I know nothing of You and, by myself,
I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You.
If I imagine You, I am mistaken.
If I understand You, I am deluded.
If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy.
The darkness is enough."
|Woodcut by Harlan Hubbard|
Advent is a time of waiting, of expectation, of silence. Waiting for our Lord to be born. A pregnant woman is so happy, so content. She lives in such a garment of silence, and it is as though she were listening to hear the stir of life within her. One always hears the stirring compared to the rustling of a bird in the hand. But the intentness with which one awaits such stirring is like nothing so much as a blanket of silence. Dorothy Day
"Therefore, if I don't pretend, like other people, to understand the war, I do know this much: that the knowledge of what is going on only makes it seem desperately important to be voluntarily poor, to get rid of all possessions this instant. I am scared, sometimes, to own anything, even a name, let alone coin, or share in the oil, the munitions, the airplane factories. I am scared to take a proprietary interest in anything, for fear that my love of what I own may be killing somebody somewhere."--Thomas Merton, from a diary entry during WWII reflecting upon the connections between possessions and complicity in violence worldwide
Points for meditation to be scratched on the walls of a cave.
27: At 1:37 A.M. August 6th the weather scout plane took off. It was named the Straight Flush, in reference to the mechanical action of a water closet. There was a picture of one, to make this evident.
28: At the last minute before taking off Col. Tibbetts changed the secret radio call sign from “Visitor” to “Dimples.” The bombing mission would be a kind of flying smile.
29: At 2:45 A.M. Enola Gay got off the ground with difficulty. Over Iwo Jima she met her escort, two more B-29’s, one of which was called the Great Artiste. Together they proceeded to Japan.
30: At 6:40 they climbed to 31,000 feet, the bombing altitude. The sky was clear. It was a perfect morning.
31: At 3:09 they reached Hiroshima and started the bomb run. The city was full of sun. The fliers could see the green grass in the gardens. No fighters rose up to meet them. There was no flak. No one in the city bothered to take cover.
32: The bomb exploded within 100 feet of the aiming point. The fireball was 18,000 feet across. The temperature at the center of the fireball was 100,000,000 degrees. The people who were near the center became nothing. The whole city was blown to bits and the ruins all caught fire instantly everywhere, burning briskly. 70,000 people were killed right away or died within a few hours. Those who did not die right away suffered great pain. Few of them were soldiers.
33: The men in the plane perceived that the raid had been successful, but they thought of the people in the city and they were not perfectly happy. Some felt they had done wrong. But in any case they had obeyed orders. “It was war.”
34: Over the radio went the code message that the bomb had been successful: “Visible effects greater than Trinity … Proceeding to Papacy.” Papacy was the code name for Tinian.
35: It took a little while for the rest of Japan to find out what had happened to Hiroshima. Papers were forbidden to publish any news of the new bomb. A four line item said that Hiroshima had been hit by incendiary bombs and added: “It seems that some damage was caused to the city and its vicinity.”
36: Then the military governor of the Prefecture of Hiroshima issued a proclamation full of martial spirit. To all the people without hands, without feet, with their faces falling off, with their intestines hanging out, with their whole bodies full of radiation, he declared:
“We must not rest a single day in our war effort … We must bear in mind that the annihilation of the stubborn enemy is our road to revenge.” He was a professional soldier."
"Original Child Bomb", The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, pages 300-301
It is no exaggeration to say that our times are Apocalyptic, in the sense that we seem to have come to a point at which all the hidden, mysterious dynamism of the "history of salvation" revealed in the Bible has flowered into final and decisive crisis.Read the article HERE.
"It is sometimes discouraging to see how small the Christian peace movement is, and especially here in America where it is most necessary. But we have to remember that this is the usual pattern, and the Bible has led us to expect it. Spiritual work is done with disproportionately small and feeble instruments. And now above all when everything is so utterly complex, and when people collapse under the burden of confusions and cease to think at all, it is natural that few may want to take on the burden of trying to effect something in the moral and spiritual way, in political action. Yet this is precisely what has to be done.The only Catholic Peace group in the US that I know of is Pax Christi. I have been a member of that organization for several years, and am often bemused that it is not better known amongst the Catholic mainstream.
[T]he great danger is that under the pressure of anxiety and fear, the alternation of crisis and relaxation and new crisis, the people of the world will come to accept gradually the idea of war, the idea of submission to total power, and the abdication of reason, spirit and individual conscience. The great peril of the cold war is the progressive deadening of conscience.
[I] rely very much on your help and friendship. Send me anything you think will be of service to the cause of peace, and pray that in all things I may act wisely."
Thomas Merton. "Letter to Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayer." The Hidden Ground of Love. Letters, Volume 1. William H. Shannon. editor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985: 325-326
“Sometimes I wish it were possible to simply be the kind of hermit who is so cut off that he knows nothing that goes on, but that is not right either …” (November 11, 1965, Dancing in the Water of Life)Other times he wondered if the monastery were not an escape from engaging and responding to the “mystery of our times”:
"I am continually coming face to face with the fact that I have lost perspective here, including religious perspective, and that to some extent we monks are out of touch with the real (religious) mystery of our times." (Witness to Freedom)Merton continued to balance this tension by faithfully following his vocation to solitude ("My place is in these woods!"), while writing powerfully prophetic essays that have become the foundation of the American peace movement.
"Dan Berrigan. Who is this post-modern man, this priest-poet? As our mother would put it, “Dan’s not easy to describe, not easy to pin down!” It can be said though, that four decades or so ago, he glanced askance at the new superpower, the American empire. He was becoming skeptical of its official treatment of people elsewhere in the world. What he learned of the U.S. government and its policies led him to reject its PR, its blandishments. Eventually, he became and was to remain a resister of the White House, the Congress, and the Pentagon, places he considered world forces of lawlessness and disorder.
During these years Dan has, little by little, grown quietly subdued. In contrast to his earlier vocal and vociferous denouncings, he’s become gradually aware of the
deadly scope and tenacity of the forces he opposes. As one Catholic Worker put it, “Evil in the U.S. is riding high in the stirrups”! Dan’s recognition of this has come to him through prayer, prison, and exile and has led him to develop a posture of firm but gentle wariness mixed with detachment. Teaching and lecturing he’s come by a style of understatement. He’s learned. “I, we, concerned and caring though we are, can’t do it overnight. Even together we’ll not be able to reverse the duplicity and violence endemic to U.S. government and society today. If indeed the turnabout we work and pray for is ever to begin, it won’t happen quickly, it won’t happen even during our lifetime. All we can do is try to be faithful; all we can do is to keep on doing.”
(from Apostle of Peace, Essay in honor of Daniel Berrigan)
"It is loneliness that cannot be shared, which is “unspeakable” because it is experienced in a way that is so private and humiliating that, were you to speak of it, you would further damage an already over-fragile sense of self that has been made so fragile by the loneliness itself.
"You experience this kind of loneliness whenever you are alone in something in a way that you cannot share with anyone else because the loneliness itself feels like a private sickness, like a thing of shame, which makes you so vulnerable that any attempt to share it with someone would only make things worse and be a further humiliation.
"You experience this especially in rejection, betrayal, abuse, powerlessness, and the feelings you have when you doubt your own attractiveness, intelligence, goodness, strength, and emotional stability. Not only are you then alone and outside of something or someone you want, but you are left with a wound, a humiliation, a sense of not measuring-up, an insecurity, and a shame, that is only deepened should you talk of it.
"You experience this, “unspeakable loneliness” where your relationships become one-sided, where you get walked-on, walked-away from, get dumped, suffer abuse, get bullied on the playground, are the one who is never asked out, get chosen last, are too weak to defend yourself, where your body and feelings aren’t right, where you aren’t bright enough, aren’t attractive enough.
"There is a solution to “unspeakable loneliness”: it needs to be spoken, to be shared, to be made public. To speak the unspeakable is a risk, an anguish, an irony, but, when the unspeakable is spoken, what once felt shamefully private and sick can become a badge of courage and a distinguishing mark of healthy citizenship insidethe human condition."
- Ron Rolheiser OMI
"As I do not drive, I spend much of my life in buses. What better place, I thought, to experiment with benevolent glancing? At first I felt a bit awkward. I did not try to engage anyone’s eyes, so benevolent glancing was strictly a unilateral initiative.
"A strange thing happened. I found I was praying. I don’t mean saying prayers. I was being attentive, alert and aware in a way impossible to describe. I was very much “with” a mysterious depth of reality. I was looking at others not merely with curiosity but with love. After all, love is what benevolence is all about: the word means “to wish another well.”
"After a year of practice, I happened to meet a Buddhist priest. In his family he was of the fortieth consecutive generation of Buddhist priests. He said that the Buddhist way of seeing is different than the western approach. Westerners want to extract data, to “take” what they can from what they see, while a Buddhist tries simply to be present, to allow reality to present itself, to wait for it to come forward to meet the eye.
"What has this got to do with peace? Very much. Benevolent glancing is an art of attentiveness. Paying attention to what is before us is a way of prayer, even a definition of prayer. We know by faith that God is everywhere. Benevolent glancing is relishing God by being attentive to what is before us." - Sr. Mary Evelyn Jeger SND
|Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen SND|
Those who would take the time to look with appreciation at another person, or at a rose, a soup bowl, would soon discover that what they see is not completely up to them. What is really there does not reveal itself on demand. Only slowly, gradually, does the truth of the person, the rose, or the soup bowl make itself present. It is only with detachment and time that people can receive the truth of what they are looking at. —Mary Evelyn Jegen, SND
Merton was and remains a controversial figure. Though he was a member of a monastic order well known for silence and for its distance from worldly affairs, Merton was outspoken on various topics that many regard as very worldly affairs. Merton was a critic of much that was happening in the world and also a critic of a Christianity in which religious identity is submerged in national identity....
...Though their vocations were different, it wasn’t only Merton who was a contemplative....
...“My constant prayer,” Dorothy confided to Merton just before Christmas in 1959, “is for final perseverance — to go on as I am trusting always the Lord Himself will take me by the hair of the head like [the prophet] Habakkuk and set me where he wants me.”
Anyone who has ever been part of any intentional community will recall how stressful it can be even when there are no dark clouds, but when it is a community that opens its doors day and night to people in urgent need, people who would not often be on anyone’s guest list, and when it is a community with very strong-willed, often argumentative, ideologically-driven volunteers, it can at times be like life in a hurricane.
In one letter to Merton, Dorothy speaks in detail about the bitterness animating some of the criticisms directed at her by co-workers. She senses the motivation of some of those who come to help at the Catholic Worker is less love than a “spirit of rebellion.” [DD to TM, October 10, 1960] Many who knew her and were aware of the emotional and physical strains of Catholic Worker life were astonished that Dorothy persevered from the founding of the Catholic Worker in 1933 until her death in 1980 — forty-seven years as part of a community of hospitality.HT: Jim Forest
In his response, Merton noted that “more and more one sees that [perseverance] is the great thing,” but he also points out that perseverance is much more than “hanging on to some course which we have set our minds to, and refusing to let go.” It can sometimes mean “not hanging on but letting go. That of course is terrible. But as you say so rightly, it is a question of [God] hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach.”
This was a matter of acute importance to Merton personally, a monk with itchy feet who repeatedly was attracted to greener monastic pastures. Dorothy was all for Merton staying put. In a later letter, Dorothy remarks, “I have a few friends who are always worrying about your leaving the monastery but from the letters of yours that I read I am sure you will hold fast. I myself pray for final perseverance most fervently having seen one holy old priest suddenly elope with a parishioner. I feel that anything can happen to anybody at any time.” [DD to TM, March 17, 1963]
Both Merton and Dorothy remain remarkable models, not just for persevering — barnacles can do that — but for continually putting down deeper roots while rediscovering a sense of its being God’s will not to uproot themselves.
|Rabbi Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.|
"Amongst the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.
"Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is a result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder, or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite to that which is."
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
Any "contemplative identity" comes not so much from individual endowment as from the melding that follows on a common search. In the familiar terms of psychology, we would probably be safe in assuming most monks to be introvert and intuitive. It is not the practical aspect of the life that attracts them, but the inner experience born of dwelling on the mysteries of faith. Against a background of psalmody, work, reading, the celebration of the Christian mysteries of faith, and a participation of the drama by way of one's life, is the power that unites. And it is a quest not through ministry and service of the people of God but a quest within. By some instinct, as it were, men so endowed come here.
The challenge, of course, is one's response to the call and fidelity to it. When these weaken or fail, the love of all will soon wither, for there is nothing to sustain it. Such a one will walk out on the monks without difficulty. We do not love one another because we choose one another as friends, no more than soldiers choose their buddies in the corps, or players their team mates. It is the pursuit that creates love, nurtures and develops it. Call it a contemplative identity if you will, a certain cast of soul that prefers inner to outer, pondering to preaching, quiet to action. In a context of beauty and peace, barren of noise and strife, contention and confrontation, such people thrive. And it is the whole that matters: church, chapter, refectory, prayer, study, silence, solitude.
Matthew Kelty (+ 2011)
Monk of Gethsemani
From My Song is of Mercy
|Robert Lax & Steve Georgiou, photo by Georgiou|
"Think of the freedom, in a world of bondage, a word expelled from Eden; the freedom of the priest, the artist, and the acrobat. In a world of men condemned to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, the liberty of those who, like the lilies of the field, live by playing. For playing is like wisdom before the face of the Lord. Their play is praise. Their praise is prayer. This play, like the ritual gestures of the priest, is characterized by grace; heavenly grace unfolding, flowering and reflected in the physical grace of the player… For we are all wanderers on the earth, and pilgrims. We have no permanent habitat here. Our tabernacle must be in its nature a temporary tabernacle.-Robert Lax
We are wanderers on the earth, but only a few of us, in each generation, have discovered the life of charity, the living from day to day, receiving our gifts gratefully through grace, and rendering them multiplied, to the giver…"
|Photo of Thomas Merton by Eugene Meatyard|
"The term “contemplative life" is one that is much mistreated. It is more often used than defined, and that is why arguments about the respective merits of "active" and ''contemplative" orders generally end nowhere. In the present article, I am not talking about the contemplative orders, but about the contemplative life. It is a life that can be led and, in fact, must eventually be led by every good Christian. It is the life for which we were created, and which will eventually be our everlasting joy in heaven. By the grace of Christ we can begin to lead that life even on earth, and many in fact do so begin. Some of them are in cloisters, because the vows and rules of religious orders and congregations make the necessary work of preparation easy and, as it were, almost a matter of course. But many more "contemplatives" are out in the world. A lot of them may be found in places like Harlem and wherever people suffer, and perhaps many of these have never even heard the word "contemplative." And yet, on the other hand, not all of those who are in contemplative orders are contemplatives. Through their own fault they miss the end of their vocation.
"The contemplative life is a life entirely occupied with God—with love and knowledge of God.
"We have said that the poetic sense may be a remote disposition for mystical prayer. This needs explanation. And the first thing that needs to be stressed is the essential dignity of esthetic experience. It is, in itself, a very high gift, though only in the natural order. It is a gift which very many people have never received, and which others, having received it, have allowed to spoil or become atrophied within them through neglect and misuse.
"To many people, the enjoyment of art is nothing more than a sensible and emotional thrill. They look at a picture, and if it stimulates one or another of their sense-appetites they are pleased. On a hot day they like to look at a picture of mountains or the sea because it makes them feel cool. They like paintings of dogs that you could almost pat. But naturally they soon tire of art, under those circumstances. They turn aside to pat a real dog, or they go down the street to an air-conditioned movie, to give their senses another series of jolts. Obviously for such people art is not even a remote preparation for even the lowest degree of contemplation.
"But a genuine esthetic experience is something which transcends not only the sensible order (in which, however, it has its beginning) but also that of reason itself. It is a supra-rational intuition of the latent perfection of things. Its immediacy outruns the speed of reasoning and leaves all analysis far behind. In the natural order, as Jacques Maritain has often insisted, it is an analogue of the mystical experience which it resembles and imitates from afar. Its mode of apprehension is that of "connaturality"—it reaches out to grasp the inner reality, the vital substance of its object, by a kind of affective identification of itself with it. It rests in the perfection of things by a kind of union which somewhat resembles the rest of the soul in its immediate, affective contact with God in the obscurity of mystical prayer. A true artist can contemplate a picture for hours, and it is a real contemplation, too. So close is the resemblance between these two experiences that a poet like Blake could almost confuse the two and make them merge into one another as if they belonged to the same order of things. And yet there is an abyss between them."
The late spiritual writer Henri Nouwen liked to tell how enthralled he was the first time he saw the trapeze artists The Flying Rodleighs. After watching their elegant performance, he returned to their circus the following day to see them again, hoping to meet them and tell them what a fan he was. He was able to meet them, and they responded generously, inviting Henri to watch their practice sessions, giving him free tickets, inviting him to dinner, and later, suggesting that Henri travel with them for a week sometime in the near future. Henri took them up on their offers, and they all became good friends.
One day while he was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, Henri fell into a discussion with him about flying. The acrobat told Henri this: "As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump."
Henri asked him to explain how it works. "The secret," Rodleigh said, "is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar."
"You do nothing!" Henri said, surprised. "Nothing," Rodleigh repeated. "The worst thing the flyer can do it to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It's Joe's task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe's wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him." (Writings Selected, p. 55; originally from Our Greatest Gift, p. 66)
When Jesus faced his death on the cross, he did nothing. Nothing other than continue to be who he was. He refused to fight or to run away, he didn't curse or threaten his attackers. He did nothing but hang there, trusting God, stretching his arms and hands out on the bars of the cross, waiting for God to catch him. Today we celebrate his death-defying leap.
On the cross, Jesus taught us how to die. When our time comes, we know that we can jump toward God and trust with outstretched arms that the catcher will be there for us too.
This arms-out-flying is a lot more than a way to die, it is the way that Jesus lived his life as well. Flying-with-your-arms-out is the way Jesus invites us to live our lives also.
|Francis at the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem, May 25, 2014|
“The most genuine gestures are those which are made spontaneously. I had thought something could be done but none of the concrete gestures I made was conceived that way. Some things, like the invitation to the two presidents we had thought of doing there, during the visit, but there were lots of logistical problems, many, the place where we intended for it to happen was not an easy one. But in the end, the invitation was accepted and I hope the meeting will go well. But my gestures were not pre-planned, I just do what comes to me spontaneously. Just to clarify about the meeting in the Vatican. The purpose of the meeting will be to pray not meditate. The two presidents and I will only meet to pray and I believe that prayer is important and doing this helps. Then they will go home. There will be a rabbi, a Muslim and me. I have asked the Custody of the Holy land to deal with the practical side of things.”
(quoted from the Vatican Insider HERE)
“… 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. (p. 437-438)
“The reason why Catholic tradition is a tradition,” writes Thomas Merton, “is because there is only one living doctrine in Christianity : there is nothing new to be discovered.” A little bit of death from a thinker who brought the world so much life. Nothing new to be discovered? The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular knowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of strychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneously transformed into a corpse. Any belief that does not recognize and adapt to its own erosions rots from within. Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance. Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms. (To be fair, Merton himself certainly realized this later in his life, when he became interested in merging ideas from Christianity with Buddhism.)
* * *
Of course, to assert that all doctrine is provisional and in some fundamental way untenable is itself a doctrine, as subject to sterility and vainglory as the rantings of any radio preacher bludgeoning his listeners with Leviticus. One must learn to be in unknowingness without being proud of it.
The operative word in these lines from D. H. Lawrence, who wasn’t a conventionally religious person, is “soul.” It’s a word that has become almost embarrassing for many contemporary people unless it is completely stripped of its religious meaning. Perhaps that’s just what it needs sometimes: to be stripped of its “religious” meaning , in the sense that faith itself sometimes needs to be stripped of its social and historical encrustations and returned to its first, churchless incarnation in the human heart. That’s what the twentieth century was, a kind of windstorm-scouring of all we thought was knowledge, and truth, and ours— until it became too strong for us, or we too weak for it, and “the self replaced the soul as the fist of survival” (Fanny Howe). Anxiety comes from the self as ultimate concern, from the fact that the self cannot bear this ultimate concern: it buckles and wavers under the strain, and eventually, inevitably, it breaks.
Some modern philosophers (Heidegger, Kierkegaard) have argued that existential anxiety proceeds from being unconscious of, or inadequately conscious of, death. True, I think, but I wonder if the emphasis might be placed differently, shifted from unconscious reaction to unrealized action: that is, our anxiety is less the mind shielding itself from death than the spirit’s need to be. It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant , because it demands the attention we are giving to other things . It is not hard to hear this music , but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music.
“I happened to be getting fed up with the remains of the Roman Empire, and wandered into one of the churches [the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian] by the Forum, where there was a mosaic above the altar. I glanced at it, I looked back, and I could not go away from it for a long time, it held me there, fascinated by its design and its mystery and its tremendous seriousness and its simplicity.” – Thomas MertonLast month I was in Rome for Holy Week and Easter. I was able to attend Easter Mass at St. Peter's. I also visited the Basilica of Saints Cosmos and Damian.
“I don’t know what had happened in the two-year interval [since his first visit to Rome in 1931] to change my taste, but now I suddenly began to find out about Byzantine mosaics and frescoes; things that before I scarcely looked at, for being clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid, suddenly revealed themselves to be full of sophistication of technique [yet] with innocence of feeling. These things had a depth and [...] subtlety and wisdom in them that I had never seen anywhere: something the Roman copies of Greek statues did not allow you even to imagine possible: but something, nevertheless, that was in archaic Greek sculpture, and in Etruscan sculpture, and, if you thought about it, in all good art: the only thing was, in a lot of things you did not realise this intellectual quality existed if you were only interested, as I had been, in the way the work imitated the shape of a physical thing.
“If I had vaguely recognised some sophistication in the formal aspect of archaic Greek sculpture, here, in Byzantine art was something more than that: something deeper than sophistication; a kind of vision, a kind of wisdom. This was something I found out quite suddenly. I happened to be getting fed up with the remains of the Roman Empire, and wandered into one of the churches [the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian] by the Forum, where there was a mosaic above the altar. I glanced at it, I looked back, and I could not go away from it for a long time, it held me there, fascinated by its design and its mystery and its tremendous seriousness and its simplicity.
“Now, indeed, these Byzantine mosaics had given me some kind of a clue as to what it was that stood opposed to the things I feared. And it obviously wasn’t any particular age, or any other time, or anything that could be so easily classified. It was something more mysterious and more powerful, and I was not quite sure what it was. But I knew, now, that if I wanted to see it, I could go and hunt for it in these old churches of the Dark Ages: and there, in mosaics, in statues, in thrones and stone altars, I could see quite plainly something that I was looking for. I didn’t know what it was: it was not a material thing, it was an intellectual and spiritual quality these ancient artists had given to their works. But it was not something that could not be seen, and not something you had to accept blindly: for it was there, you could see it. If I had known it I suppose I was looking all the while at a kind of miracle.
“Soon I explored every basilica I could find….”
|Via Crucis, Good Friday 2014, Colisseum Roma Italia|
photo by Beth Cioffoletti
|Jaime Andrade Moscoso El Arbol 21" high. The sculpture was part of the IBM collection and was exhibited at the New York World's Fair in 1940.|
|Robert Lax. |
Photo taken by Brother Patrick Hart, on his trip to Greece in April of 1992
In his “concise statement of my project,” written as part of his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship in the mid-sixties, Lax emphasised the syllable as the key to his poetic research. He viewed the syllable as “the unit of which poems are made.”
His work with it was part of his effort to dig under the present structures of world poetry in search of a firmer and deeper foundation
to discover beneath the traditional modes of poetry a firmer, more universal foundation
to discover deep in the human consciousness a firmer, more universal foundation
for the (eternal) & recurrent modes of poetry
The spiritual aspect of this project is expressed in Lax’s description of it as “a disentanglement, slow and patient of the soul’s own inner & eternal song.”
|Ad Reinhardt, hanging black canvasses.|
"Yet evidence suggests that Lax’s colour poems were not entirely uninfluenced by current events. On 15 September 1963, four young black girls were killed in a racist bomb attack while attending church in Birmingham, Alabama. In early October, Merton wrote Lax that he was “tired of belonging to the humiliating white race.”
Reinhardt was a prominent subject of exchanges between Lax and Merton at this time. They discussed his participation in Civil Rights Marches, and writing from Greece, Lax declared himself present at the marches in spirit. Both were full of praise for their artist friend, and not just for his political activities. By this time Reinhardt had begun to paint his five-foot square black paintings exclusively. “Old Reinhardt is a splendid fellow and all but the king of the birds,” wrote Lax. “His paintings is magnificent and works like dynamite when set down in any particular locale. They are all black paintings (get it?) black, black, black & can hardly help doing some good in the whole situation.”
In the midst of this conversation, Lax gave Merton some poetic advice: “as reinhardt makes now all the time the same black painting, make you also all the time the same dark poem; all the time, just that one poem: here a word, there a word, maybe a little different; only when you think it should be, until it gets to be tight as a sonnet: the music, the music always the same, here a word, there a word just a little different.”
“You got the right answers,” returned Merton, “I think this poem should get blacker and blacker and blacker like Reinhardt’s paintings, then everyone will see the light, they will have to. Every man got one poem, and when he stumbles on it he got to make it smaller and smaller and blacker and blacker and then it will finally convince.”
Lax replied that he had “of recent months become so generally small & black myself that it is useless for me to apply for abrogation from the whites. How come you want to get out of the race (they would snigger) you was never in it.”"
[This exchange took place between 5 October and 2 November 1963. See When Prophecy Still Had a Voice, pp. 251-259.]
|Wendell Berry, Fall 1967, at a picnic with Merton, Gethsemani|
Photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Robert Lax (1915-2000), Untitled, 1970s; black and white photograph, 11 x 17 inches; Robert Lax Archives. St. Bonaventure University ...