Wednesday, May 14, 2008

thou art that

Photograph by Thomas Merton, taken on May 13, 1968 on the Pacific Shore, "Low tide. Long rollers trail white sleeves of foam behind them, reaching for the sand, like hands for the keyboard of an instrument."

May 22, 1968

John Griffin sent one of my pictures of Needle Rock, which he developed and enlarged. I also have the contact. The Agfa film brought out the great Yang-Yin of sea rock mist, diffused light and half hidden mountain - an interior landscape, yet there. In other words, what is written within me is there, "Thou art that."

- The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 110

Sunday, May 11, 2008

dag hammarskjöld

"In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." - Dag Hammarskjöld
I do not recall Merton ever mentioning Dag Hammarskjöld, yet they were contemporaries. Hammarskjold was born in 1905, Merton in 1915. They traveled in different circles: Merton in a religious, literary world, Hammarskjöld in a secular, political one. But they were on the same page.

As the Chairman of the Bank of Sweden, Sweden’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and later Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld’s life was in the public arena. Yet he was a private person. The contemplative undercurrents of Hammarskjöld’s life were not fully realized until the publication of “Markings” in 1963, two years after his death.

“Markings” reveals the central role of a surrendered spirituality in a life that is totally engaged with the historical tasks of the world. The monastic withdrawal so essential to contemplativeness happened in Hammarskjöld’s inner-world simultaneously with an outward life that was immersed in world affairs. The same could be said of Dorothy Day.

Hammarskjöld named his diary, “Signposts” – “a sort of ‘white book’ concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God”. This is the only attempt that I know of by a professional person to unite in one life the via activa and the via contemplativa - two sides of a single self-consistent person.

For most of my life I have used “Markings” as one of my primary books of meditation. I am forever discovering new insights in the more than 600 entries. Here is just one:


To have humility is to experience reality, not in relation to ourselves, but in its sacred independence. It is to see, judge, and act from the point of rest in ourselves. Then, how much disappears, and all that remains falls into place.

In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each man a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity is simple, but it opens to us a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.

-"Markings", Dag Hammarskjöld

Thursday, May 8, 2008

the freedom of thomas merton

“ … there is still so much to learn, so much deepening to be done, so much to surrender. My real business is something far different from simply giving out words and ideas and “doing things” – even to help others. The best thing I can give to others is to liberate myself from the common delusions and be, for myself and for them, free. Then grace can work in and through me for everyone.”
- Thomas Merton, June 29, 1968, p. 135, The Other Side of the Mountain

prayer in america

“It is not easy to talk of prayer in a world where a President claims he prays for light in his decisions and then decides on genocidal attacks upon a small nation. And where a Catholic Bishop praises this as a “work of love.”

Paralyzing incomprehension – what does one do when he realizes he is part of an organization whose members systematically try to “make a fool of God”? I suppose I begin by recognizing that I have done it as much as the best of them …”

-Thomas Merton, July 5, 1968, pp. 138-139, The Other Side of the Mountain

Monday, May 5, 2008

remembering merton (part 3) - fearlessness

One of the lines from the round table discussion that jumped out at me was Jim Forest’s remark about Merton’s fearlessness:

"This was another quality. I would call it the quality of fearlessness. That I think is one of the most important attributes of Merton: that he communicated to so many people what it is like to live a fearless life." - Jim Forest
I have been musing over this quality of fearlessness the past few days – what it is to live without fear or anxiety, with each day truly a gift and adventure. I believe that both Merton and Dorothy Day tapped into a wellspring of Life, living water that allowed them to live without fear. They both found within the context of Catholicism an incredible freedom and a way that opened out toward previously unimaginable possibility.

I wonder if, like Jim suggests, one can "catch" this freedom by being around a person who has discovered it? Can one point the way for another? Is it even possible for you to discover your own fearlessness by yourself? Or is it pure gift? Is it gift that is always given, but we discover how to accept?

Jim Forest goes on to add …

"If you read, as I am at the moment, the first of these volumes of his journals that are being published, you might keep it in the back of your mind while you are reading it, how open he is, how unprotective he is about himself, his future, and so on. There is some place where he just says that you have to abandon yourself completely, to love God and love your neighbour. This sense of abandonment. Not to be worried about the future and what will happen. Will you have the house? Will you have this and will you have that? Will people care about you? Will you be important etc. etc.? Although he didn't speak about it very often and perhaps never spoke about it so transparently as in these early journals, this theme that we see picked up very early in the journals is of simply abandoning yourself so that you can live very freely in the Resurrection because there is nothing actually to worry about. There's nothing we can do to prevent our death. There's absolutely nothing we can do to prevent a good deal of suffering in our own lives. It's all going to happen. And so you just say well that's going to happen. The form it will take remains to be seen. The only thing that actually matters is just simply living in obedience, living in attentiveness to this wonderful creation that's been given to us and which will carry us along in whatever way is necessary. This sense of the providence of God. Whenever you meet somebody like that, it's a life-changing experience. As much as people talk about it, when you encounter the reality of somebody who lives with that kind of absolute confidence in the providence of God, you are never the same again. It's very freeing."

Saturday, May 3, 2008

remembering merton (part 2) - "I'm Thomas Merton!"

This post is going to be categorized under “humor” because it captures that whimsical nature of Merton that is so delightful.

Tommie Callaghan was a Louisville woman who had gone to school both in Bardstown and at Manhattanville Sacred Heart in New York where Dan Walsh was her philosophy professor. She and Dan stayed in touch, especially after he moved to Kentucky, and he introduced her to Merton. Tommie helped Merton get around to his various appointments in Louisville, and being the mother of 6 children, she says she was good at this. Merton became good friends with Tommie and her family. Before his death, Merton asked Tommie to be on the Board of Trustees, which oversaw his literary collection at Bellarmine College.

Tommie Callaghan relayed the following incident at the round table discussion of Merton’s friends held in the late 1990’s.

"You know, Donald, when you say that he didn't want anybody to know who he was - the man from Nelson County story - I had an occasion. I had taken my sister . . . I was very careful about going out and taking people to meet Merton or even discuss him. I felt that our friendship was not something built on his literary works, it was simply a friendship and that was that. But my sister was in town and he had said bring her out to the hermitage and I did. When we got there he said, "Listen. There's this jazz band playing down on Washington Street and I'd like to go". And I said "Tonight ?" And he said "Yes." Well, my husband, Frank, who seems to disappear out of the country when anything big is going on, was in South America, I guess, so Megan and I drove Tom in (I had seven children at that point) and I fed them dinner. Tom helped Kathy with her homework and I gathered some mutual friends, Ron and Sally Seitz, Pat and Ben Cunnington, Megan, myself, my brother and his wife, and we all went down to Washington Street to this jazz band.

There was a bass fiddler there who Tom just thought was great and he insisted we bring him over and buy him drinks, and guess who's buying the drinks? And Tom is just taken with this guy who's from Boston and he's saying to him, "I'm a monk." "I'm a Trappist monk." and [the bass player] he's saying, "Well, I'm a brother too." And Tom said " I live out at the monastery." and he said, "Oh, we have a church up in Boston". And it goes on like, "Can you top this ?" and so Tom says, "I am a priest," and this guy says, "Brother, I'm a preacher." They're hitting it right off and the man is, in the black vernacular, a great jazz musician, just great. And then Tom says, "I'm Thomas Merton." And this guy says, "Well, I'm Joe Jones !" And I mean Tom could get absolutely nowhere and I loved it, I just loved it. I called my brother to take him back that night because I really did have to get home to the seven children and get them up for school the next day. As I'm getting ready to leave, Tom stops me and says "Wait a minute. Waitress, give her the bill !" "

~Tommie Callaghan

Friday, May 2, 2008

remembering merton (part 1) - finding unity deeper than our differences

I happened upon a transcript of a round table discussion of some of Merton’s friends: Tommie O’Callaghan, Donald Allchin, Jim Forest, and John Wu, Jr., which was held in the late 1990's (1996?). These memories of Merton are especially personal, and make Merton feel much more real to me, so I will be excepting some from that transcript.

Isn't that interesting the way Jim Forest refers to Merton as "one of the great conservatives of the twentieth century"? I'd concur, and I agree with what Jim says about Merton being rooted in traditional and liturgical Catholicism, but I tend to think that Merton was radical - not conservative or liberal. He went deeper, to the root.

"... the sense that Merton had of the unity of the church. Now we can all see how deeply divided the church is, how mercilessly divided it has been by events in history. It's quite amazing when you encounter somebody who was so deeply nurtured by what is at the root of Christianity, the traditions of spiritual life of which the icon is one example. It's a very important one for him. That love of the stories of the early church, the spiritual practices of the early church, his readiness to receive from any part of the church, from Orthodox, from Baptist, from Episcopalians, Anglicans and so forth and so forth, and then we go outside Christianity to all the different traditions of spiritual life that he found so amazing, so interesting, so helpful, so important, this deep underlying sense of the connectedness, the oneness that stands beneath divisions. And it was never a denial of division but that the way to deal with this division was to go more deeply. That some events of a healing nature occur because we go more deeply. And it's not to heal the divisions that we go there but simply because we are in a process of coming closer to God.

I'm trying to think of moments with Merton where one could see something of this. It may not seem immediately relevant but I recall sitting on the porch of his hermitage with a Polish visitor to the monastery who had come with me from the Catholic Worker – he had arrived a few days later – an artist who had had some difficulty in his relationship with the Catholic church and was asking Merton to explain the Mass. And I have never heard anybody explain the Mass the way Merton did that day. He explained it as a dance, which I would only understand much later in my life really. It would just continue to sit in the back of my mind some place. Because I frankly didn't see the dance element very often in the Masses that I was attending, and less and less, one might say, as the years passed. But none the less gradually it became clear to me that it should be and sometimes is a dance. And how remarkable it was that he could see that and that it would occur to him at that moment to explain worship in terms of that graceful movement, the ancient ritual motions that we engage in if we are lucky. It's a very original way, it may seem, of explaining liturgical life but actually it's simply a return. Merton who was seen by so many as a radical turns out to be one of the great conservatives of the twentieth century, bringing back to us so many forgotten bits and pieces of the church that we simply forgot were there, just crumpled up in some sack in the attic somewhere, thrown into a sea-chest, that he would lovingly recover and present to us as news, which it was. "

~Jim Forest

Thursday, May 1, 2008

the way of chuang tzu

In the mid 1960’s, Merton published a little book, “The Way of Chuang Tzu”. He had been studying, meditating, and making notes on the Chuang Tzu texts for a few years. Merton calls his notes “imitations”, or interpretive readings, that grew from his comparing four different translations (2 English, 1 French, and 1 German) of the original Chinese. He realized that all translations of Chuang Tzu are largely “guessing”, which reflect not only the translator’s degree of Chinese scholarship, but also their grasp of the mysterious “way” described by a Master 2500 years ago.

This “way” is characteristic of a certain mentality found everywhere in the world: a taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push, and the self-importance that one must display in order to get along in society.

It is a “way” that prefers not to get anywhere in the world, or even in the field of some supposedly spiritual attainment.

The “Little Way” of St. Therese of Lixieux could be said to correspond to the deepest aspirations of Chuang Tzu.

The “way” of Chuang Tzu is mysterious because it is so simple that it can get along without being a way at all.

The “way” is not a “way out”, but when you enter upon this kind of way you leave all ways, and in some sense, get lost.

[Information above was drawn from and paraphrased from the “Note to the Reader” that prefaces Merton’s book, “The Way of Chuang Tzu”.]

Christ in the Rubble

The Rev. Munther Isaac lighting a candle next to an improvised crèche this month in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Credit... Samar Hazboun...