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 clich├ęs 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)

Monday, July 2, 2007

the daniel berrigan connection (part 3)

“Dan Berrigan looked like a French worker priest in beret and black turtleneck windbreaker. A good uniform for a priest …” (Learning to Love, p.233)

Merton and Dan Berrigan were each different manifestations of the same spiritual insight, two sides of the same coin, and they both knew it.

It was Dan Berrigan who drew Merton into the world of active protest and the organized Peace Movements, especially the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Merton played a pastoral role among peace activists, bringing the message back to compassion. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo. Merton insisted that without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, neither profound personal nor social transformation could occur:

“[We must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence. … In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds, race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation. … We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.” (Letter to Jim Forest, Feb. 6, 1962)
Through his friendship with Daniel Berrigan, Merton was forced to re-examine his monastic vocation in light of the world outside the cloister walls. Merton wanted to help Dan as much as he could, but he also knew that he had to protect his spiritual home.

“And now about the monastic life and ideal, in relation to the world. Look, I hate to be vulgar, but a lot of the monastic party line we are getting, even where in some respects it is very good, ends up by being pure unadulterated --- crap. In the name of lifeless and graven letters on parchment, we are told that our life consists in the peaceful and pious meditation on Scripture and quiet withdrawal from the world. But if one reads the prophets and his ears and eyes open he cannot help recognizing his obligation to shout very loud about God’s will, God’s truth, and justice of man …

“I have gone through the whole gamut in this business. In the beginning I was all pro-contemplation, because I was against the kind of trivial and meaningless activism, the futile running around in circles that Superiors, including contemplative Superiors, promote at the drop of a hat. They will have the whole monastery humming with kindergarten projects and sure everyone that this is “contemplation.” But try anything serious, and immediately you get the “activism” line thrown at you. Or rather, I have been told (they cannot very well call me an activist, because they know how much time I put in to non-active pursuits) that I am destroying the image of the contemplative vocation, when I write about peace. Even after Pacem in Terris when I reopened the question, I was told: that is for bishops, my boy. The bishops meanwhile are saying “That is for the theologians,” and the theologians are evidently pussyfooting around as you say Courtney Murray is doing …” (Letter to Dan Berrigan, June 25, 1963)
This tension would come to a head when a pacifist, Roger Laporte, immolated himself in front of the United Nations in November, 1965.

… to be continued …

See also:
the dan berrigan connection (part 1)
the dan berrigan connection (part 2)
the dan berrigan connection (part 4)

Sunday, July 1, 2007

"life in its totality" - an addendum to the Maritain visit

Thomas Merton and Jacques Maritain
Photo by John Howard Griffin, October 1966
The "john howard griffin connection part 2" post discusses the very special October 1966 visit of Griffin, Jacques Maritain, and others. I have been informed that Elizabeth Fourest was also there. Elizabeth was a young French woman who had accompanied Maritain to America as a travelling companion and friend. She helped Maritain cope with the details of the trip and he shared with her what had made America special for him.

The following is an excerpt from a transcript of a DVD that was made 30 years later, in which Ms. Fourest describes the visit to the hermitage. It sounds just like the photo, doesn't it?

We met John Howard Griffin, and it was great meeting him, really, and I could see how deep was the friendship between the two men. And with John Howard Griffin and with Msgr. Eden, I think, we went to Kentucky to see Thomas Merton. He was waiting for us at the gate of the monastery. It was a splendid fall with colors, the fall colors of the trees and the whole nature. It was something extraordinary. And then it was the most brilliant, the most joyful, the most witty visit that we had during this month in the USA. Thomas Merton took us to his hermitage. It was a small house, not in the convent, but in the fields. We went by car through the fields, no roads, just a small path. Then this house with two small rooms, a fireplace, a working table, photographs by Thomas Merton on the walls, book, many books, and fields and quiet and peace and silence, and sometimes deer passing in front of the windows. And then Thomas Merton welcomed us there, and Jacques was sitting in an old armchair near the fireplace, and John Griffin with his eternal camera photographed everybody, and Thomas Merton speaking about everything, about Vietnam, about American mentality, about God, about eternity, about the Holy Trinity, about drugs, about everything. Life. Life in its totality. And it was brilliant. And Jacques was suddenly younger than ever in front of this Thomas Merton, who was really a natural force. Thomas Merton read for us some poems from Bob Dylan, and then we could hear the songs. And it was really extraordinary, because Jacques, Merton, John Griffin in this hermitage with splendid nature around, and this tiny little house in which the whole world was concentrated.


  Kelly Latimore Icon "You have made us together, you have made us one and many, you have placed me here in the midst as witness, as aw...