Saturday, December 1, 2007

pollonnaruwa - gal vihara

Buddhas in Pollonnaruwa, Ceylon
Photograph by Thomas Merton
Thirty-nine years ago today – December 1, 1968 – Merton visited the Pollonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. Within this city are a group of 4 giant Buddha Statues known as the “Gal Vihara” temple. It was here that Merton had an astounding insight. [also described in this blog here.]

Somewhat worried that he had spoiled the experience by trying to speak of it to acquaintances, he does not write about it in great descriptive detail until 4 days later (December 4th – pp. 322-324 “The Other Side of the Mountain”).
The place is remote, quiet, uncrowded:

“I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything – without refutation – without establishing some other argument …

“Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. … The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery”. All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya – everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. ….

"I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguises. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage, Asian or European or American, and it is clear, pure, complete. It says everything; it needs nothing. And because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it.”

Monday, November 12, 2007

elegy for a trappist

[poem Merton wrote after Father Stephen's burial]


Maybe the martyrology until today
Has found not fitting word to describe you
Confessor of exotic roses
Martyr of unbelievable gardens

Whom we will always remember
As a tender-hearted careworn
Generous unsteady cliff
Lurching in the cloister
Like a friendly freight train
To some uncertain station

Master of the sudden enthusiastic gift
In an avalanche
Of flower catalogues
And boundless love.

Sometimes a little dangerous at corners
Vainly trying to smuggle
Some enormous and perfect bouquet
To a side altar
In the sleeves of your cowl

In the dark before dawn
On the day of your burial
A big truck with lights
Moved like a battle cruiser
Toward the gate
Past your abandoned and silent garden

The brief glare
Lit up the grottos, pyramids and presences
One by one
Then the gate swung red
And clattered shut in the giant lights
And everything was gone

As if Leviathan
Hot on the scent of some other blood
Had passed you by
And never saw you hiding in the flowers.

Thomas Merton. The Collected Poem of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions, Inc., 1977: 631- 632.

Monday, November 5, 2007

father stephen

[Transcribed from an oral presentation:]

There was an old Father at Gethsemani-one of those people you get in every large community, who was regarded as sort of a funny fellow. Really he was a saint. He died a beautiful death and, after he died, everyone realized how much they loved him and admired him, even though he had consistently done all the wrong things throughout his life. He was absolutely obsessed with gardening, but he had an abbot for a long time who insisted he should do anything but gardening, on principle; it was self-will to do what you liked to do. Father Stephen, however, could not keep from gardening. He was forbidden to garden, but you would see him surreptitiously planting things. Finally, when the old abbot died and the new abbot came in, it was tacitly understood that Father Stephen was never going to do anything except gardening, and so they put him on the list of appointments as gardener, and he just gardened from morning to night. He never came to Office, never came to anything, he just dug in his garden. He put his whole life into this and everybody sort of laughed at it. But he would do very good things-for instance, your parents might come down to see you, and you would hear a rustle in the bushes as though a moose were coming down, and Father Stephen would come rushing up with a big bouquet of flowers.

On the feast of St. Francis three years ago, he was coming in from his garden about dinner time and he went into another little garden and lay down on the ground under a tree, near a statue of Our Lady, and someone walked by and thought, "Whatever is he doing now?" and Father Stephen looked up at him and waved and lay down and died. The next day was his funeral and the birds were singing and the sun was bright and it was as though the whole of nature was right in there with Father Stephen. He didn't have to be unusual in that way: that was the way it panned out. This was a development that was frustrated, diverted into a funny little channel, but the real meaning of our life is to develop people who really love God and who radiate love, not in a sense that they feel a great deal of love, but that they simply are people full of love who keep the fire of love burning in the world. For that they have to be fully unified and fully themselves-real people.

Thomas Merton. "The Life that Unifies" in Thomas Merton in Alaska. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1988:148-149.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

louie, louie is still on sabbatical for awhile.

"God cannot be found by weighing the present against the future or the past, but only by sinking into the heart of the present as it is."
- Entering the Silence, page 460 excerpted

Monday, September 10, 2007

jubilee jells

The following article about Jubilee, a Catholic publication founded by Ed Rice and co-edited with Merton and Lax, appeared in TIME magazine on February 22, 1954. The magazine was meant to be, among other things, a “bridge between the religious and the secular”.

According to Jim Forest, "Jubilee was not a voice of opposition so much as a journal searching for what was most vital in Catholic Christianity".

Monday, Feb. 22, 1954

Jubilee Jells

From a bare Manhattan loft last spring, a young magazine writer and his friends, working nights, sent out the first copies of a new religious magazine to 8,000 venturesome subscribers.

Ambitiously, they billed it as "the first national picture magazine for a Catholic audience." This week Editor Edward Rice, 35, and a full-time staff, busy setting up copy for next month's issue, had reason to feel their optimism justified. With a press run of 38,000 and a steady stream of subscriptions, the magazine was on course. Its name: Jubilee, from the Latin of the Psalm, Jubilate Deo, omnis terra (Sing joyfully to God, all the earth).

Jubilee is something new in Roman Catholic publishing in the U.S.—a good upper-middlebrow monthly that cuts a path of its own between the intellectual themes of such small-circulation magazines as Commonweal and the Catholic World and the folksy but heavy-handed news-plus-doctrine of the average diocesan weekly. In its neat packages of pictures and text, Jubilee can equally well explain the dogma of the Assumption, illustrate the life and work of modern Catholic artists like the late Eric Gill, discuss historical figures like the Venerable Bede, or give its readers a handy briefing (by a Catholic psychiatrist) on the dangers of too-severe toilet training for

The magazine was planned four years ago by Editor Rice and Roving Editor Robert Lax, 35. Rice and Lax, a convert to Catholicism, had been talking religion since their student days at Columbia—where Rice was the godfather of another Manhattan convert, Thomas (The Seven Storey Mountain) Merton. Working with Peter J. McDonnell, a printing salesman and now Jubilee's advertising manager, they financed their project by offering one share of stock with each $5-a-year subscription. When they had a slim $60,000 to go on, they put out their first issue. Now Jubilee has Editor Rice and eight others working full time, with four more part-time assistants. In the February issue, the editors felt fat enough to make their first standard introductory offer (six months for $2).

To fill their current issue, Jubilee's editors characteristically let their cameras run over a singular combination of everyday Catholic problems and the Church's backgrounding in history and the liturgy.

Included: a mass baptism at Harlem's Church of the Resurrection, the day-today life of a Pittsburgh steelworker. The leading article is a suggested plan for a first reading of the Bible, written by a French Dominican nun, Sister Jeanne d'Arc, for Catholics who want to go through their Bibles cover to cover without getting bogged down in the "arid passages" of the Old Testament.*

Editorially, Jubilee has a calmness that other religious publications might envy, but the editors' religious premises are nonetheless uncompromising. Said Editor Rice: "[The people] we cover are the heroic, the altruistic, the honest, the holy —instead of the glorified confidence man and the lovable fraud who get so much space these days."

Sister Jeanne d'Arc's formula: begin with the Gospels and the Psalms, following with the books of the Old Testament arranged by chronology, e.g., Ruth with Judges, and ending with Machabees and Wisdom; close with the New Testament Epistles and The Apocalypse.

Friday, August 31, 2007

louie, louie is on sabbatical for awhile.

solitude in community

Photo by Thomas Merton

“Indeed there is a special irony about solitude in community: that if you are called to solitude by God, even if you live in a community your solitude will be inescapable. Even if you are surrounded by the comfort and the assistance of others, the bonds that unite you with them on a trivial level break one by one so that you are no longer supported by them, that is, no longer sustained by the instinctive, automatic mechanisms of collective life. Their words, their enthusiasms become meaningless. Yet you do not despise them, or reject them. You try to find if there is not still some way to comprehend them and live by them. And you find that words have no value in such a situation. The only thing that can help you is the deep, wordless communion of genuine love.”

- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 205

one has to be born into solitude ...

Photo by John Howard Griffin
“The terror of the lonely life is the mystery and uncertainty with which the will of God presses upon our soul. It is much easier, and gentler, and more secure to have the will of God filtered to us quietly through society, through the decrees of men, through the orders of others. To take this will straight in all its incomprehensible, baffling mystery, is not possible to one who is not secretly protected and guided by the Holy Spirit and no one should try it unless he has some assurance that he really has been called to it by God. And this call, of course, should be made clear by Directors and Superiors. One has to be born into solitude carefully, patiently and after long delay, out of the womb of society. One cannot rashly presume to become a solitary merely by his own will. This is no security outside the guidance of the Church.”
- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 204

Thursday, August 30, 2007

"loneliness in which each single spirit must confront the living God"

photo by Thomas Merton

“The solitary who no longer communicates with other men except for the bare necessities of life is a man with a special and difficult task. He is called to be, in some way, invisible. He soon loses all sense of his significance for the rest of the world. And yet that significance is great. The hermit has a very real place in a world like ours that has degraded the human person and lost all respect for that awesome loneliness in which each single spirit must confront the living God.”

- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 199

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

spiritual poverty

photo by Thomas Merton
“One of the most telling criticisms of the solitary may well be that even in his life of prayer he is less “productive.” You would think that in his solitude he would quickly reach the level of visions, of mystical marriage, something dramatic at any rate. Yet he may well be poorer than the cenobite, even in his life of prayer. His is a weak and precarious existence, he has more cares, he is more insecure, he has to struggle to preserve himself from all kinds of petty annoyances, and often he fails to do so. His poverty is spiritual. It invades his whole soul as well as his body, and in the end his whole patrimony is one of insecurity. He enjoys the sorrow, the spiritual and intellectual indigence of the really poor. Obviously such a vocation has in it a grain of folly. Otherwise it is not what it is meant to be, a life of direct dependence on God, in darkness, insecurity and pure faith. The life of the hermit is a life of material and physical poverty without visible support.”

- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 201

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

the hermit is nothing but a failure

Photo by John Howard Griffin

“In the eyes of our conformist society, the hermit is nothing but a failure. He has to be a failure – we have absolutely no use for him, no place for him. He is outside all our projects, plans, assemblies, movements. We can countenance him as long as he remains only a fiction, or a dream. As soon as he becomes real, we are revolted by his insignificance, his poverty, his shabbiness, his total lack of status. Even those who consider themselves contemplatives, often cherish a secret contempt for the solitary. For in the contemplative life of the hermit there is none of that noble security, that intelligent depth, that artistic finesse which the more academic contemplative seeks in his sedate respectability.”

- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 199

Monday, August 27, 2007

the hermitage

Photo by John Howard Griffin

A reader has requested some photos of Merton’s hermitage, so I will add some more of those to this collection, as well as some of Merton’s thoughts on hermitage.

Merton entered his hermitage on a full-time basis on August 20, 1965, the feast day of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian Doctor of the Church. On August 21, 1965, Merton wrote this in his journal:

"This morning-grey, cool, peace. The unquestionable realization of the rightness of this, because it is from God and it is His work. So much could be said! What is immediately perceptible is the immense relief, the burden of ambiguity is lifted, and I am without care-no anxiety about being pulled between my job and my vocation. I feel as if my whole being were an act of thankfulness-even the gut is relaxed and at peace after good meditation and long study of Irenaeus. The woods all around crackle with guerrilla warfare-the hunters are out for squirrel season (as if there were a squirrel left!). Even this idiot ritual does not make me impatient. In their mad way they love the woods too: but I wish their way were less destructive and less of a lie."

Thomas Merton: Dancing in the Water of Life. Journals, Volume 5. Robert E. Daggy, editor. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997: 283

[Note: the above quote is this week’s Merton reflection from the Merton Institute.]

Sunday, August 26, 2007

railroad station

Abandoned railroad station near the Abbey of Gethsemani.
Photo by Thomas Merton

Friday, August 24, 2007

going it alone

“The great temptation is to fear going it alone, wanting to be ‘with it’ at any cost. But each one of us has to be able to go it alone somehow. You don’t want to repudiate the community, but you have to go it alone at times. If the community is made up of a little group of people who always try to support one another, and nobody ever gets out of this little block, nothing happens and all growth is being stifled. This is possibly one of the greatest dangers we face in the future, because we are getting more and more to be that kind of society. We will need those who have the courage to do the opposite of everybody else. If you have this courage you will effect change. Of course they will say, ‘this guy is crazy’, but you have to do it.

“We are much too dominated by public opinion. We are always asking, what is someone else going to think about it? There is a whole ‘contemplative mystique,’ a standard which other people have set up for you. They call you a contemplative or a hermit, and then they demand that you conform to the image they have in mind. But the real contemplative standard is to have no standard, to be just yourself. That’s what God is asking of us, to be ourselves. If you are ready to say “I’m going to do my own thing, it doesn’t matter what kind of press I get,’ if you are ready to be yourself, you are not going to fit anybody else’s mystique.”

- from a talk that Merton gave at the Cistercian monastery, Our Lady of the Redwoods, as recorded by David Steindl-Rast - September, 1968

Thursday, August 23, 2007

time and prayer, part 2

“The monk is free to do nothing, without feeling guilty… this is what the Zen people do. They give a great deal of time doing whatever they need to do. That’s what we have to learn when it comes to prayer. We have to give it time."

- from a talk that Merton gave at the Cistercian monastery, Our Lady of the Redwoods, as recorded by David Steindl-Rast - September, 1968

Monday, August 20, 2007

merton on prayer and time, part 1

“We are indoctrinated so much into means and ends that we don’t realize that there is a different dimension in the life of prayer. In technology you have this horizontal progress, where you must start at one point and move to another and then another. But that is not the way to build a life of prayer. In prayer, we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.

“The trouble is, we aren’t taking time to do so. … If we really want prayer, we’ll have to give it time. We must slow down to a human tempo and we’ll begin to have time to listen. And as soon as we listen to what’s going on, things will begin to take shape by themselves. But for this we have to experience time in a new way.

“One of the best things for me when I went to the hermitage was being attentive to the times of the day: when the birds began to sing, and the deer came out of the morning fog, and the sun came up – while in the monastery, summer or winter, Lauds is at the same hour. The reason why we don’t take time is a feeling that we have to keep moving. This is a real sickness. Today time is commodity, and for each one of us time is mortgaged. We experience time as unlimited indebtedness. We are sharecroppers of time. We are threatened by a chain reaction: overwork- overstimulation – overreaction – overcompensation- overkill. …" (from a talk that Merton gave at the Cistercian monastery, Our Lady of the Redwoods, as recorded by David Steindl-Rast - September, 1968)

(to be continued)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

how like despair, hope is ("advancing further into solitude")

print by Thomas Merton, Untitled, 1967
(image size: 8 1/2" h x 6 1/2" w)
August 21, 1967. Can I tell you that I have found answers to the questions that torment the man of our time? I do not know if I have found answers. When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of “answers.” But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further into solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. And what are the question? Can man make sense out of is existence? Can man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? My brother, perhaps in my solitude I have become as it were an explorer for you, a searcher in realism which you are not able to visit … I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts. An arid, rocky dark land of the soul, sometimes illuminated by strange fires which men fear and peopled by specters which men studiously avoid except in their nightmares. And in this area I have learned that one cannot truly know hope unless he has found out how like despair hope is.” (Hidden Ground of
Love, p. 156)
Note: Roger Lipsey thinks that this beautiful image has similarities to the simple gather of icons that Merton kept in his hermitage chapel (photo is here) - an "element of religious imagination and something dark, a foreboding or sorrow".

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

solitude as the mark of a true revolutionary and the source of authentic prayer

The following is from an essay by Lawrence S. Cunningham, a professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and a frequent writer about Merton. The entire essay, "Alone Among Many", is here.

"Nearly a half century ago, Thomas Merton wrote "Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude," an extended essay in which he pointed out that a person who enjoys solitude, by which he meant the quiet possession of the self, is the one less likely to be beguiled by mass movements, collective passions, the false siren of advertising and the lust for the ephemerally fashionable. True solitude (as opposed to individualism or "going it alone") is the cultivation of the sense of the self that permits us to adjudicate the cry of the mob and resist the lure of the moment.

Such self-possession is both a gift and a risk. It is most often a risk when acting against the consensus; such acts can earn scorn or, at worst, actual physical harm. Decades ago Ignazio Silone, the Italian political novelist, said that the first lethal blow against fascism came when the first brave person in a village chalked a large NO on the wall of the town square. Interior solitude has always been the mark of the true revolutionary. It was the inner force of Gandhi's resistance; it was the inner strength of a Solzhenitsyn whose inner life could not be broken by the horrors of the Gulag.

At a deeper spiritual level the cultivation of solitude is a necessary matrix out of which comes authentic prayer. By that is not meant that one must seek a solitary place (even though that may be a good thing to do on occasion) or go to a monastery for a retreat (also a good thing) or give up one's ordinary pattern of living. What it does mean is that if we are to pray, as opposed to saying prayers, we need the capacity to slow down, get in focus and become re-collected, albeit for a short period of time. The Bible describes that capacity as watchfulness, the alertness that brings our interior attention toward a single One. God says, through the psalmist, that we are "to be still and know that I am God" (Psalms 46:11). That stillness is the defining element of solitude."

Monday, August 13, 2007

note on the notes

As I work my way through Merton’s thoughts on solitude, I’m putting quotes out here. I’m not sure where it’s going – I don’t have any set theory that I’m working toward – but I get inklings as I read that I don’t want to lose.

As most of you know, Merton is my teacher and I use this blog as a way to explore and listen to him. I love your comments; in many ways they open whole new ways of seeing and hearing Merton’s words.

“Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude” is a complex essay, dense with insights that seemingly are going off in a lot of different directions. I’m hoping to get to the bottom of this, but I may have to leave it for awhile and come back later.

the solitary man

“ … the solitary man says nothing, and does his work, and is patient, (or perhaps impatient, I don’t know) but generally he has peace. It is not the world’s kind of peace. He is happy, but he never has a good time. He knows where he is going, but he is not “sure of the way,” he just knows by going there. He does not see the way beforehand, and when he arrives, he arrives. His arrivals are usually departures from anything that resembles a “way.” That is his way. But he cannot understand it. Neither can we.” (Disputed Questions, pp. 202-203)

solitude & emptiness

From moment to moment I remember with astonishment
that I am at the same time empty and full, and satisfied
(because I am empty, I lack nothing. The Lord rules me).
New Seeds of Contemplations, pp. 16-18 excerpted

In Merton’s essay, “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude”, he repeatedly uses the word, “emptiness” when describing solitude:

“… one who is called to solitude is … called to emptiness. “ (Disputed Questions, p. 188)

“The emptiness of the true solitary is marked … by a great simplicity. This simplicity can be deceptive, because it may be hidden under a surface of apparent complexity, but it is there nevertheless, behind the outer contradictions of the man’s life. It manifests itself in a kind of candor though he may be very reticent … the man tends to live without images, without too much conceptual thought. When you get to know him well – which is sometimes possible – you may find in him not so much a man who seeks solitude as one who has already found it, or been found by it. His problem then is not to find what he already has, but to discover what to do about it.” (p. 189)

“[the solitary’s] function in the Church – a social function and a spiritual one – is to remain in the “cell” of his aloneness, whether it be a real cell in the desert, of simply the spiritual cell of his own incomprehensible emptiness: and, as the desert fathers used to say, his “cell will teach him all things.” (p. 181)

“… the solitary … lives in a world of emptiness, humility, and purity beyond the reach of slogans and beyond the gravitational pull of diversions that alienate him from God and from himself.” (p. 184)

“… he who is called to solitude is called to walk across the air of the abyss without danger, because, after all, the abyss is only himself. He should not be forced to feel guilty about it, for in this solitude and emptiness of his heart there is another, more inexplicable solitude. Man’s loneliness is, in fact, the loneliness of God.” (p. 190)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

true solitary, false solitary

(photo by John Howard Griffin - I think this might be my favorite Merton photo.)

The Abby of Gethsemani is a Trappist monastery of the Cistercian tradition. Their style of monastic life follows ancient patterns that have been in place for at least a thousand years. The monks begin their first service of Matins at 2AM in the morning followed by Lauds at dawn, Prime at the first hour; Tierce at the third; Sext at the sixth; None at the ninth. Vespers are celebrated in the late afternoon and Compline just before retiring. Within that liturgical framework of public prayer the monks celebrate a communal Mass and have long periods of work and/or study.

The life is staunchly communal – brothers living side by side. The life is rigorously self-conscious and penitential. It was said of Dom Frederic, half humorously, that he had two basic rules for the community: “Do what you are told” and “Do what you are told”.

Merton’s longing for a solitary life was not, at first, understood by his community or his Abbot.

Merton’s essay, “A Philosophy of Solitude”, is not only an attempt to justify to his religious order his own desire for a more solitary life, it is also an appeal to the monastic tradition to fully understand the very religious concept of solitude.

Here are some excerpts from that essay in which Merton attempts to sort out the meaning of solitude, and how it is to be distinguished from loneliness or alienation.

“The true solitary is not one who simply withdraws from society. Mere withdrawal, regression, leads to a sick solitude, without meaning and without fruit. The solitary of whom I speak is called not to leave society but to transcend it: not to withdraw from the fellowship with other men but to renounce the appearance, the myth of union in diversion in order to attain to union on a higher and more spiritual level – the mystical level of the Body of Christ.”

“The solitary is one who is called to make one of the most terrible decisions possible to man: the decision to disagree completely with those who imagine that the call to diversion and self-deception is the voice of truth and who can summon the full authority of their own prejudice to prove it…”

“… the vocation to solitude is not a vocation to the warm narcissistic dream of a private religion. It is the vocation to become fully awake …”

“… eccentric and regressive solitude clamors for recognition, and seeks to focus more pleasurably and more intently on itself by stepping back from the crowd … what they want is not the hidden, metaphysical agony of the hermit but the noisy self-congratulations and self-pity of the infant in the cradle. Ultimately what they want is not the desert but the womb.”

“… the call of solitude (even though only interior) is perilous. Everyone who knows what solitude means is aware of this. The essence of the solitary vocation is precisely the anguish of an almost infinite risk.”

“Only the false solitary sees no danger in solitude.”

“[the false solitary’s] solitude is imaginary … the false solitary is one who is able to imagine himself without companions while in reality he remains just as dependent on society as before – if not more dependent. He needs society as a ventriloquist needs a dummy. He projects his own voice and it comes back to him admiring, approving, opposing or at least adverting to his own separateness.”

“The true solitary does not renounce anything that is basic and human about his relationship to other men. He is deeply united to them – all the more deeply because he is no longer entranced by marginal concerns.”

“The Christian solitary is fully and perfectly a man of the Church.”

“The true solitary is not called to an illusion, to the contemplation of himself as a solitary. He is called to the nakedness and hunger of a more primitive and honest condition.”

Saturday, August 11, 2007

a book of hours

A friend stopped by the other day and handed me this book.
This book is amazing; I love this book.

Listen to Stanley Hadsell, of Market Block Books speaking on the Northeast Public Radio book show with a review of A Book of Hours.

The following is from one of Kathleen Deignan's many fine essays introducing the "Hours".

“As Merton’s life of psalmody deepened it awakened the psalmist within him as well. He began inscribing new psalms in the poetic prose and countless poems that seemed to flow from the inexhaustible wellsprings of his silence, the original reservoir of authentic human language from which all praise arises and to which it returns. In a cascade of literary eloquence he soon became the unique voice of a contemporary contemplative reawakening, inspiring in his readers a similar hunger for the experience of God. For Merton, poetry was near the horizon of this encounter, because like music and art it attuned the soul to God, inducing contact with the Creator of a universe resplendent with traces of divinity…

“As Merton’s prose progressively became raids on the unspeakable brutality and violence of our age, his mystical poems were raids on the ineffable. In rich, outrageous, lush and lavish language he spelled out a vision of existence stunning to the impoverished religious imagination of postmodern Christianity. To the blood soaked soul of the twentieth century languishing in the eclipse of spirit deadening skepticism and self-consciousness, Merton dared to speak with the innocence of faith: the primordial intuition of original wholeness, meaning, and mercy at the heart of reality. While the “master narrative” of Christianity progressively suffered distortion, discontinuity, and fragmentation throughout his life, Merton was indefatigable in reweaving the threads of the sacred story on the loom of his inspired religious imagination, unapologetic for spinning a yarn to clothe his existential nakedness, a vestment to wear for his everyday liturgies of praise.” pp. 28-29

wheel of time

Photograph by Thomas Merton
For the unredeemed, the wheel of time
itself is only a spiritual prison.
(“Time and the Liturgy”, Seasons of Celebration, p. 49 excerpted)


Absurdity” is another word that is big for Merton.

Some societies resort to an air of intense seriousness, as in a mass movement, for diversion. Merton claims that our own society prefers the absurd:

“… our absurdity is blended with a certain hard-headed, fully determined seriousness with which we devote ourselves to the acquisition of money, to the satisfaction of our appetite for status, and our justification of ourselves as contrasted with the totalitarian iniquity of our opposite number.” (Disputed Questions, p. 178)

The disconcerting task of one who attends the life of interior solitude is facing and accepting her own absurdity:

“The anguish of realizing that underneath the apparently logical pattern of a more or less ‘well organized’ and rational life, there lies an abyss of irrationality, confusion, pointlessness, and indeed of apparent chaos. This is what immediately impresses itself upon the man who has renounced diversion. It cannot be otherwise: for in renouncing diversion, he renounces the seemingly harmless pleasure of building a tight, self-contained illusion about himself and about his little world. He accepts the
difficulty of facing the million things in his life which are incomprehensible, instead of simply ignoring them. Incidentally it is only when the apparent absurdity of life is faced in all truth that faith really becomes possible. Otherwise, faith tends to be a kind of diversion, a spiritual amusement, in which one gathers up accepted, conventional formulas and arranges them in the approved mental patterns, without bothering to investigate their meaning, or asking if they have any practical consequences in one’s life. (Disputed Questions, pp. 178-179)

Friday, August 10, 2007

silent stones

photograph by Thomas Merton


Merton uses “divertissement”, the word of the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, to describe the occupations and recreations we use to avoid our own company.

The following is excerpted from a website, Pascal: The first modern Christian:

Few words, in fact, are more crucial to Pascal than divertissement, usually translated as "diversion" or "distraction." …"all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room." Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that "being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance," and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, "men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things." … "That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle," he says. "That is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible."

This craving for distraction is so overriding and exigent that for Pascal it actually constitutes the driving force of ambition. In one sharply worded paragraph in the Pensées, he asserts that the main joy of being a king is the opportunity it affords for endless distraction, since courtiers are continually trying to keep the king’s mind off his mortality and provide him every kind of pleasure. "A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him so that he might be kept from thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."

But what applies to the ambitions of a king applies equally well to the motivations of all men. We crave distractions because we do not want to face the realities of the human condition. And because we are unwilling to admit our despair, we perforce cannot face the thought of applying the appropriate balm to heal these unacknowledged wounds. Consequently we hurl ourselves into an endless round of diversions, jobs, hobbies, etc., …

“Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our Author and our end. But what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, jousting and fighting, becoming a king, without ever thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.”

Like Kierkegaard and Heidegger after him, Pascal was an acute student of boredom, and saw in this phenomenon (actually rather puzzling when one thinks about it) the clue to the very pathos of the human condition. Generally speaking, says Pascal, "we think either of present woes or of threatened miseries." But moments occur in almost everyone’s experience when life reaches a temporary pause of homeostasis, when we feel quite safe on every side, when bad health does not threaten, when bill collectors are not baying at the door, when rush–hour traffic is light and the weather pleasant. But precisely at such moments "boredom on its own account emerges from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poisons our whole mind." Not just the king craves diversion. So terrified are we of boredom that the king’s ambition is our own.

In his essay “Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude”, while acknowledging our fundamental dependence on society, Merton, like Pascal, insists that no one will become a person by plunging into “warm, apathetic stupor of a collectivity which, like himself, wishes to remain amused”.

The task of the solitary is to detach from these diversions, and to realize that she has less need of them than the organization people, with dogmatic self-complacency, tell her.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

I, Solitude

I am the appointed hour,
The "now" that cuts
Time like a blade.

Merton's thought on the dimensions of solitude might best be expressed in the poem, "Song: if you seek ..." The entire poem is here.

solitude, the mystery of inner life

“One of the first essentials of interior solitude is the actualization of a faith in which a man takes responsibility for his own inner life. He faces its full mystery, in the presence of the invisible God. And he takes upon himself the lonely, barely comprehensible, incommunicable task of working his way through the darkness of his own mystery until he discovers that his mystery and the mystery of God merge into one reality, which is the only reality.”

- from “Philosophy of Solitude", an essay published in Disputed Questions, p. 180

Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude

Merton’s preoccupation with solitude was not always met with understanding. However by 1960 he was ready to speak out fearlessly and eloquently for the solitary life. “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude”, which was published as an essay in Disputed Questions, is Merton’s strongest and most extended writing on the subject of solitude to that time. Of the essay, Merton says:

“… this is most truly myself. It is what I most want to say, almost all I really deeply want to say. Everything else just points to this.” (Letter to Therese Lentfoehr, September 12, 1960)
In a footnote to the essay, Merton explains that the “solitary” of whom he speaks “is never necessarily a ‘monk’ at all. He may well be a layman, and of the sort most remote from cloistered life, like Thoreau or Emily Dickinson."

Merton begins the study by asking:

“Why write about solitude in the first place? Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort people to become solitary. What could be more absurd? Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already … all men are solitary. Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude.” (Disputed Questions, p. 177)

The emphasis in the first part of the essay is on “interior solitude”, interiority, which one can have in the midst of crowds and every distraction. The first essential of interior solitude is taking responsibility for one’s own inner life.

I suspect that I will be referring to this essay for awhile in my explorations of Merton's solitude.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

elias, again

I just discovered that Part IV of the Elias poem did not appear on the linked website. Part IV is the strongest part of the poem, in my opinion, and central to understanding Merton's concept of freedom. I've corrected it now, and the full poem is here.
Under the blunt pine
Elias becomes his own geography
(Supposing geography to be necessary at all),
Elias becomes his own wild bird, with God in the center,
His own wide field which nobody owns,
His own pattern, surrounding the Spirit
By which he is himself surrounded:

For the free man’s road has neither beginning nor end.

Monday, August 6, 2007

solitude, thoughts in solitude

In 1958 Merton’s book, Thoughts in Solitude, was published. The material was actually written about 5 years before and was strongly influenced by Merton’s reading of Max Picard’s book, World in Silence.

Merton’s concept of solitude takes on a more universal tone as he relates it to interior freedom and the gift of oneself to society. He insists that persons in society are not mechanical units; but rather that their existence rests upon a sacred personal solitude. In the preface to Thoughts in Solitude Merton remarks that solitude is not just “a recipe for hermits. It has a bearing on the whole future of man and of his world.”

Merton related solitude to certain virtues, perhaps especially “poverty of the spirit. He composed a poem, “When in the soul of the serence disciple …”, with its first stanza:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty has become a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone
He has not even a house.

(read the entire poem here)

“In Silence”, an especially beautiful poem, was also written during this time.

Be still
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
To speak your

To the living walls.
Who are you?
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?

(read the entire poem here)

[Note: Quotes from Picard’s “World are Silence” are here.]

Friday, August 3, 2007


In the mid 1950’s Merton wrote a long poem, “Elias: Variations on a Theme”. John Eudes Bamberger, in an article for the Cistercian magazine, speaks of the poem as “one of the more forceful expressions he [Merton] has given to this complex vision of monastic spirituality which combined spiritual maturity, liberty, solitude, the deepening of human experience, protest against infringement of man’s dignity”.

The poem marked something of a turning point for Merton. It came after he had made a private retreat and was central to his thoughts on solitude. He was convinced that he had a solitary vocation of some sort but realizing that solitary vocations do not fit into “neat categories” (as in “carthusian”).

Go back where everyone, in heavy hours,
Is of a different mind, and each is his own burden,
And each mind is its own division
With sickness for diversion and war for
Business reasons. Go where the divided
Cannot stand to be too well. For then they would be held
Responsible for their own misery.

I love this poem, with its evocations of nature and the world, time, despair and unimaginable hope, aloneness and mysterious silence. The entire poem is here.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

solitude, rilke and merton

For some reason, I am having problems the last few days accessing this blog, and it is almost impossible for me to respond to comments. Hopefully this will all resolve itself in a few days. I appreciate all comments, and, as usual, I have something to say :-) ... I just can't do it right now.

Here is a Rilke quote on solitude from Letters to a Young Poet:

"Only one thing is necessary: solitude. To withdraw into oneself and not to meet anyone for hours - that is what we must arrive at. To be alone as a child is alone when grownups come and go."

And here is Merton echoing the same theme:

"I am not defending a phony "hermit-mystique,' but some of us have to be alone to be ourselves. Call it privacy if you like. But we have thinking to do and work to do which demands a certain silence and aloneness. We need time to do our job of meditation and creation." (Contemplation in a World of Actions, p. 218)

solitude, the early years

The Seven Story Mountain, and his early journals, The Sign of Jonas, show Merton to be an exceptional person – one who, by temperament, could very much be his own company. He writes of summers in Europe – France, Germany, Italy – when he would break away from the cities and take long walks alone in the countryside, perfectly content to be his own companion. Later he would trudge the wooded knobs around the Abby of Gethsemani in all weathers.

Merton had an exuberant spirit that expressed itself in warm, disarming friendliness and affection. And he was an artist, extremely sensitive and when under the impulse and inspiration of “making”, could become totally detached from time and place.

In his prologue to The Sign of Jonas, Merton writing about the 5 vows of professed Cistercians, remarks especially on the vow of stability:

“But for me, the vow of stability has been the belly of the whale. I have always felt a great attraction to the life of perfect solitude. It is an attraction I shall probably never entirely lose.” (The Sign of Jonas, p.10)
Merton’s early desire for solitude is apparent. “Pray me into solitude” he begs. The word, solitude, and its adjective, solitary, are used so frequently they appear to be an obsession. And yet, even in the monastery, Merton found that his need for quiet and prayer was difficult to come by. Though he strove to observe his rule with the strictest detail, he found the rigid structure hard, every moment of his day accounted for.

“Today I seemed to be very much assured that solitude is indeed God’s will for me and that it is truly God Who is calling me into the desert. But this desert is not necessarily a geographical one. It is a solitude of heart in which created joys are consumed and reborn in God.” (The Sign of Jonas, p. 2)

“I was once again irritated with the choir and with the work I am doing and with everything in general and went back to the old refrain about being a hermit”. (The Sign of Jonas, p. 56)

After Merton’s ordination he was assigned to be the Master of Scholastics. In one of the passages he speaks of meeting them (his scholastics) in his own solitude:

“The best of them, and the ones to whom I feel closest, are also the most solitary … All this experience replaces my theories of solitude. I do not need a hermitage, because I have found one where I least expected it. It was when I knew my brothers less well that my thoughts were more involved in them. Now that I know them better, I can see something of the depths of solitude which are in every human person, but which most men do not know how to lay open either to themselves or to others or to God.” (The Sign of Jonas, pp. 336-37)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

solitude, only by miracle

“What it all comes down to is that I shall certainly have solitude but only by miracle and not at all by my own contriving. Where? Here or there makes no difference. Somewhere, nowhere, beyond all “where.” Solitude outside geography or in it. No matter.” December 17, 1959
These words have haunted me since I first read them. Merton wrote them on the day that he received official word from the Vatican about his request to leave Gethsemani to pursue a more eremitical life. He had been anxiously waiting for days. When the letter arrived Merton took it to the novitiate to read before the Blessed Sacrament. It said, “No”.

It was an official letter, serious and final. They were very sorry. They agreed with his superiors that he did not have an eremitical vocation and asked him to stay in the monastery where God had put him. There he would find solitude.

Merton found himself strangely at peace with the decision, and felt no anger or resistance. The problem was taken from him and had been “settled in some wider and deeper way than just negation”. He accepted the decision fully and was surprised at his own lack of disappointment. In fact, he felt only “joy and emptiness and liberty. Funny.”

A mountain of his own making had been lifted from his shoulders.

If Merton could be said to have had a persistent theme – from his beginning years at the monastery, and with renewed emphasis his last years at the hermitage – it was solitude. He not only wrote about solitude, he lived this unusual experiment, as he called it, for it was something new to the American Cistercian monasteries.

Merton brought an expansive and comprehensive understanding to solitude, and puts it into the preserve of every person, not just hermits or professed religious. He recognized the essential need to break away, recollect oneself, and reflect in order to “reconstitute and re-unite oneself in one’s center”.

In the next few posts I hope to explore more some of the many Merton writings on solitude.

ikon on hermitage altar

The altar in Thomas Merton's hermitage. Photograph by Thomas Merton

Saturday, July 28, 2007


"The silence that is printed in the center of our being. It will not fail us. It is more than silence. Jesus spoke of the spring of living water, you remember."

April 13, 1967, Hidden Ground of Love, p. 116

the world runs by rhythms

brush drawing by Thomas Merton, Untitled, image size: 11" h x 8" w

“Ch’i yun [rhythmic vitality] may be expressed by ink, by brushwork, by an idea, or by absence of ideas. … It is something beyond the feeling of the brush with the effect of ink, because it is the moving power of Heaven, which is suddenly disclosed, But only those who are quiet can understand it.” (emphasis added by Merton)

(transcribed by Merton into his notes from a book on the Taoist spirit in Chinese art.)

photos by Thomas Merton
“The world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.” (Raids on the Unspeakable, p. 9)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

the peace movement, merton, and dan berrigan

This week’s reflection from the Merton Institute deals with Merton’s support for Christian Peace groups:

"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.

[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
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.

Obviously, Merton was very much in support of organized Peace Movements to active and visibly resist war, the expansion of weaponry, and social injustices. But he had to weigh just how much, as a monk and hermit, he could be involved without sacrificing the contemplative insight that he could bring to the movement.

In times of confusion he felt that the monk, in isolating himself in prayer was a tempting but wrong proposition:

“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.

More than any of Merton’s friends, Dan Berrigan gave expression to the active side of contemplativeness. Merton trusted and admired and supported everything that Dan did – his spiritual commitment, his prison terms, his exiles. Dan Berrigan is now 86 years old. I recently came across something that his brother, Jerry, said more than 10 years ago about Dan. It seems to capture much of the sentiment of the American peace movement these days:

"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)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

"making your way freely in the jungle" (success)

(Photograph of Robert Lawrence Williams sent to Merton circa 1960's)

A reader has asked for some Merton words on “success”. I know that there are more formal Merton words on success, but the ones that I like the best are from a letter to Robert Lawrence Williams.

Robert Williams was a young black tenor (born in Louisville) who, in 1964, asked Merton to write some poems on faith and brotherhood. These poems, the “Freedom Songs”, were to be set to music and sung by Mr. Williams at a concert to honor John F. Kennedy. Merton composed the poems, but they were not used publicly until 1968 at a tribute to Martin Luther King. A correspondence developed between Williams and Merton, discussing the legal issues surrounding the poems and music. The correspondence also developed into one in which Merton took a pastoral role toward Williams with Merton compassionately listening and sympathizing with Williams’ frustration with the Catholic Church and his struggles as a black American artist.

“I happen to be able to understand something of the rejection and frustration of black people because I am first of all an orphan and second a Trappist. As an orphan I went through the business of being passed around from family to family and being a “ward,” and an “object of charitable concern,” etc. etc. I know how inhuman and frustrating that can be – being treated as a thing and not as a person. And reacting against it with dreams that were sometimes shattered in a most inhuman way, through nobody’s fault, just because they were dreams. As a Trappist, I can say I lived for twenty-five years in a situation in which I had NO human and civil rights whatever. Anything I got I had to beg for in an ignominious way. But I also had luck, as some do. I may be a success of sorts, but I can tell you what it amounts to: exactly zero. Sure, you run into a lot of praise, but you run into a lot of criticism, blame, jealousy, hatchet jobs and raw deals. In the end, a successful person is no better off than anyone else, as far as real gains are concerned. He may have a lot of apparent advantages, but they are cancelled out by so many other things. Of course, I admit, some people are satisfied with success, a good image, and a fair amount of money. You would not be any more than I am. You are a different kind of person. For that very reason you cannot do the mean and ruthless things that have to be done in the jungle of contemporary life; you are not the kind of person that just ignores the rights of others. I hope I am not either. But that is the kind of person who is a success and goes places. So what I am trying to say is, if your dream of fame did not suddenly come true, you are perhaps a very lucky man. You will do it in some better way, and it will mean more.

“In the end what really matters is not race, or good breaks, or bad breaks (though these are certainly important) but who you are as a person. And if you have real quality as a person (which you do, let me tell you,) it does not matter whether the market is interested. The market does not know real quality, it just guesses sales value … It is when you are relatively indifferent to success that you will be able to
make your way freely in the jungle …”

(Letter to Robert Lawrence Williams, July 16, 1968, Hidden Ground of Love, p. 605-606)

ikon of the holy mother

photo by Jim Forest

In October 1965, Marco Pallis sent to Merton a hand-painted icon of the Virgin and Child, with a note: “Here is a small token of my love: this ikon, Greek, probably Macedonian, of the date probably 1700 … It came to me in an unexpected way … and I thought of you. Your karma evidently wished you to receive it. Of the four saints in attendance on the Mother of God, one is St. Charalambos (only known to me by name), St. Nicholas, St. George and St. Demetrius … “

Mark Pallis was a mountain climber and student of Tibetan art, religion and culture. He and Merton had been corresponding since 1963 and Merton learned much about Tibetan monasticism from Pallis.

The gift arrived in the midst of a stressful period – just after the death of Roger LaPorte – when Merton was re-thinking many of the clichés about “commitment” and how one could be deluded by a desire to “do good” without taking responsibility at a deeper and more simple level: “let God work instead of trying to do the work myself”. For Merton, the present was like a kiss from God. He wrote to Pallis in response.

“Where shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me. . . . At first I could hardly believe it. And yet perhaps your intuition about my karma is right, since in a strange way the ikon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.

“… It is a perfect act of timeless worship, a great help. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual "Thaboric" light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage . . .

“ I hope I will go deeper into that [truth] which is granted me to live. I see how important it is to live in silence, in isolation, in unknowing. There is an enormous battle with illusion going on everywhere, and how should we not be in it ourselves? …”
[letter dated December 5, 1965; The Hidden Ground of Love, pp 473-74]

Merton took several photographs of the icon on display in the hermitage, which I will post to this blog from time to time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

the john xxxiii connection (and ecumenism)

Left: Pope John XXIII. Right: The stole worn by Pope John XXII at his coronation, presented to Merton as a gift.

Merton sensed in Pope John XXIII a new spirit of openness to the world and its many religions.

A few weeks after his election, Merton wrote John a letter describing his vision of a monastery.

“My dear Holy Father,
… It seems to me that, as a contemplative, I do not need to lock myself into solitude and lose all contact with the rest of the world; rather this poor world has a right to my solitude …” (Letter to Pope John XXIII, November 10, 1958)

Fourteen months later a package came from the Vatican with a signed portrait photograph. Merton responded on the same day, telling John his ideas to bring together Catholics and Protestants “ … various groups of people highly qualified in their own field who are interested in the spiritual life, no matter what aspect, and who will be able to profit from a spiritual and cultural dialogue, with Catholic contemplatives.”

Two months later a Venetian architect, who was a personal friend of the pontiff, came to Gethsemani. He brought to Merton a liturgical stole which had been used by John XXIII, and which John wanted Merton to have. The gift was unexpected and a startling indication of John’s affection and respect for Merton. Merton sent back a copy of his latest book, The Wisdom of the Desert, a collection of sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers and wilderness hermits. In an accompanying letter he mentions the ecumenical project: “A few days ago I had the pleasure of addressing more than fifty Protestant seminarians and pastors here in our monastery. They showed remarkable good will … I spoke to them … as a brother.” (Letter to Pope John XXIII, April 11, 1960)

This week’s reflection from the Merton Institute reflects well that ecumenical spirit that John XXIII and Merton so treasured and shared:

"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". 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.

I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.

So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot "affirm" and "accept," but first one must say "yes" where one really can.

If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to
affirm it."

Thomas Merton. Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday, 1966: 144.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

the daniel berrigan connection (part 4)

Photo by Jim Forest
"this Extraordinary Spirit, Thomas Merton"
In 1996 Daniel Berrigan was speaking at a local parish and my local Pax Christi group honored me by giving me the task of picking Dan up at the airport. I was thrilled, but also a little shy. I brought along that record album (“America is hard to find”), thinking that I would ask him to autograph it, but somehow I never got up the nerve. Instead, Dan and I talked about people that we knew. A mutual friend, Mev Puleo, had recently died so we talked about her. And then we talked about Merton.

Dan told me that for 10 years after Merton had died he could not speak about Merton. People would ask him to say or write something about his friendship with Merton, but the words were just not there. And then, suddenly, after 10 years, the grief was lifted.

In September 1979, eleven years after Merton’s death, the Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange opened in Denver Colorado. Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, (Merton’s life long friend and neighbor from the nearby Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Ky.) invited Dan to give the address. This was the first time that Dan had spoken publicly about Merton since his death.

Referring to his friend as “this extraordinary spirit, Thomas Merton,” Berrigan used Merton’s Cold War Letters to illustrate his urgently prophetic voice speaking against the buildup of nuclear weapons. Berrigan talked about Merton’s contemplative work in the world, a work that impelled him to continue to criticize militarism and to criticize the Church’s silence on crucial issues. Insisting that the true contemplative must be aware of what is happening to people “in the world”, Merton saw the monastery as a bridge to that world.

In his own poetic way, Berrigan described the balance required of a contemplative in today’s world:

"The life of the believing human being is a sort of high wire act in which one goes forward unsteadily, but goes forward, trying out a balance which can only be sustained if life is in movement; a balance between life within and life without; a balance between looking within and measuring the danger and the height from the ground; a balance between the distance to be covered and the distance covered, and going on. Somewhere on that high wire, Merton found his own sanity and recommended it to us.”
See also:
[Note: I had intended to continue the series on the Berrigan-Merton connection discussing the confusion and crisis surrounding the death of Roger LaPorte in 1965. The exchanges between Merton and Berrigan at this time deeply explore the roles of activism, risk, and faithfulness to vocation. I decided to lift it from the Merton-Berrigan connection series because it is a theme of Merton’s life that extends beyond just this relationship or event. ]

Saturday, July 7, 2007

the rhythm and wholeness of solitude

Photo by John Howard Griffin

“The hermit life is cool. It is a life of low definition in which there is little to decide, in which there are few transactions or none, in which there are no packages delivered. In which I do not bundle up packages and deliver them to myself. It is not intense. There is no give and take of questions and answers, problems and solutions. Problems begin down the hill. Over there under the water tower are the solutions. Here there are woods, foxes. Here there is no need for dark glasses. “Here” does not even warm itself up with references to “There”. The hermit life is that cool.” (Hudson Review, 20 (1967) 211-18)

On August 20, 1965 Merton wrote, “The hermit project has been voted and approved officially by the Council of the community and is accepted and understood by most everyone. It officially begins tomorrow. I can use any prayers.”And thus began Merton’s life as a hermit. His only responsibilities within the community would be to say daily Mass in the library chapel, eat a hot meal at the infirmary, and give a lecture on Sundays that interested members of the community could attend.

“I am living as a stylite on top of a hermit hat,” Merton wrote Bob Lax in October. “I am utterly alone from human company. … I make no more cookies in the cookie factory. "

Describing an ordinary day in a letter to Abdul Aziz, a Sufi scholar, Merton says that he got up about 2:30 in the morning to recite the normal psalm-centered offices of monastic prayer. Next came an hour or so of meditation followed by Bible reading. Then he made himself a light breakfast – tea or coffee, perhaps a piece of fruit or some honey. He read while eating, studying until about sunrise. With sunrise there was further prayer and then some manual work – sweeping, cleaning, cutting wood – until about 9 o’clock when he paused for another office of psalms. After that he wrote letters before going to the monastery to say Mass. Mass was followed by a cooked meal alone at the monastery. Returning to the hermitage, he returned to reading, then said another office at 1 o’clock before another hour or more of mediation. Only then did he allow himself a period for writing, usually not more than an hour and a half. At about 4 o’clock he said another office of psalms and then made a light supper, typically tea or soup and a sandwich. After supper he had another hour of meditation before going to bed at around 7:30.

Perhaps, though, Merton’s most seasoned thought on solitude is his preface to the Japanese edition of Thoughts in Solitude. He wrote this preface in 1966, eight years after the book was published in English. (Later this preface was expanded into an article, “Love and Solitude”):

“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. … But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.

“Solitude is not withdrawal from ordinary life. It is not apart from, above, ‘better than’ ordinary life. It is the very ground of that simple, unpretentious, fully human activity by which we quietly earn our daily living and share out experiences with a few intimate friends. But we must learn to know and accept this ground of our being.”

Friday, July 6, 2007

"if I am a disturbing element, that is all right."

Partial front page of the October 1961 issue of The Catholic Worker, which featured "The Root of War," Merton's first contribution to the pacifist magazine.

Thomas Merton’s monastic vocation hinged upon his ability to speak out against war. In confronting his “silencers”, he argued for his integrity as a monk.

He was one of the few Catholic priests to publicly call for the abolishment of war and the use of nonviolent means to settle international conflicts. His essay, “The Root of War is Fear”, appeared on the front page of the October 1961 issue of The Catholic Worker. He was aware that many who treasured The Seven Story Mountain would be troubled, even irate, at a line of thinking that was critical to what America was doing. On October 23, shortly after the essay was published, he wrote in his journal:

“I am perhaps at the turning point in my spiritual life, perhaps slowly coming to a point of maturation and the resolution of doubts – and forgetting of fears. Walking into a known and definite battle. May God protect me in it…” ("Turning Toward the World", p. 172)

Merton wrote more essays on the same theme, struggling with his order’s censors and the Trappist Abbot General, who did not think that such controversial writing was appropriate for a monk.

Catholic newspapers were also critical of Merton’s writings. An editorial in The Washington Catholic Standard in March 1962 described Merton as “an absolute pacifist” and accused him of disregarding “authoritative Catholic utterances and [making] unwarranted charges about the intention of our government towards disarmament."

Even while being “silenced” by his superiors, Merton held firmly to the “rightness” of his writing, identifying the source of the disagreement as a different conception of the identity and mission of the church:

“The vitality of the church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. … The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized.”

Merton felt that those silencing him regarded the monk as someone appointed not to see or hear anything new but ...

“to support the already existing viewpoints … defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials … He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy … He must in no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. …”

“I am where I am. I have freely chosen this state, and have freely chosen to stay in it when the question of a possible change arose. If I am a disturbing element, that is all right.” (Letter to Jim Forest, April 29, 1962, "Hidden Ground of Love", pp 266-268)

he does not demand light

brush drawing by Thomas Merton, "Untitled"
image size: 4" h x 3 1/4" w
Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet in a certain sense, we must truly begin to hear God when we have ceased to listen. What is the explanation of this paradox? Perhaps only that there is a higher kind of listening, which is not an attentiveness to some special wave length, a receptivity to a certain kind of message, but a general emptiness that waits to realize the fullness of the message of God within its own apparent void. In other words, the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is answered,” it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God.” (“The Climate of Monastic Prayer, p. 90)

Notes from Roger Lipsey:

“… one of Merton’s most impressive images, is mysterious. Although it looks as if it could be a sketched model for a monumental sculpture, perhaps a fountain for a public space, it is factually a small image brushed onto what seems more like leftover paper than a deliberately chosen, fine surface. …

“I am slow to interpret the image, but a few observations may increase its visibility, and that is always the point. It stands firmly on two legs, has a clear and rather constructed vertical / horizontal design, and reaches for the sky. The two uppermost elements, dry-brushed, are lighter and less dense than the supporting structure. Most of the vertical elements are topped by horizontal platforms that also give the impression of opening to the sky. How to “read” this work, once all of these forms are duly registered in our minds? We should willingly come under Merton’s stricture not “seek meaning on the level of convention or concept”, and not to “categorize these marks.” The miage must come from a place without words, or very nearly without words, and goes to that place in us. And yet … this is a prayerful image. Its planted weight and poignant lift to the heavens surely reflect something of the prayerful seeker’s life.

"The hermit in our context is purely and simply a man of God. This should be clear. But what prayer! What meditation! Nothing more like bread and water than this interior prayer of his! Utter poverty. Often an incapacity to pray, to see, to hope. Not the sweet passivity which the books extol, but a bitter, arid struggle to press forward through a blinging sandstorm. The hermit, all day and all night, beats his head against a wall of doubt. That is his contemplation." (Thomas Merton, “The Solitary Life”, in The Monastic Journey, p. 206)

(“Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton”, by Roger Lipsey, pp. 48)


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