Sunday, July 22, 2007

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.


  1. Beth, thank you for this great post. I'd never read about Merton receiving this Icon before. So timely for me. I linked to this post (and your previous one) today.

  2. thanks, Gabrielle. Your postings on icons are very well done. I appreciate them a lot.


From Dorothy Day’s editorial in the Catholic Worker on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.