Friday, March 23, 2007

the john howard griffin connection, part two

I don’t know who took this photo because both Merton and John Howard Griffin are in the picture!

The occasion was the visit of Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, whom Griffin had brought to Gethsemani. It was early autumn (October 6, 1966) and Merton was entertaining them in his hermitage, serving coffee in plastic water glasses. The group included Maritain and Griffin, Fr. J. Stanley Murphy, C.S.B., Fr. Dan Walsh and Dr. John Ford. It was an extraordinary time, and all were aware of an overwhelming joy to be together in that time and place. Both Merton and Griffin photographed the unusual gathering freely and extensively.

Griffin and Merton had known each other since the early 60’s when they began corresponding about civil rights. In 1963 Griffin approached Father Abbot, James Fox, asking to begin a photographic archive of Merton’s life and activity. Griffin had done this with other famous people, including Jacques Maritain. He did not intend to publish the photos, but felt that they should be made for history’s sake. He did not expect to receive permission.

Surprisingly, Father Abbot gave permission, also asking that an “official” portrait be made of Merton so that they could replace the youthful one that was still being used in newspapers and magazines.

When Griffin showed up, Merton was fascinated with the cameras. And thus began his own photography endeavors. Griffin loaned Merton cameras to use, developed his film, and advised him about photographic technique. He also came to know Merton very well. They had a lot in common: they were both writers and artists, both profoundly contemplative and friends of Jacques Maritain, and they shared a common concern for civil rights in America, particularly regarding race.

After Merton’s death, Griffin was appointed the official biographer of Thomas Merton. Unfortunately Griffin became too sick to accomplish this task before his own death in 1980.

Here is something that Griffin said about Merton that I like (from “A Hidden Wholeness / The Visual World of Thomas Merton):

“… Merton’s extraordinary personality permeated his works. To understand anything about this personality, popular pietistic images about contemplatives have to be discarded. Merton was a mystic and a poet, with an ability to see many facets of the same object and to combine within himself seeming opposites. He was simultaneously a man of profound discipline and astonishing freedom; a man who expressed himself eloquently concerning the spiritual life but who kept his own secret prayer private; a man of profound religious abandonment who refused to veil his humanity in the gauze of pietism; a man of the intellect who relished the simplest of manual labor. He combined strength and toughness with a faultless courtesy to others. He possessed a high sense of humor and showed great personal warmth in his relations with others, but had not time to waste on what he called “silliness” or “foolishness” and could terminate such encounters with masterful tact. He would not wear religious masks or pretend, for anyone’s edification, to be other than what he was: a man whose interior life was not for display and who was not going to act out anyone else’s version of what a contemplative should be.” (pp 1-2)

See also: the john howard griffin connection, part 1
"life in its totality" - an addendum to the Maritain visit


  1. What an interesting post Beth! Thanks for sharing it. It helps to understand the connection between these two men.

    I have to wonder how the coffee was? If Merton made it, probably not too good. At least, I've heard he wasn't the best person to have in the kitchen!


  2. I tend to think that, other than photography and concern for civil rights, Merton and Griffin were very connected to each other by their association with Jacques Maritain.

    I am reading a book now about Jacques and his wife, Raissa ("Beggars of Heaven") trying to get a handle on his vision and thought. Maritain was a philopher and the language can get a bit thick for me. But it is a fascinating story the way they came, philosophically, to God - esp. through the novelist, Leon Bloy. That both Merton and Griffin found their way to Catholicism through Maritain is intriguing to me. I want to discover what they discovered (even though I am a cradle Catholic - and now pretty much on the edges, or outside of, anything close to institutional religion).

    And besides, the few writings I have come across by Raissa Maritain really resonate with me. I see why Merton loved her poetry so much.



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