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In an unpublished early novel "Labyrinth," Merton writes: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

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.