attentive, watchful listening of 'the heart.' The response such prayer call forth is not usually one of jubilation or audible witness: it is a wordless and total surrender of the heart of silence."


(CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER, page 29-30)

[Note: this is today's AM WITH MERTON post from Wayne Burns. Thank you, Wayne.]

Sunday, April 6, 2008

being understood on paper

Thomas Merton (Father Louis, O.C.S.O.), Novice Master at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Trappist, Kentucy. Study by Victor Hammer, 1961, for a lost panel painting.

Toward the end of 1961, Merton was persuaded to sit for a portrait by Victor Hammer. The drawing Victor made is Merton as the archetypal monk – neither young nor old, reflective, elsewhere.

Merton wrote in his journal that day:
“The patient, human work of sitting and talking and being understood on paper. How different from the camera!”

bongo louie

Thomas Merton, early fall 1968, just before his departure for Asia. Photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

praise

I have been reading Merton, seriously, since 1968. Before that I always knew about Merton. I grew up just a few miles from Gethsemane and my family often attended services with the monks. My father brought home Merton’s books as they were published.

My spiritual reading has been broad, but Merton is the writer that I have stayed with consistently, reading many of the same books over and over again, for years. I have begun to realize that Merton is my primary spiritual director – and the voice that I most trust.

Sometimes others who write about Merton help me to better understand Merton. I have especially appreciated the writings of James Finley, Roger Lipskey and Jim Forrest.

But Kathleen Deignan’s writing on Merton is special. In her “Book of Hours”, she has been able to lift from Merton’s writing (and mostly his poetry) not just his thought, but the secret of his soul: Praise.

The following are excerpts from her introduction to the “Book of Hours”:


The Territory of Praise: “Le Point Vierge” of Paradise

“This is the burning promised land, the house of God, the gate of heaven.” (Entering the Silence, p. 473)

In the several decades of his monastic life, Thomas Merton became a dervish of praise spinning around a still point of presence manifesting on the surface and in the depths of everything, especially the human heart. He labored to name this mysterious center of being, “a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our will.” (Conjectures of a Guilty
Bystander, p. 158). He called it “le point vierge” – the “virgin point” of the spirit where one meets God, and which is the glory of God in us. It is like a “pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven”… Merton had no program to suggest for this seeing; it was in his experience the wide open secret to which so few attend: “paradise is all around us and we do not understand.” (CGB, p. 132). But the return to paradise, and the delineation of access routes for its discovery, was the passion of his life … (Book of Hours, pp. 30-31)

The Time of Praise: “Le Temps Vierge” of Eternity

“You have given me roots in Eternity” (Entering the Silence, p. 473)

If the territory of paradise is here, it’s time is now – each and every seminal moment that plants seeds of spiritual vitality in the human soul. But few of us are receptive to these pregnant germs of grace because we do not sense time as the field of encounter with divine presence. Rather we live in a time of no room, “obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, acceleration. (Raids on the Unspeakable, p. 70). There is no room for the mysterious spaciousness of being, no time for presence; no room for nature, no time for quiet, for thought, for presence. We are “worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race, and with ourselves, auseated.” (Thomas Merton Reader, pp. 363-364) …

We fear the thief of time that steals from the treasure we did not take the time to discover hidden in the cracks between CHRONOS – “a linear flight into nothingness” (Seasons of Celebration, p. 32) – and KAIROS the time of possibility and abundance that opens as we return to the immediacy of what is real. “Be the son of this instant”, Merton advises because the present is our right place, where the mind is at home. (BOOK OF HOURS Introduction, pp. 32-33)

Probably much to long for a blog entry, but I needed all of it this morning.

[Note: another place in this blog where I talk about Kathleen Deignan's book, "Book of Hours"]

Monday, March 31, 2008

more on "chesed"

More on "chesed" from the Merton Institute. A reflection that pretty much takes away any hope of "earning" heaven. Saints and sinners, we're all in the same boat. Ours is a merciful God.

Who, then, is my neighbor? To whom am I bound? Whom must I love?

These are not intelligent questions, and they do not have clear answers. On the contrary any attempt to answer them involves us in endless subtleties, and vagueness, and ultimate confusion. Love knows no classifications. The measure of love that Christ has set for us is beyond measure: we must "be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect." But what is meant by "perfection" of the heavenly Father? It is impartiality, not in the sense of justice that measures out equally to all, knowing their merits, but in the sense of chesed that knows no classification of good and evil, just or unjust. "For He sends His rain upon the just and the unjust."

We are bound to God in chesed. the power of His mercy has taken hold of us and will not let go of us: therefore we have become foolish. We can no longer love wisely. And because we have emptied ourselves in this folly which He has sent upon us, we can be moved by His unpredictable wisdom, so that we love whom we love and we help whom we help, not according to plans of our own but according to the measure laid down for us in His hidden will, which knows no measure. In this folly, which is the work of His Spirit, we must love especially those who are helpless and who can do nothing for themselves. We must also receive love from them, realizing our own helplessness, and our own inability to fend for ourselves. Chesed had made us as though we were outcasts and sinners. Chesed has numbered us among the aliens and strangers: chesed has not only robbed us of our reason but declassified us along with everyone else, in the sight of God. Thus we have no home, no family, no niche in society, and no recognizable function. Nor do we even appear to be especially charitable, and we cannot pride ourselves on virtue. Chesed had apparently robbed us of all that, for he who lives by the mercy of God alone shall have nothing else to live by, only that mercy. Plenitudo legis est charitas. Mercy fulfills the whole law.

Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950): 180-181.

resisting error

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