Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Our Lady of the Olive Trees

[Update: The Marion Library at the University of Dayton has verified that the painting below is in its "Epinal" collection. These works of art were named after the French town of Epinal and date to the 2nd half of the 19th Century. They are quite large and are the precursors to what are today known as holy cards. This may not be the leaflet, per se, that Merton was remembering in the Sign of Jonas, but it sure looks like it could be especially with that writing below the picture.]

Toward the end of the book, The Sign of Jonas, Merton mentions Our Lady of the Olive Trees:
"There came from France a tiny, ancient leaflet, printed somewhere in the Auvergne at least half a century ago. It is about Our Lady of the Olive Trees, at Murat. Had I heard of her? I must have. I stood in the shadow of her church ..."
When Merton was 10 years old, his artist father took him to France to live with him. Merton learned French easily and studied mostly at boarding schools while visiting his father on Sundays. During the summer of 1927 when he was 12 years old, Merton lived with an elderly Catholic couple, the Privats, in Murat, a small village in the Auvergne region of France.

This photo comes from a collection of Marian art at the Univerisity of Dayton. I wonder if it is the leaflet that Merton speaks of.Our Lady of Olives takes its origin from a wooden statue of Our Lady which survived the destruction of the Church of Murat caused by lightning in 1493. (Hence, Our Lady of the Olives is the protectress against lightning. Interesting in light of how Merton died from a bolt of electricity.). No one is sure where the name, Our Lady of the Olives comes from. Some say this is a reference to the wood from which she is carved, others say it is an allusion to suffering (Garden of Olives).

Merton comes to this memory just after having committed himself to compassion, whom he names Queen of the hermits and mother of the poor.

"What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion ...

"Do you suppose I have a spiritual life? I have none, I am indigence, I am silence, I am poverty, I am solitude, for I have renounced spirituality to find God, and He it is Who preaches loud in the depths of my indigence, saying: “I will pour out my spirit upon thy children and they shall spring up among the herbs as willows beside the running waters” (Isaias, 44:3-4). “The children of thy barrenness shall say in thy ears: the place is too strait for me, make me room to dwell in” (Isaias, 49:10). I die of love for you, Compassion: I take you for my Lady, as Francis married poverty I marry you, the Queen of hermits and the Mother of the poor.

-Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p. 334
Below are photos of the church at Murat and the statue of Our Lady of Olives.

Murat, France (there is a large white statue of the Blessed Mother on that hill on the left)


  1. Thank you for this very moving post. I will meditate on Merton's words of compassion while on my Trappist retreat.

    Good bless...

  2. Have a good retreat, Brian. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  3. You have an amazing blog. I love Thomas Merton, and I love the name of your blog! I've always been intrigued by the circumstances of Merton's death. Also, interesting about compassion. When he had that revelation by the Buddha statues in Bangkok (?), he saw that "everything is emptiness, and everything is compassion." I still wonder what exactly he meant by compassion - or what it meant to him.

  4. Thank you, Maria. I think I have some material that can shed more light on Merton's understanding of "Compassion" ... I'll look them up and post them here in a bit.


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