Sunday, March 4, 2007

photo of a dream - finding your way

photo by Thomas Merton, December 6, 1968 - Bangkok

When John Howard Griffin’s camera was returned to him from Gethsemani after Merton’s death, he found that there was still film in it.

Griffin carefully developed the film and discovered a scene viewed from some high place, downward past the edge of a building and a foreground of shore across a broad body of water from which reflected sunlight glinted back into the viewer’s eyes – a universal, all–embracing view of men and boats and water, seen from the perspective of height and distance.

Merton had taken the photograph looking down from his penthouse room at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok on December 6th (3 days before his death).

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1966. In this book Merton recounts a dream:

“I dreamt I was lost in a great city and was walking “toward the center” without quite knowing where I was going. Suddenly I came to a dead end, but on a height, looking at a great bay, an arm of the harbor. I saw a whole section of the city spread out before me on the hills covered with light snow, and realized that, though I had far to go, I knew where I was: because in this city there are two arms of the harbor and they help you to find your way, as you are always encountering them.” (Conjectures, 188-189)
I had been looking for this photograph for some time. I found it on the last page of “A Hidden Wholeness/The Visual World of Thomas Merton”, a collection of photos by Merton and Griffin which was published in 1970. The book is now out of print and I have no idea what kind of copyright laws (if any) I may be breaking in posting a scanned copy of that photo here.


  1. Wow, thanks for sharing that Beth. I don't really recall the story of how Merton got John Griffin's camera, maybe you can elaborate? I assume they were friends?


  2. Yes. They had been friends for some time. Griffin had contacted the Abby about taking some photos of Merton. Ordinarily this would never be allowed - monks are not supposed to show their faces to the world. But being as MErton was a well known author, and the only photo on his books was very outdated, the Abbot agreed. Griffin notes that during the shooting, Merton was very comfortable. He didn't seem to have the usual "masks" that most people have when being photographed.

    Anyway, Merton became fascinated with photography and Griffin helped him. Eventually, Griffin let him "borrow" a camera and that was the one he used to take most of his photographs, as well as the one he took to Asia. A Leica, I believe. (I can look it up later)

  3. Thanks Beth. I was always interested in Merton's photography, especially since I enjoy it so much myself.



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