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.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

the dalai lama connection

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama, 1968

Before his trip to Asia, Merton was not especially interested in Tibetan Buddhism. Like the Buddhism of Nepal, he considered it “… ferocity, ritualism, superstition, magic. No doubt many deep and mysterious things, but maybe it needs to disappear.” (The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 145, July 23, 1968).

A meeting with the Dalai Lama was arranged by Harold Talbot, a Catholic and an American student of Buddhism who was baptized at Gethsemane. The first meeting was to be on the morning of November 4th, 1968, at the Dalai Lama’s home-in-exile near Dharamsala, India. As the date of the meeting approaches, Merton makes many notes in his journal about Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the mandala and tantras; he is impressed with the Tibetan lamas that he meets. He is well aware of how special the Dalai Lama – just 33 years old – is to the Tibetan people:

“The Dalai Lama is loved by his people – and they are a beautiful, loving people. They surround his house with love and prayer, they have a new soongkhor [barbed wire fence] for protection along the fence. Probably no leader in the world is so much loved by his followers and means so much to them. He means everything to them. For that reason it would be especially terrible and cruel if any evil should strike him. I pray for his safety and fear for him. May God protect and preserve him.” (Nov. 3, 1968, The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 245)

After their meeting on November 4th, it is clear that Merton and the Dalai Lama are kindred souls:

“The Dalai Lam is most impressive as a person. He is strong and alert, bigger than I expected (for some reason I thought he would be small). A very solid, energetic, generous, and warm person, very capably trying to handle enormous problems – none of which he mentioned directly. There was not a word of politics. The whole conversation was about religion and philosophy and especially ways of mediation. He said he was glad to see me, had heard a lot about me. I talked mostly of my own personal concerns, my interest in Tibetan mysticism. Some of what he replied was confidential and frank. … One gets the impression that he is very sensitive about partial and distorted Western views of Tibetan mysticism and especially about popular myths. He himself offered to give me another audience the day after tomorrow and said he had some questions he wanted to ask me.” (p. 251, The Other Side of the Mountain)

In a letter to his abbot, Dom Flavian Burns, Merton wrote:

“He did a lot of off-the-record talking, very open and sincere, a very impressive person, deeply concerned about the contemplative life, and also very learned. I have seldom met anyone with whom I clicked so well, and I feel that we have become good friends."

Of his 2nd meeting with the Dalai Lama on November 6th, Merton writes:

“… It was a very lively conversation and I think we all enjoyed it. He certainly seemed to. I like the solidity of the Dalai Lama’s ideas. He is a very consecutive thinker and moves from step to step. His ideas of the interior life are built on very solid foundations and on a real awareness of practical problems. He insists on detachment, on an “unworldly life,” yet sees it as a way to complete understanding of, and participation in, the problems of life and the world. But renunciation and detachment must come first. Evidently he misses the full monastic life and wishes he had more time to meditate and study himself …” (p. 258-259, The Other Side of the Mountain)
Two days later, November 8th, 1968, Merton met with the Dalai Lama for the 3rd and last time:

“My third interview with the Dalai Lama was in some ways the best. He asked a lot of question about Western monastic life, particularly the vows, the rule of silence, the ascetic way etc. …

“It was a very warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another. I feel a great respect and fondness for him as a person and believe, too, that there is a real spiritual bond between us. He remarked that I was a “Catholic geshe”, which Harold said, was the highest possible praise from a Gelugpa, like an honorary doctorate!” (p. 266, The Other Side of the Mountain)

The Dalai Lama comes to Gethsemane

In July, 1996, 28 years after their meeting in India, the Dalai Lama visited Merton’s home - the Abby of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The Dalai Lama was participating in a monastic inter-religious dialogue, a gathering in which saffron-robed Buddhist monks and nuns, gray-robed Zen monks and nuns prayed and shared spiritual insights with black-robed Benedictine and white-and-black-robed Cistercian monks and nuns. The Dalai Lama, a world religious leader, sat as a monk among monks, not separately on a dais. (St. Anthony Messenger article, Jan, 1997)

"Now our spirits are one," the Dalai Lama said after praying at Merton's grave along with Abbot Timothy Kelly.

[note: NPR's Fresh Air interviewed journalist, Pico Iver, yesterday. Iver is the author of a new book, "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama", which is based in part on his conversations with the Buddhist monk over the last 33 years.
The interview focused on how the nonviolent philosophy of the Dalai Lama defines the way that he leads the Tibetan people, both spiritually and politically.]

Monday, March 24, 2008

the chesed of God

This week's meditation from The Merton Institution.
The chesed of God is a gratuitous mercy that considers no fitness, no worthiness and no return. It is the way the Lord looks upon the guilty and with His look makes them at once innocent. This look seems to some to be anger because they fly from it. But if they face it, they see that it is love and that they are innocent. (Their flight and their confusion of their own fear make them guilty in their own eyes.) The chesed of God is truth. It is infallible strength. It is the love by which He seeks and chooses His chosen, and binds them to Himself. It is the love by which He is married to mankind, so that, if humanity is faithless to Him, it must still always have fidelity to which to return: that is His own fidelity. He has become inseparable from man in the chesed which we call "Incarnation," and "Cross" and "Resurrection." He has also given us is chesed in the Person of His Spirit. The Paraclete is the full, inexpressible mystery of chesed. So that in the depths of our own being there is an inexhaustible spring of mercy and love. Our own being has become love. Our own self has become God's love for us, and it is full of Christ, of chesed. But we must face and accept ourselves and others as chesed.

Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950): 178-179.

I am fascinated with the concept of "chesed" - an act parallel to Creation, from nothing, and that is the beginning of any relationship of God to man.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

an act for which there can be found no word

image by Thomas Merton. Untitled.
image size: 7 1/4" h x 10" w

April 10, 1965. The religion of our time, to be authentic, needs to be the kind that escapes practically all religious definition. Because there has been endless definition, endless verbalizing, and words have become gods. There are so many words that one cannot get to God as long as [God] is thought to be on the other side of words. But when [God] is placed firmly beyond the other side of words, the words multiply like flies and there is a great buzzing religion, very profitable, very holy, very spurious. One tries to escape it by acts of truth that fail. One’s whole being must be an act for which there can be found no word. This is the primary meaning of faith. On this basis, other dimensions of belief can be made credible. Otherwise not. My whole being must be a yes and an amen and an exclamation that is not heard. Only after that is there any point in exclamations and even after there is no point in exclamations. One’s acts must be part of the same silent exclamation … If only [we] could realize that nothing HAS TO BE uttered. Utterance makes sense only when it is spontaneous and free.” (The Courage for Truth, p. 25)

Notes from Roger Lipsey (Angelic Mistakes, p. 52-53):

“[this image]… can be understood as glimpses of another world, another quality of energy and organization, not maps but something more like visions from the margin of experience, where matter and energy become interchangeable.. appears to have been done completely without the brush; he seems to have inked grass stems and pulled prints directly from them … chance and providence meet …

When first encountered, these works may seem slight and odd. What a great distance has been traveled from the majestic Zen brushworks. Is it distance gained? The notion of gain or loss is misleading at this point in Merton’s development as an artist; there is simply change in a search that no longer measured itself and perhaps never measured itself along a line of progression. But I can report from my own experience that these images of little visible substance, hovering at some “incomparable point” in space, once seemed to me slight but now strike me as remarkable. This is not a crucial claim or perspective. It simply asks us to keep looking.”

Monday, March 17, 2008

everybody will come to their senses

image by Thomas Merton, “Untitiled”
image size 6”h x 7 ½” w

December 20, 1962. They cannot silence either Chuang Tzu or this Child, in China or anywhere. They will be heard in the middle of the night saying nothing and everybody will come to their senses.

(The Hidden Ground of Love, p. 624)

Saturday, March 15, 2008


I watched the DVD-film, “Into the Wild” last night.

It reminded me of Merton. And Nietzsche. And 2 of my nephews. And myself. The compelling need to somehow turn away from “the world” – its lies, its greed, its power – to hear and follow the voice of the soul. The call to be who you are.

Somewhere down in my comments, Marc brought up a book about the “counter-culture” of Catholicism during the pre-Vatican II years. 1938 – 1962. These were the years that Merton was drawn into Catholicism and entered the monastery. These were also the years of my childhood.

There was definitely something counter-cultural about Catholicism during those years. Catholics stood apart. We went to our own schools, and rarely married “outside the faith”. We made great efforts to structure and understand our lives in religious (and sometimes overly pious) ways - but did we counter the culture in which we were enmeshed? Or were we sucked in like everyone else?

I don’t believe that Merton was ever truly touched (or bothered) by the cult of Catholicism that I knew as a child. Merton once said, referring specifically to Thich Nhat Hanh, that he was more like a Buddhist monk than his Catholic brethren.

But I do not believe that Merton would have ever left the Trappists or the Catholic Church.

Merton went deeper. To the place where one can find in Catholicism the call to be who you are. And that is, by definition, counter-cultural. And he was.

I wish that organized religion could be more of a guide for this soul-protest. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Never has been. Maybe, like Nietzche said, one has to move past this expecting an answer and comfort from "religion".

Monday, March 10, 2008

the "world" that Christ would not pray for

"What is the 'world' that Christ would not pray for, and of which He said that His disciples were in it but not of it? The world is the unquiet city of those who live for themselves and are therefore divided against one another in a struggle that cannot end, or it will go on eternally in hell. It is the city of those who are fighting for possession of limited things and for the monopoly of good and pleasures that cannot be shared by all."


- from Wayne Burns "AM with Merton"

Sunday, March 9, 2008

flight from the world

"There is only one true flight from the world; it is not an escape from conflict, anguish and suffering, but the flight from disunity and separation, to unity and peace in the love of other men."


Thursday, March 6, 2008

"prayer belongs less to time than to eternity"

“Now you are free to go in and out of infinity.”

Merton’s theology was lived.

His enthusiasm for tracking the presence of God in and for the world was a presence that was also profoundly personal. God surged in his bloodstream as well as in “the stream of the reality of life itself”.

Merton knew that he could not decode the “signs of his times” on his own. His awareness and writing was always attuned to the voices of others, both those who came before him and those who lived with him. He clearly admitted to the complexities and paradoxes of his own life.

And yet he did look (and speak) beyond what he “knew” …

“In active contemplation, there is a deliberate and sustained effort to detect the will of God in events and to bring [my] whole self into harmony with that will. Active contemplation depends on an ascesis [an inner work and discipline] of abandonment, a systematic relaxation of the tensions of [my] exterior self and a renunciation of its tyrannical claims and demands, in order to move in a dimension that escapes [my] understanding and overflows in all directions [my] capacity to plan. The element of dialectic in active contemplation is centered on the discovery of God’s will, that is to say, the identification of the real direction which events are taking, especially in my own life. But along with this there is a deep concern with the symbolic and ritual enactment of those sacred mysteries which represent the divine actions by which the redemption and sanctification of the world is effected. In other words, my active contemplation rests on a deep ground of liturgical, historical, and cultural tradition: but a living tradition, not dead convention. And a tradition still in dynamic growth and movement.”

(THE INNER EXPERIENCE, Edited by William Shannon, p. 58)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

the root of Christian love

For some years now, I've been getting a morning email from Wayne Burns, with a quote from Merton. Lately, they have seemed especially simple yet profound to me. This one was from this morning. I love the turning of emphasis away from something that we are supposed to "do", and the reaching to a deeper, before source of love.

"The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. That faith that one is loved by God. That faith that one is loved by God although unworthy -- or, rather, irrespective of one's worth."


"we and our world interpenetrate"

[Below are some of my thoughts surrounding Merton’s writings on “the world”. Though I have kept this blog mostly informative about the life, art, friendships, and writings of Merton, I also consider him my primary spiritual guide, and am continually musing upon what he says. It’s quite personal. So I have decided to try to articulate some response here, without getting scholarly. Comments are welcome and wonderful. In time, I might develop some kind of more personal "style" for this blog - maybe find my voice :-)]

“We and our world interpenetrate”.

This is an important insight for me. The world is not something that is “out there”, while my own life and spirituality is somehow “in here”.

Life in a monastery is attractive to me. Even the religions that isolate themselves from the “public life” of the world (Anabaptists) have a certain appeal to me. In a way this distancing is a protest and refusal to be pulled into a reality that defines itself in terms of money, power, business, or political advantage.

When 27-year-old Merton entered the monastery he did, indeed, think that he was leaving the world behind. He vowed to struggle against the will to power and individualism within his own psyche.

Obviously, some kind of distance and discipline is necessary. Modern life is filled up with movement and activity, with speech, news, communication, recreation, distraction. Billboards everywhere invest this frantic activity with the noblest of qualities – as if it were the whole end and happiness of man. As if our meaning were to be found somewhere outside of ourselves, in what we own or achieve or do.

Ancient and traditional societies, East and West, have always recognized that wisdom involved a “way” of spiritual discipline in which an inner meaning of being could be attained.

So, there must be some kind of deliberate turning away from the world, turning inward – and yet it cannot be an evasion or fleeing from the world.

“This way of wisdom is no dream, no temptation and no evasion, for it is on the contrary a return to reality in its very root. It is not an escape from contradiction and confusion for it finds unity and clarity only by plunging into the very midst of contradiction, by the acceptance of emptiness and suffering, by the renunciation of passions and obsessions with which the whole world is “on fire.” It does not withdraw from the fire. It is in the very heart of the fire, yet remains cool, because it has the gentleness and humility that comes from self-abandonment, and hence does not seek to assert the illusion of the exterior self.” (from “Honorable Reader”, p. 67)

About halfway through his monastic vocation, Merton began turning back toward the world, becoming fully informed, engaged and responsive to the crises of his times. His prophetic protesting was balanced by his more personal writings, where he revealed himself mostly as a poet of his inner experiences.

Some have called Merton “a man with and uncaged mind”, one who was free of the “obligatory answers” proscribed by educations, racial and national heritages, religious tribes, or institutions that thrive by dividing human beings into family and strangers.

My sense is that Merton’s monastic inner work led him to an awareness of a personal freedom that is available to all of us. Inherent in this freedom is the ability to dance between (bridge) the outer and inner dimensions of how we know reality – our world and ourselves.