Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Faith rooted in the unknown

This week's quote from the Merton Institute:

[Christmas Letter, 1966] Most of you, even with all that you have to suffer, are much better off than you realize. Yet the heart of man can be full of so much pain, even when things are exteriorly "all right". It becomes all the more difficult because today we are used to thinking that there are explanations for everything. But there is no explanation for most of what goes on in our own hearts, and we cannot account for it all. No use resorting to mental tranquilizers that even religious explanations sometimes offer. Faith must be deeper than that, rooted in the unknown and in the abyss of darkness that is the ground of our being. No use teasing the darkness to try to make answers grow out of it. But if we learn how to have a deep inner patience, things solve themselves, or God solves them if you prefer, but do not expect to see how. Just learn to wait, and do what you can and help other people.

Thomas Merton. The Road to Joy, Robert E. Daggy, editor (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989): 94.

Thought for the Day

Often in helping someone else we find the best way to bear with our own trouble.

The Road to Joy: 94.

Monday, October 26, 2009

so much for the Desert Fathers ...

"The day of the Desert Fathers is forever gone and we are waiting for a new sun to rise above the horizon of egotism and sordidness in every sense."
- D.T. Suzuki, from Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 115

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"How I Pray is Breath" (Merton on Zen)

Photo by Thomas Merton

[Through the early 1960s, Suzuki sent Merton annual illustrated calendars featuring images by the 18th century Zen priest and artist, Sengai. Suzuki printed commentary on each image, which made the calendar a book about the substance and style of Zen. Photographs of the interior of Merton’s hermitage show that the Sengai calendar had a place of pride.]

“How I pray is breathe.”

Back to Dr. Suzuki...

In the years following Merton’s letter of introduction to D.T. Suzuki, he would become one of the keenest students of Zen in the West. He published essays on Zen topics in a variety of journals.

“But more importantly still, Zen became a force in his life. It was a touchstone of truth, a code for consciousness, a description of the depths of reality and human nature, a way of being in Nature, a new kind of paradoxical wit and humor, a finger pointing not just at the moon but at a universe of meaning - it was all these things and more.”

- p. 10 from Roger Lipsey’s book, Angelic Mistakes - The Art of Thomas Merton

In 1962 Merton wrote to a friend in Asia:

“There are times when one has to cut right through all he knows and the Zen view of things is a good clean blade.”

- Merton letter to Paul Sih, January 2, 1962, The Hidden Ground of Love, p.551

Merton did not receive any formal instruction in Zen, his sangha were his brothers at Gethsemane. But his Christian practice of contemplative prayer had created layers of kinship and receptivity:

“What is really meant ... is continual openness to God, attentiveness, listening, disposability, etc. In terms of Zen, it is not awareness of but simple awareness.”

- Merton letter to a woman religious, March 27, 1968, Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis, edited by William Shannon, p. 197

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Photo by Thomas Merton

the sayings of the Desert Fathers (from the Wisdom of the Desert)

Merton’s translations of the “sayings” of the Desert Fathers are from the Verba Seniorium, which is part of a larger book, Migne’s Latin Patrology. They have long been part of traditional monastic lore. Benedict himself had prescribed that they be read aloud before Compline.

The sayings are simple and concrete, about ordinary life. They remind me of a little book of short Zen anecdotes - Zen Flesh, Zen Bones - that I’ve had in my bathroom for many years. Merton says that they are “plain answers to plain questions.”

It is interesting that the Desert Fathers lived at about the same time (3rd and 4th centuries A.D.) that Zen was developing in the East.

Merton found in the Desert Fathers something akin to what he was seeking in the monastery. A way of seeing and being that was true. A way to live that was not steeped in delusion. I believe that he was reaching for and defining a contemplative consciousness that transcends our usual ego driven Cartesian consciousness, and will be our life line into the future.

Here are a few sayings of the Desert Fathers that I have pulled from Wisdom in the Desert:

Once two brothers were sitting with Abbot Poemen and one praised the other brother saying: He is a good brother, he hates evil. The old man said: What do you mean, he hates evil? And the brother did not know what to reply. So he said: Tell me, Father, what it is to hate evil? The Father said: That man hates evil who hates his own sins, and looks upon every brother as a saint, and loves him as a saint.

Abbot John used to say: We have thrown down a light burden, which is the reprehending of our own selves, and we have chosen instead to bear a heavy burden, by justifying our own selves and condemning others.

Abbot Hor said to his disciple: Take care that you never bring into this ell the words of another.

Blessed Magarius said: This is the truth, if a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die.

One of the elders said: Pray attentively and you will soon straighten out your thoughts.

Abbot Joseph asked Abbot Pastor: Tell me how I can become a monk. The elder replied: If you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say: Who am I? And judge no one.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

the Desert Fathers (according to Merton)

“In the fourth century A.D. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men who have left behind them a strange reputation...”

This is the way Thomas Merton begins The Wisdom of the Desert, a book that was published in 1960. It was one of Merton’s favorites among his own books, showing how deeply he identified with the 4th century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East.

Merton introduces his translations Desert Fathers sayings with a rather lengthy discussion of just who these hermits were:
These were men who believed to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply disaster. ...

It should seem to us much stranger than it does, this paradoxical flight from the world that attained its greatest dimension (I almost said frenzy) when the “world” became officially Christian. These men seem to have thought that there is really no such thing as a “Christian state”. ...

They were not rebels against society ... one of the reasons why they fled from the world of men was that in the world men were divided into those who were successful and those who had to give in and be imposed upon. The Desert Fathers declined to be ruled by men, but had no desire to rule over others themselves. ...

What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self fabricated under social compulsion in “the world”. ...

Their flight to the arid horizons of the desert meant also a refusal to be content with arguments, concepts, and technical verbiage. ...

... such a path could only be traveled by one who was very alert and very sensitive to the landmarks of a trackless wilderness ...

The proximate end to all this striving was “purity of heart” - a clear unobstructed vision of the true state of affairs, an intuitive grasp of one’s own inner reality as anchored, or rather lost, in God through Christ ...
Merton senses the commonality of the Desert Fathers and the Indian Yogis and Zen monks of China and Japan. In 20th century America, though, such beings are tragically rare. He notes that there is a primitive wisdom among some of the Native American tribes, but it is different from that of the Desert Fathers, who made a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to “swim for one’s life in an apparently irrational Void.”

He uses words like “fabulous originality” to describe these “primitive souls”. And even though he says that the world still needs solitaries and hermits, he admits that simply imitating their simplicity, austerity and prayer would be an unsatisfactory answer to today’s problems:

“We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster. But our world is different from theirs. Our involvement in it is more complete. Our danger is far more desperate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think.

...we need to learn from these men of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown.” pp. 23-24

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pilgrimage to Perry Street

This is a little different, but very much in keeping with the spirit of louie, louie. Thanks to Jim Martin, SJ and America magazine. (I'll get back to Zen and the Desert Fathers shortly ...)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Merton and Zen, the beginning ...

Dr. D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)

“I have my own way to walk, and for some reason or another, Zen is right in the middle of wherever I go.”

In 1959 Merton began his correspondence with D.T. Suzuki. Since 1956, he had been reading everything he could find by the Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar.

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
is credited with the introducing “Zen” to the Western world. He lived in a cottage on the grounds of monastery near Tokyo, but traveled often to the West. Merton would eventually collaborate with him on published dialogues and meet him in person in New York in 1964. His first letter to Suzuki, dated March 12, 1959, is worth noting:

“Perhaps you are accustomed to receiving letters from strangers. I hope so, because I do not wish to disturb you with a bad-mannered intrusion. I hope a word of explanation will reconcile you to the disturbance, if it is one. The one who writes to you is a monk, a Christian, and so-called contemplative of a rather strict Order. A monk, also, who has tried to write some books about the contemplative life and who, for better or worse, has a great love of and interest in Zen.

“I will not be so foolish as to pretend to you that I understand Zen. To be frank, I hardly understand Christianity. ...

“Not to be foolish and multiply works, I’ll say simply that it seems to me that Zen is the very atmosphere of the Gospels, and the Gospels are bursting with it. It is the proper climate for any monk, no matter what kind of monk he may be. If I could not breathe Zen I would probably die of spiritual asphyxiation. But I still don’t know what it is. No matter. I don’t know what the air is either.”

“... Enclosed with this letter are a couple of pages of quotations from a little book of translations I have made. These are translations from the hermits who lived in the Egyptian deserts in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. I feel strongly that you will like them for a kind of Zen quality they have about them ... I believe that you are the one man, of all modern writers, who bears some resemblance of the Desert Fathers who wrote these little lines, or rather spoke them ...”

Letter to D.T. Suzuki, March 12, 1959, The Hidden Ground of Love, pp. 561-562


Photograph by Thomas Merton

Thursday, October 15, 2009

through a barn window

Photograph by Thomas Merton
One of Gethsemani's farm fields viewed through a barn window.

contemplative freedom

"The contemplative life must provide an area, a space of liberty, of silence, in which possibilities are allowed to surface and new choices - beyond routine choice - become manifest. It should create a new experience of time, not as a stopgap, stillness, but as “temps vierge” - not a blank to be filled or an untouched space to be conquered and violated, but a space which can enjoy its own potentialities and hopes - and its own presence to itself. One’s own time. But not dominated by one’s own ego and its demands. Hence open to others - compassionate time, rooted in the sense of common illusion and in criticism of it."
-Thomas Merton, The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 262

“When nothing is securely possessed one is free to accept any of the somethings. How many are there? They roll up at your feet. How many doors and windows are there in it? There is no end to the number of somethings and all of them (without exception) are acceptable. If one gets suddenly proud and says for one reason or another: I cannot accept this; then the whole freedom to accept any of the others vanishes. But if one maintains secure possession of nothing (what has been called poverty of spirit), then there is no limit to what one may freely enjoy. In this free enjoyment there is no possession of things. There is only enjoyment. What is possessed is nothing ... When in the state of nothing, one diminishes the something in one: Character. At any moment one is free to take on character again, but then it is without fear, full of life and love. For one’s been at the point of the nourishment that sustains in no matter what one of the something situations.”
- John Cage, Silence, pp. 132-133

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

war and peace, hatred and love

“I have learned that an age in which politicians talk about peace is an age in which everybody expects war: the great men of the earth would not talk of peace so much if they did not secretly believe it possible, with one more war, to annihilate their enemies forever. Always, ‘after just one more war’ it will dawn, the new era of love: but first everybody who is hated must be eliminated. For hate, you see, is the mother of their kind of love.

Unfortunately the love that is to be born out of hate will never be born. Hatred is sterile; it breeds nothing but the image of its own empty fury, its own nothingness. Love cannot come of emptiness. It is full of reality. Hatred destroys the real being of man in fighting the fiction which it calls ‘the enemy.’ For man is concrete and alive, but ‘the enemy’ is a subjective abstraction. A society that kills real men in order to deliver itself from the phantasm of a paranoid delusion is already possessed by the demon of destructiveness because it has made itself incapable of love. It refuses, a priori, to love. It is dedicated not to concrete relations of man with man, but only to abstractions about politics, economics, psychology, and even, sometimes, religion.”
-Thomas Merton
from Seeds
Selected and edited by Robert Inchausti
[Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc, 2002 - page 50]
Originally published in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton
[New York: New Directions, 1977, pages 374-75]

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Our Lady of the Olive Trees

[Update: The Marion Library at the University of Dayton has verified that the painting below is in its "Epinal" collection. These works of art were named after the French town of Epinal and date to the 2nd half of the 19th Century. They are quite large and are the precursors to what are today known as holy cards. This may not be the leaflet, per se, that Merton was remembering in the Sign of Jonas, but it sure looks like it could be especially with that writing below the picture.]

Toward the end of the book, The Sign of Jonas, Merton mentions Our Lady of the Olive Trees:
"There came from France a tiny, ancient leaflet, printed somewhere in the Auvergne at least half a century ago. It is about Our Lady of the Olive Trees, at Murat. Had I heard of her? I must have. I stood in the shadow of her church ..."
When Merton was 10 years old, his artist father took him to France to live with him. Merton learned French easily and studied mostly at boarding schools while visiting his father on Sundays. During the summer of 1927 when he was 12 years old, Merton lived with an elderly Catholic couple, the Privats, in Murat, a small village in the Auvergne region of France.

This photo comes from a collection of Marian art at the Univerisity of Dayton. I wonder if it is the leaflet that Merton speaks of.Our Lady of Olives takes its origin from a wooden statue of Our Lady which survived the destruction of the Church of Murat caused by lightning in 1493. (Hence, Our Lady of the Olives is the protectress against lightning. Interesting in light of how Merton died from a bolt of electricity.). No one is sure where the name, Our Lady of the Olives comes from. Some say this is a reference to the wood from which she is carved, others say it is an allusion to suffering (Garden of Olives).

Merton comes to this memory just after having committed himself to compassion, whom he names Queen of the hermits and mother of the poor.

"What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion ...

"Do you suppose I have a spiritual life? I have none, I am indigence, I am silence, I am poverty, I am solitude, for I have renounced spirituality to find God, and He it is Who preaches loud in the depths of my indigence, saying: “I will pour out my spirit upon thy children and they shall spring up among the herbs as willows beside the running waters” (Isaias, 44:3-4). “The children of thy barrenness shall say in thy ears: the place is too strait for me, make me room to dwell in” (Isaias, 49:10). I die of love for you, Compassion: I take you for my Lady, as Francis married poverty I marry you, the Queen of hermits and the Mother of the poor.

-Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p. 334
Below are photos of the church at Murat and the statue of Our Lady of Olives.

Murat, France (there is a large white statue of the Blessed Mother on that hill on the left)