Tuesday, January 31, 2012

the birthday of Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton Photo by John Howard Griffin
Today is the 97th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton.
My Catholicism is not the religion of the bourgeoisie nor will it ever be. My Catholicism is of all the world and of all ages. It dates from the beginning of the world. The first man was the image of Christ and contained Christ, even as he was created, as savior in his heart. The first man was destined to be the ancestor of his Redeemer and the first woman was the mother of all life, in the image of the Immaculate Daughter who was full of grace, Mother of mercy, Mother of the saved.
-- Thomas Merton
Introductions East & West, 35-6
HT: Jim Forest

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

acrobats and pure prayer - Phillippe Petit

PHOTOGRAPH: Aerialist Philippe Petite opens dedication of St.John The Divine. Credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times, 1982

Every now and then a person comes along who, though not overtly religious, is innately contemplative.

Luke, over at Intense City has an intriguing post ("Settling into the Heart") today about the movement from the head to the heart, referencing the word munem, which in Japanese Zen means intelligent action without thinking, and a quote from a Chinese Zen master: “If you want to see into it, see into it directly.  When you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed.”

Luke provides Unknown Friend’s notion of concentrating without effort with the wonderful example of the tightrope walker:

“Look at a tightrope walker. He is evidently completely concentrated, because if he were not, he would fall to the ground. His life is at stake, and it is only perfect concentration which can save him. Yet do you believe that his thought and his imagination are occupied in what he is doing? Do you think that he reflects and that he imagines, that he calculates and that he makes plans with regard to each step he makes on the rope?” - Unknown Friend

(This all sounds like how Cynthia Bourgealt teaches Centering prayer.  Cynthia says that one moves out of the head into a sort of vague area where one trusts the awareness of that moment.)

Anyway, Luke expresses this all so well over at his site.  The photo that he posted, which I have re-posted above because I love it so much, is of Phillipe Petit, the French high wire artist walking on a wire to the Cathedral of St. John of the Divine in 1982.  Petit is best known for his wire-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974.   When I watched the film, Man on a Wire, about this walk, I recognized that Petit was, in fact, a contemplative; he embodies concentration without effort!  Of course, this is the point that Luke makes.

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

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

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

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

“Throwing everything away except the act itself, and I think at that point it also joins with the ideas of Zen, that everything is right here in this moment, and all those same things are being thrown away in what they describe as the Zen act. So if you were living in that kind of purity or call it action, it would be close to the kingdom of heaven. = Lax (p. 437-438, "When Prophecy Had A Voice") 
- see also the louie blog post: "lax on pure act"
It certainly seems like this is what is happening during Centering Prayer.

HT: Intense City

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Philippe Petit
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Monday, January 23, 2012


Robert Lax 

The following is excerpted from "Mystics: Ten Who Show Us the Ways of God" by Murray Bodo. The last chapter is about Lax and I like how Bodo is able to pull from Lax's writing the vocation of waiting that is at the heart of his spirituality.
"I open my eyes in the dark and see darkness. I close my eyes, even in the light, and see darkness. All the same darkness. Almost the same. Light comes and goes, but the darkness stays. Almost always the same. A fairly steady darkness. One you can count on. Almost." (Lax, 21 Pages, p. 191) 
Almost. Because even darkness becomes a sort of light that is not darkness.
"My observatory powers in the meantime had grown keener. I could see in the dark. I could see much further into the dark than before.” (Lax, 21 Pages, p. 194)
Even of darkness Lax is positive, grateful, blissful.
“My dark night of the soul, if that’s what it is. My long night’s waiting, if that’s what it is. I saw a lot more then, on those nights of sleeping, not sleeping under bridges, sleeping, not sleeping on benches, under trees, in barn or on church steps than I’m seeing now. No matter. I continue to watch." (Lax, 21 Pages, p. 194)
For Lax the watching is all because,
“I’m looking ahead. I’m looking toward some point, some vanishing point, or anyway, not yet visible point in the distance, in the future where something or someone I’d recognize would appear. (Where you would appear.) ….
“My person. My beloved, if you like; my sought-after-being, my remembered-one, would be there.” (Lax, 21 Pages, p.197)
I love that in this passage and throughout Lax's oeuvre, there is no mechanical, muscular working to attain some goal, to attain God, but a looking, a waiting, a receptivity to receive the other. Lax has no righteous sense of his won accomplishment in work or in prayer or of his own virtue. Insead all he is and brings is ...
“A readiness to recognize you; that’s all I’ve brought, that’s what I bring to the encounter.” (Lax, 21 Pages, p.197)
And even then, even recognizing why it is he waits and looks in silence, he doesn’t take credit for that stance. Rather, he says,
"I didn’t give up because I couldn’t. I didn’t, because I was made to go on waiting. Made, put together, invented, born, for that single, singular purpose: to watch, to wait. There’s no giving up on who you are … I’ve wondered sometimes if you came, and I saw you, and I knew you were there, I’d continue to go on waiting.” (Lax, 21 Pages, p. 198-199)

- Mystics: Ten Who Show Us the Ways of God, by Murray Bodo, Kindle Location 3178 of 4267

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

sweating under the mask

"Alienation begins when culture divides me against myself, puts a mask on me, gives me a role I may or may not want to play. Alienation is complete when I become completely identified with my mask, totally satisfied with my role, and convince myself that any other identity or role is inconceivable.

"The man who sweats under his mask, whose role makes him itch with discomfort, who hates the division in himself, is already beginning to be free."

-- Thomas Merton
The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton
edited by Patrick Hart
New York: New Directions, 1981, p 381

Saturday, January 7, 2012

the monk is anyone who seeks to become one, single person ...

"Though addressing monks in his own monastery, St. Hesychios speaks to all of us on the contemplative path when he says, "One who has renounced such things as marriage, possessions and other worldly pursuits is outwardly a monk, but may not be a monk inwardly.  Only the person who has renounced obsessive thoughts is a true monk."   For Hesychios, then, a monk is not a geriatric vegetarian who mutters prayers, but any woman or man who seeks to become one, single person (the root meaning of "monk"), instead of the chameleon who constantly changes according to the color of demanding relationships ...

... It is not ultimately a question of embracing the externals of monasticism.  We may go off to retreat houses or enter a monastery, but unless we quieten the world of inner chatter, we never enter.  Countless numbers of monastics may live decades in a monastery without ever entering the monastery in the sense St. Hesychios or St. Theodoros intends, because we cling to chatter like a dog to to a bone ..."

- Martin Laird, "A Sunlit Absence - Silence, Awareness and Contemplation", Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 40

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

photos of Dan Berrigan released from jail, 1972

Photo copyright by John Goodwin john@goodwinphotos.com
A couple of photos of Dan Berrigan as he was released from the Danbury prion on the 24th of February, 1972.  The photos were taken by John Goodwin.  Jim Forest is at the left.  HT to Jim.
Photo copyright by John Goodwin john@goodwinphotos.com

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Poetry of Thomas Merton - summer 1966

I have promised longtime louie reader, Mr. Spaget, a poem by Merton that impresses me.  Merton thought of creativity/art as an act of work/labour.  From Rowan Williams, "A Silent Action: p. 46:
"Labor is to do this rather than that, and to engage in the discipline and limits of doing this rather than that.  Work, labour, involves local  commitment and specificity.  Work is what has to be done in this moment, here and now, by this person, in the encounter ...

"He speaks of 'this unique instant' in terms of 'the sense of water on the skin,' a very powerful image.  The poet acts, works, in that moment of contact with truth."
And Merton knew that he wasn't quite there.  From a letter to St. Therese Lentfoehr, written in 1948:
"With me, I know what the trouble is.  I come upon a situation and the situation seems to require a poem.  But the poem turns out to be not the precise, individual poem which that specific situation had demanded from all eternity but just 'a poem'.  A generic poem by Thomas Merton that is something like all the other poems by Thomas Merton and which he drags out of his stock to fit on every situation that comes along.  That is why Figures for an Apocalypse  is a whole string of complete misses.  All I can say is that the arrows were in the general direction of some target or other but I'd be hard put to it to connect the firing with the real object that was there to be fired at."
And then came the summer of 1966.  That was the tormented summer that Merton fell in love with the nurse, that he made no sense whatsoever to himself or others, confounding his abbot, his fellow monks, and his friends.  This is the poem:

summer 1966

Bright post-examination weather; in the redudant
classroom, the only point seems here, the belly
of Kentucky heat, the shaven sweating mariners
singing Gregorian shanties in a slow
light evening.  What do I want?  What sixteen-year-olds want,
no doubt; but also: to learn how to sail that sweaty ship,
words falling moistly from the timber, shining,
Latin, American, French.  And the horizon that you think
(so slow the light, so slow the gestures and the voices)
night never quite closes on.

                      The same month
you made a landfall, emptied on to the shore,
gasping and heaving against a new hard element,
against the solid sand.  And now I read you, years on,
leap and flail, mouth wide, reaching - you once-fluent fellow --
for the words to fix it, finding in the unfixable
a bizarre homeliness.  You spent my sixteenth birthday
making a clean(ish) breast of things to the steel smile
of Abbot James.  You staged show after show
for friends, then cancelled.  Not to make sense is
what most matters.

                      What was I seeing,
then, that summer?  light from a dead star?
Not quite.  But who could tell the night, closing its mouth,
the hard sand, were, after all, where the hot songs
would lead?  Practise the Gothic scales for long enough
and they will conjure, surprisingly, this place, flat concrete
convenience foods, an empty page to look into,
finding the anger; painting, then blotting faces you might
hers, yours, that only in fiction would stand still.
Not to make sense, inside the keel of sweating ribs,
not to make sense but room.

I'd say he hit the target with this one.

Poetry is not, and is against, magic

Photo by Thomas Merton
I am reading Rowan Williams’ book of essays about Merton now.  Rowan is a noted critic of poetry and there is an essay about poetry, where Williams says [that Merton says] that poetry isn’t, and is against, magic.
“‘It is the businessman, the propagandist, the politician, not the poet, who devoutly believes in the magic of words.’, writes Merton, ‘for the poet, there is precisely no magic, only life in all its unpredictability and freedom.  All magic is a ruthless venture into manipulation, a vicious circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy.’  Words that ‘work’, independent of their transparency to truth, are magical words.  They live without anchorage in reality.  They exist in order to exercise power, to control or develop a situation according to the will of the speaker.”
-from "A Silent Action, Engagements with Thomas Merton", by Rowan Williams,  Fons Vitae 2011, p. 41