Friday, June 1, 2007

considerable dance

"Considerable Dance", brush drawing by Thomas Merton

"The Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho, we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash – at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

"For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness … No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always here. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

"Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance. "


Lipsey’s comments on this drawing:

“ …Considerable Dance seems to me without secrets … designed and sophisticated: an armature of mostly diagonal brushstrokes creates a tilted platform for dancing curved strokes that set the image into joyful motion … [the] message is no more and no less than shared joy …”
(Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton, by Roger Lipsey, p. 46)


  1. I would love to learn brush painting, sho in Japanese. I have a print by Toko Shinoda, a Japanese national treasure (me and the Emperor of Japan own a piece of her work ;))and a poster with another print on it. She is more into negative space while Merton seems to emphasize movement more. This one reminds me of the groundbreaking Nude Descending a Staircase by Duchamp -- both deal in movement and diagonals, as the commentator notes.
    I connected ages ago with the theme of the Dance of the Cosmos that Merton picked up. It began with an article he wrote for the very late and very lamented Jubilee magazine. Dance has become significant in my spiritual expression -- at least privately! I regret the removal of a Nataraj, dancing Vishnu/Siva(?)from a retreat house parlor, I suppose because of its nonChristian roots. It did find an appreciative home in the monk's kitchen, though.
    [Sorry for the rambling commentary your posting inspired!]

  2. love your rambling inspiration, Barbara. Yes, Merton does seem to emphasize movement, or dynamism or energy or something.

    I took a brush painting class a few years ago - we learned to do bamboo and leaves and the like. I never got very good, but what I loved about it was the simplicity - that just a single marking on paper could have such profound significance, meaning, etc.

    Glad the dancing Vishnu found home in the monks' kitchen :-)

  3. I want to correct my Japanese. Sho is calligraphy and sumi-e is brush painting. Sumimasen.

  4. what category do you suppose this Merton art falls into, Barbara? Merton refers to them as "calligraphies" (representative of something else?) but in Lipsey's book they are described as brush drawings.

  5. Both are done with those lovely big brushes, but calligraphy has, in my mind at least, to do with writing kanji, or the ideograms that compose part of the Japanese script. It is a traditional artform in Japan (like flower arrangement) and scrolls with beautifully written script are traditionally hung in the tokonoma, or niche of family treasures and artwork that adorn tatami-floored rooms where the tea ceremony may be held. Sumi-e is the use of the same ink and brush to create a painting of simplicity and subtlety, often verging on the abstract.
    There is much overlap in technique and stroke. Toko Shinoda, that I mentioned above, started out as a calligrapher and then, feeling ocnfined, she produced more abstract work, hoping to capture the emotional and ephemeral.
    It is a fine line between calligraphy and brush-painting, as it were. It all starts with calligraphy and some calligraphy is so beautifully executed that the meaning of the character is lost, it is unreadable as a character.
    I would call Merton's drawing sumi-e or brush painting.

  6. Merton's work is definitely abstract, and yet I still get the sense that they are markings - symbols - that point toward something real.

    It is not as if he is setting out to draw a pretty picture, but I do sense in this work that he is putting form and expression to something and that he is relating something. He would probably balk at that notion, though.

  7. I would like to find out a bit more on who were the main people who influenced Merton re the cosmic dance (de Chardin? any others?)

    Beth, I've been behind in my reading, but I've been catching up on your previous posts. You know how much I like gazing at Merton's drawings since you introduced me to them. But I'm wondering if there is anyone besides Roger Lipsey who has written about them?

  8. I don't recall that Merton was particularly influenced by Teilhard, Gabrielle. He mentions him here and there, but not with enough interest that I would call him an influence.

    I don't know of anyone writing as comprehensively about Merton's art as Roger Lipsey. Lipsey's book is excellent, one of the best "about Merton" books that I've come across. Because of his artistic background, he has unique insights into Merton's personality. I learn a lot about art in this book - and zen and philosophy and the things and people who influenced Merton. Lipsey's approach to Merton is refreshing and original.

    Other than the photography, I was not aware of the breadth of Merton's artistic endeavors until Lipsey's book. And I don't know of anyone else who has written about it. Merton, himself, though has some interesting things to say about his own art.

  9. Thanks, Beth! :)


2nd Sunday of Advent 2023

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