Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Hagar's Prayer

Clear Vision
Inspired by Genesis 21:8-21
By Lauren Wright Pittman

Hagar's Prayer*

    by Trisha Arlin  

      Blessed One-ness, Breathing Existence,

I once was Sarah:Rich,Loved,Able to laugh at everything,Even God,Especially God.I had a place, a home, a mission.

But now I'm Hagar:Broke,Alone,About to cry at everything,Even God.Especially God.Wandering, in the desert, hungry. 

This is my fault.I should have seen this comingI should have protected myself,I refused to accurately assess my situation.Oh, the fantasies I had of love and success.

No! This is Sarah's fault,She, with her connectionsAnd her covenantAnd no room for anyone else.Oh, the promises she made when she needed me.

No, this is Abraham's fault!He pretends to have no agencyBut he's the one with the money and the power,He's the one who talks to God (or so he says).Oh, the bullshit he slings about destiny.

All I have now is a cat named IshmaelAnd he expects to be fedAnd watered.Meow Meow, he's starving.I can't look at him,Oh, I can't watch him die.All I can do is pray.

Blessed One-nessBreathing Existence,Send me a social workerOr food stampsOr a lotto ticketOr friendsOr a magical flowing spring of plenty that pours out from the rocks.

Or something.Amen. 
*Originally Printed in Journal of Feminist Studies In Religion: #35, 1

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

celebrate the burden

One’s humanity is not primarily an inheritance or a gift from on high. Living humanly has a price attached. Let us pay up, and gladly. Knowing as well that the opposite, living inhumanly, pays huge dividends in a crooked world.

Celebrate then, the burden.

Daniel Berrigan

Friday, March 5, 2021

Jesus Lama


Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, 1968.
Courtesy of John Howard Griffin.

In the last couple of days I've come across some things that have given me a slightly different feel for Merton. A little more insight into who Merton was, how he was, as a person living in the world. When I dream of Merton, he always has aspects of a very friendly and somewhat rambunctious dog. And though Merton is not easy to pin down, I think I'm on the right track ...

The first article is in Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine. "The Jesus Lama: Thomas Merton in the Himalayas".  It is an interview with Harold Thomas. Thomas, at the time, was a skinny 27 year old, a Catholic convert, and in India studying Buddhism with the Dalai Lama. 

Talbot had met Merton at Gethsemane in 1958, 10 years before and just after his conversion, when Merton told him: "And I have only one thing to say to you: the Church is a very big place. Always remember to go your own way in it.”  Talbot remembered that and recounted it to Merton upon meeting him again in Asia. To which Merton replied: “Did I say that? That’s pretty good. And look at where we both are.” 

Dom Aelred Graham, the Dalai Lama, and Talbott, 1967.

It turns out that Harold Talbot was in Asia serving as a secretary to Dam Aelred Graham, author of Zen Catholicism. I have long been fascinated with the notion of Zen Catholicism. It is the way that I understand my own Catholicism. 

“What is really meant … is continual openness to God, attentiveness, listening, disposability, etc. In the terms of Zen, it is not awareness of but simple awareness.” (Day of a Stranger, p.41, written in 1965)

In some notes that Merton prepared for an exhibition of his calligraphic drawings, he writes:

“Neither rustic nor urbane, Eastern nor Western, perhaps can be called expressions of Zen Catholicism”. (from a notebook in the TMC collection)


Talbot is able, in this interview, to explain to me how Merton understood Zen within the context of his Christian tradition and how he "got" the consciousness of dzogchen -- what exactly happened to him at Pollonaruwa. If you're interested in this sort of thing, read the full interview. This is the very best interpretation of Merton's Pollonaruwa experience -- which I never quite understood -- that I have ever read. 

At first Merton had no interest in meeting with the Dalai Lama whom he presumed to be the big banana of an organized religion. Talbot persisted. This is how the meeting is recounted in the interview:

Talbott: The Dalai Lama’s robe and Thomas Merton’s white Cistercian habit with the black scapular looked Giottoesque. It was an image of two figures encountering each other who deserved to wear those robes, who were part and parcel of the world represented by those very robes. So that one really had a surfeit of visual inspiration. Both men were very solid. Unornamental, compact, strong, hard beings. Now the Dalai Lama has an external joviality and graciousness which is appropriate to a sovereign. To put you at your ease, to make it possible for beings to be in relation to him, he plays down the radiance, the dignity, the charisma, the persona that the West has developed a romantic myth about, but who in himself has his own distinct presence and radiance. There is no presumption about him. He’s a person who draws a heart-breaking reverence from the people who are devoted to him, and to see him in this room with a man to whom we don’t need to apply adjectives, but if we were, it would be things like mensch, authentic…

Tricycle: Merton?

Talbott: Yes. Mensch—manly, authentic. No gestures. No artifice. No manner. No program, no come-on—just, “Here I am folks”—and folks happened to be the Dalai Lama. And they encountered each other and, appropriately enough, there was utter silence. And then the Dalai Lama challenged him or greeted him by saying, “What do you want?” and he said, “I want to study dzogchen.” I was about to clobber Merton. I couldn’t take it. But I was very glad to be aboard. It was the generosity of Merton that made it possible for me to attend those meetings. He said, “You’re here studying with the Dalai Lama. I want you present.” Whereas it might have been delightful to be alone with just the Dalai Lama and the interpreter. It’s my good karma that I was there. There was so much good humor and so much laughter and so much camaraderie and so much confidence of understanding and so much no need for explanation and build-up and equipping themselves on their parts, you see. They had done their homework.

Tricycle: What did the Dalai Lama ask Merton about Christianity?

Talbott: If I’m not mistaken, it was about how you live the contemplative life in the West and what you do to make it possible in this modern world to live the life of a monk in the West. How do you stave off spiritual annihilation? These conversations were very much Merton equipping himself with the transmission of Buddhism from the Dalai Lama and very much the Dalai Lama equipping himself with the low-down from a reliable guide. This was not a papal legate. This was not someone setting up a conference for the Pope. This was not a front man. This was an embodiment of something which another embodiment—a tulku—who needs to function in the world, was drawing upon as a resource.

Tricycle: Did Merton have a daily meditation practice?

Talbott: I have no idea, but I asked him once, like a very fresh kid, “What is your meditation practice? And what do you think of this stuff?” He said, “My meditation practice is largely walking in the woods in a state of meditative absorption.” 

Tricycle: It sounds like the Dalai Lama was providing a transmission to be carried forth to all of Christendom. 

Talbott: The Dalai Lama is saying to him, “I want with my own eyes and ears and speech to assure myself that you have the faith firmly grounded” and—let’s be daring—let’s think that there are certain beings who do not have to come every day and attend Zen or vipassana retreat. This could be a romantic projection but I have to say what I think: Merton had thirty years behind him and when he walked into a room or the cell of a meditator, monk or lama, he was greeted with a recognition. I’ve never seen a Western person received by a lama the way that he was received. 

Tricycle: Did the Dalai Lama feel personally responsible that Merton get it right? 

Talbott: That’s how I see it. Dzogchen is the primordial state of mind, it’s the enlightened mind, that has never been anything but enlightened. We are living in a world, it is said, which is a product of our own unenlightened experience, our ma rigpa, our ignorance of the true nature of reality, absolute and relative.Dzogchen is the practice of the primordial enlightenment but it is also a view or standpoint towards reality. Its meditation is to sustain and deepen this. That’s a contradiction because dzogchen is the presence of fulfillment, not a process. We already are in primordial—or original—enlightenment in dzogchen. That’s the starting place. 

It's all just extraordinary.


He [Merton] had reached a point—unrecognizable to me and perhaps to you—where the Judeo-Christian theistic tradition of the Mother Church of Christendom and dzogchen of Nyingmapa Tibetan Buddhism were not in contradiction. Furthermore he had grown up in a Catholic village in France that had so deeply affected him that it had planted a seed which had caused him to enter the Church. He was a man who had spent thirty years in a Cistercian abbey. His training came from the Church. He was a generous man and he was a just man and he acknowledged what he owed to the Church. It was his formation. It was not his cocoon. It was not his prison. It was himself and it was a very good self and he needed to uphold it. 


Because Merton stood for the contemplative life the way—to make a vulgar and irrelevant analogy—Picasso stands for art. For contemplatives there are illuminated beings, there are hidden yogis, but as far as how ordinary people come into touch with the great spiritual heritage of the West—including the apophatic tradition, the Via Negativa—it’s through the mystical teachings from St. Paul and St. John, St. John’s gospel, Dionysius the Areopagite, the great medieval mystics Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila—and that’s just about it, folks—that’s it for the big league contributions to spirituality at the contemplative level in the West. And every now and then you get somebody who says “Wait a minute, I know the chips are down and the circumstances are against us, but let’s get in there once more and try to stay alive spiritually.” And that’s Merton for twentieth-century Westerners. Despite all of his manliness, Merton was a man of the old moment before the Second World War, a man of enormous personal and cultural refinement. He belonged in a French salon as well as in a forest in Kentucky. There is no question about it. He had the qualities we’re losing. Gaining, gaining other wonderful ones but losing, losing something. Merton had this consummate worldly culture as well as this jewel of spirituality. He was a gift to humanity, with the naivete and the nerve to take the writings of mystics seriously. 


Merton saw himself as a man who had to purify himself of something that was a very heavy load to carry. But by the time he came to India, whether or not finding dzogchen was central—that’s my organization of significance in his life—it turns out that he had lived his life and this was the Mozart finale and he was in a state of utmost exuberance, engaged, and absorbing, and eating with delectation every moment of every experience and every person that passed. He tipped Sikh taxi drivers like a Proustian millionaire. He was on a roll, on a toot, on a holiday from school. He was a grand seigneur, a great lord of the spiritual life. He radiated a sense of “This is an adventure, here I am folks,” and he woke people up and illuminated them and enchanted them and gave them a tremendous happiness and a good laugh. But also there was always a communication from him that he was a representative of the religious life whether he was wearing a windbreaker or a habit. The Indian people greeted him as a pilgrim, a seeker, and that was the basis on which he was met by everybody and congratulated valiantly whether they recognized his public identity or not. People knew his spiritual quality. People in planes knew it. There was no question about it. Merton was not an object of scrutiny, he was an event.

Just extraordinary.

How glad I am that I discovered Merton's writings early in my life and that he has been my guide all the way through. This is a terrific interview, Harold Talbot. Thank you for your invaluable insights.

Friday, February 19, 2021

An Ode to the Spirit


An Ode to the Spirit

In the peaceful places of my life, wherever I may find them, I will search for you. In the midst of the crowd, I will look for you. In the sound of laughter and weeping, I will listen for you. You are around me, within me, beside me, no matter where I am. You are everywhere at once and always. When I go up to the highest point of joy I know, you are waiting for me. When I fall to my lowest point, you catch me. When I am alone in the deep night, you hold me. You are forever, in all places, in every moment. You let me go at the right time. You release me to the open air. You trust me. And I, in all that I do, and say, and believe, trust you. I have since the beginning. I will until the end. You are my creator, my simple truth, what I believe and why I believe, the sum total of my life’s experience. I have made my choice and pledged my love. I am in this with you, in every way I can be, for as long as I can be, until your mystery surrounds me and the next dream begins.

~ Steven Charleston is a Native American elder, author, and retired Episcopal bishop of Alaska. Adjunct Professor of Native American Ministries, Saint Paul School of Theology at OCU, Citizen of Choctaw Nation.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

the radiation of a silence that is filled with love

Merton’s essay, “Day of A Stranger” for Ludovico Silva’s magazine "Papeles" is among his best. His essay relates a “day” in Merton’s life at his hermitage. Merton writes in the unexpurgated voice of the self he was excavating to be most true. He speaks of who he has become through his unique monastic journey in three simple, declarative sentences:

What I wear is pants.
What I do is live.
How I pray is breathe.

Merton’s speech, for this one day at least, is terse and impoverished. He distills his voice down into its ordinary communion with all simple beings inhabiting the world:

“What I wear is pants.” (He puts off his monastic robes and the cowl that implicates his distinction and “specialness” from others. He knows himself only as he is, another ordinary man in blue jeans accomplishing ordinary tasks. He sweeps his porch; he tends his fire.)

“What I do is live.” (His vocation is a call to be simple. He needs no other place to go than where he is now. He has no one else to meet. He quiets his pronouncements. He surrenders, to this one day at least, all his grandiose plans. He considers the next task in front of his nose, even just chopping wood, as God’s will for him right now.)

“How I pray is breathe.” (Being grateful to be alive is prayer. Being awake and watching as day breaks, and staying up all night as the stars dance, is his contemplation. He forgets whatever he has written on prayer and prays. He listens to whatever voices in the trees or in the gardens of his mind call out for his attention. Silence harmonizes him; it renders him receptive to the ‘hidden wholeness’ of each thing with every other thing to which his heart connects. Alone in the woods, he listens to the speech rain makes. He plays his small part in the simple ecologies of another day. He realizes, for this one day at least, the way the wind is blowing. And thus he receives the fruits of a sermon by the birds living near his hermitage: they are inviting him to share their liberty, to know the ordinary freedom of those who do not know they have names.)
In a journal entry for July 25, 1963, Merton transcribed in English two notes from the French in an article by M. MorĂ© in the magazine "Dieu Vivant" (12). Merton could have written these words. The two insights he culled from this article are a gloss on the three simple declarations of his "true voice:" “What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe”. Merton had underlined MorĂ©:

"We don’t ever stop being plagued by words: they devour us… We spend most of our lives editing pamphlets, manifestoes, reports, writing articles, essays, novels. We rush in crowds to conferences whose numbers grow each day in inverse proportion to the interest they hold."

Then, from further down in the article, Merton copied an even more significant insight:

"The witness required of each of us is much more that of a transparency rather than a witness of words—a word, even an exact one, can raise a lot of contradictions, but nothing can resist the radiation of a silence that is filled with love.”

The “radiation of a silence that is filled with love” encapsulates Merton’s hopes for himself as a monk and writer that his life could eventually become a more silent witness to Life's simple, underground inclusiveness, to the “hidden ground of love” that binds us all. (Jonathan Montaldo) 

Link to Merton's essay, "Day of a Stranger" is HERE.

Link to Jonathan Montaldo's "Uncaging His Own Voice" is HERE

Monday, February 1, 2021

the heresy of individualism


painting of Merton by Jim Cantrell

The heresy of individualism; thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unit and asserting this imaginary “unity” against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply “not the other.” But when you seek to affirm your unity by denying that you have anything to do with anyone else, by negating everyone else in the universe until you come down to you: what is there left to affirm? Even if there were something to affirm, you would have no breath left with which to affirm it.

The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say “yes” to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.

--Thomas Merton
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p 143

Sunday, January 31, 2021

a light that is always ultimately personal


The following is from Jonathan Montaldo, promoter of the Merton legacy and teacher of the monastic contemplative tradition. See MONKSWORK.

Paul Evdokimov, the eastern orthodox theologian, has written that “A saint is striking because of a countenance unique in the world, because of a light that is always ultimately personal. He or She has never been seen before.” 1

Thomas Merton’s countenance, too, has never been seen before and the light from his spiritual legacy for us is ultimately personal. He will have no successors.

He wrote in his journal after a formal “Day of Recollection” on the Feast of the Guardian Angels, October 2, 1958:

“My vocation and task in this world is to keep alive all that is usefully individual and personal to me, to be a ‘contemplative’ in the full sense and to share it with others, to remain as a witness to the nobility of the private person and [the private person’s] primacy over the group.” 2

Thomas Merton’s literary vocation to love the world by speaking out to it courageously, his monastic vocation to listen intently as the world spoke back, and his whole life’s urgency to live in and for Truth, is his enduring legacy. Those who read his words with respect will honor him, now in their own time, by enacting their own vocations to “fearless speech” and by living out their own “courage for truth”. Continuing our own inner journeys toward spiritual liberty is more important than any bows we make to the dead spiritual master. 3

Honoring Thomas Merton’s compassionate transparency demands that we, who claim to hear his voice, should stand on our own feet, find the pitch of our true voices, open our lips, and sing. 4
[JM, England, 2012]]

1. Paul Evdokimov Woman and the Salvation of the World. Anthony P. Gytheiel, translator (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994: 47-48.
2. A Search for Solitude: 221.
3. Paraphrasing a remark of Robert Cole’s in reflecting on his mentor Eric Erickson.
4. "The sense of the sacred, of the 'numinous' without which there can hardly be any real or living religion, depends entirely on our ability to transcend our own human signs, to penetrate them and pass beyond their manifest intelligibility into the darkness of mystery, to grasp the reality they can suggest but never fully contain. The mere repetition of consecrated formulas is not, therefore, holiness itself. But words are the only normal keys by which we can unlock, for one another, the doors of the sanctuary and direct one another into the Holy of Holies where each of us must enter the sacred darkness in love and in fear, to find the Lord alone.” Thomas Merton The New Man: 88

Hagar's Prayer

Clear Vision Inspired by Genesis 21:8-21 By Lauren Wright Pittman   Hagar's Prayer*     by Trisha Arlin         Blessed One-ness,  Breat...