Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Annunciation

The Annuncation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898, oil on canvas
When the angel spoke, God awoke in the heart of this girl of Nazareth and moved within her like a giant. He stirred and opened His eyes and her soul and she saw that, in containing Him, she contained the world besides.
The Annunciation was not so much a vision as an earthquake in which God moved the universe and unsettled the spheres, and the beginning and the end of all things came before her in her deepest heart.
And far beneath the movement of this silent cataclysm Mary slept in the infinite tranquility of God, and God was a child curled up who slept in her and her veins were flooded with His wisdom which is night, which is starlight, which is silence.
And her whole being was embraced in Him whom she embraced and they became tremendous silence.

-- Thomas Merton
The Ascent to Truth (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1951, p 317)

HT to Jim Forest

Monday, December 6, 2010


Photo by Thomas Merton

From Gerry Straub's blog:

In 2000, I spent the first week of Advent alone in Thomas Merton’s hermitage on the grounds of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. How I was given that chance is a long story, which I shall not burden you with. But here is a little something I wrote exactly ten years ago today.
Wednesday, December 6, 2000 – 10:40am, Merton’s Hermitage. After breakfast, I sat quietly in front of the fireplace. The house was really cold and I had not started the furnace, thinking I would wait until later this afternoon. After meditating for about 20 minutes, a picture flashed across my mind: the interior of an abandoned building in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, where squatters had set fire to the staircase to keep warm during a bitter cold night. I had been in the building – and many more like it – while making the documentary on the St. Francis Inn. One day, Fr. Francis Pompei, OFM found a young man in the abandoned building. He was bundled up against the cold night. His name was Efrem and he had been homeless for about a month. He said, “It’s rough.” A towering example of an understatement. Sitting alone in Merton’s hermitage – living in “rough” conditions – I’m reminded of the plight of the poor who live in far, far worse conditions because of injustice and not out of seeking a “spiritual” experience. We cannot walk toward God and turn our backs on our suffering brothers and sisters at the same time. If you are reading these words in the comfort of a home, put the book down and go show God’s mercy and love to someone who does not have a home. Get up. Do it now. To forget the poor is to forget God.

“It is the hour for prayer; if you hear the poor calling you, mortify yourself and leave God for God, although you must do everything you can not to omit your prayer, for that is what keeps you united to God; and as long as this union lasts you have nothing to fear.”
-St. Vincent de Paul

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Uncommon Vision

Morgan Atkinson has produced a documentary on the remarkable life of John Howard Griffin.  Griffin figured significantly in Merton's life, and Merton in Griffin's.  This blog includes a collection of posts reflecting on Griffin's life, spirituality, and art (as if they could be viewed separately!). 

This is the description of the documentary from Atkinson's home page:

Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin is Morgan Atkinson's documentary on the remarkable life of a son of the American South, who became a citizen of the world and stirred the conscience of a nation.
John Howard Griffin is best known as the white man who in 1959 disguised himself as a black man and then traveled anonymously through the heart of Dixie. From his experiences he wrote “Black Like Me”, a groundbreaking best seller that today stands as a testament to Griffin’s moral commitment and a document of one of the more extraordinary events of the Civil Rights era.
“Uncommon Vision” focuses on Griffin’s social activism but will also examine how a spiritual commitment led him from a segregated childhood in Fort Worth to fighting with the French Underground, sustained him during ten years of blindness incurred by war injuries and inspired him during a prolific creative life as a writer/photographer.
It’s an inspiring, entertaining and edifying story. Studs Terkel, one of the great chroniclers of 20th century American culture and a frequent interviewer of Griffin, summed him up thusly.
“John Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered …  He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.”
Studs Terkel

Here is a video.  I remember being fascinated with the book, Black Like Me, when I was a child.  I look forward to seeing this documentary:

Click HERE to listen to an America Magazine podcast about the documentary.

an advent thought

A waiting person is a patient person. The word ‘patience’ means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there. Waiting, then, is not passive. It involves nurturing the moment, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her womb.” -Henri Nouwen

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dorothy Day - November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980

"Dorothy Day is one of the greatest and most significant Catholics of the twentieth century. Today is the 30th anniversary of her death."
 - From an essay by Fr. Stephen Wang, which can be found here

Robert Ellsburg, in a short life, says of Dorothy:

"The enigma of Dorothy Day was her ability to reconcile her radical social positions (she called herself an anarchist as well as a pacifist) with a traditional and even conservative piety. Her commitment to poverty, obedience, and chastity was as firm as any nun’s. But she remained thoroughly immersed in the secular world with all the “precarity” and disorder that came with life among the poor."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Relics Merton took to Asia

This interesting tidbit came via an email from Jim Forest:

An interesting detail about Merton's trip to Asia in 1968 is that he carried with him a number of relics of various saints. Thanks to Paul Pearson I have  this list:

St. Bede
St. Thomas of Canterbury
St. Teresa of Jesus
St. Peter Damian
St. Bruno
St. Romuald
St. Nicholas of Flue
St. Charbel

Paul writes: "Over the years a number of them were sent to him by Sr. Therese Lentfoehr, though the one of St. Charbel came from Sr. Mary Luke Tobin. (In a letter to Therese – Dec. ’65 – Merton mentions that he buried a second class relic of Charbel in the foundations of the hermitage when it was being built!)"

HT: Jim Forest and Paul Pearson

Friday, October 15, 2010

the Lax cottage

"When Bob was living by himself at the cottage on Rock City Hill during the late 1930s, his older sister Gladys drove up to see him, taking supplies and checking his well-being.  She told him she’d had a dream the previous night that people from all around the world would someday come to visit this place.  They laughed about it, but he remembered because Gladio didn’t usually tell her dreams and it was such an unusual dream about such an unlikely place.  Nothing momentous had ever happened there, except a group of college boys and girls, mostly from Columbia University, had spent summer college-student time, drinking beer, writing novels (one took place entirely under water), building tree-houses, wandering the woods, and luxuriating in a free house, thanks to Lax’s brother-in-law Benji who probably didn’t give it a thought, except to pay fire insurance premiums.

"One of Bob’s Columbia pals wrote from New York, July 29, 1938: “Lax, you don’t write.  Sir, are you bogged up in your cabin?  Are you walled in, is there no mail service, is it eating and drinking and feasting all day, is it watching the birds fly about and no thought for friends?  Is it hatching some egg?” - concluding the letter, “Listen, if I find some guy with a car like Joe Roberts we both might come up to Olean this end of August, if you would say so, and if Benji and Gladio would not be awfully sore at putting up one guy twice in one summer” - signed “Merton".

"In 1948, The Seven Story Mountain was published and the public got a look at how time had been spent at that cabin, and to the astonishment of the author especially, the book made the best seller list, and exposed how college students spend their summer: drinking beer, writing novels, wandering in the woods, enjoying a free pad thanks to benevolent and caring relatives, while they wonder aloud about life and what they were going to do with it.  Nothing unusual except three of the guys turn out to be world-class writers: Robert Lax, Edward Rice, and Thomas Merton."  [Artist, Ad Reihnardt, also spent time at the cottage.]

excepted from an essay by Jack Kelly, “Robert Lax - Coming Home”
Last week I was in Olean NY, perusing the Lax archives at St. Bonaventure University.  I knew that the cottage was in disrepair and that the property had been sold.  But I also knew that it was high on a hill, that there was a radio tower on the property and that it was about 5 miles outside of Olean on the way to Rock City.  My sister was with me, and with our eyes on the radio towers we followed our noses and happened upon the cottage.  It was partially hidden from the road, heavily fortified with no trespassing signs and road blocks, but unmistakably, the Lax cottage.  Talk about a trip back in time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lax resting place

I did find the Bob Lax's gravesite today, on a hill overlooking the St. Bonaventure University campus in Olean NY.  It is a simple small stone, flush with the ground, and reads:





Robert Lax 1915 + 2000

This is the view down the hill from his grave site:

Monday, September 20, 2010

two quotes to ponder

"What you thought you came for is only a shell, a husk of meaning from which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled…the purpose is beyond the end you figured and is altered in fulfillment."   -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

"When you have been praised a little and loved a little I will take away all your gifts and all your love and all your praise and you will be utterly forgotten and abandoned and you will be nothing, a dead thing, a rejection. And in that day you will begin to possess the solitude you have so long desired. And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men [and women] you will never see on earth. 
"You shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in me and find all things in my mercy which has created you for this end…'that you may become the brother [sister] of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.' "      -- Thomas Merton, Seven Story Mountain, page 462, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999

HT: Gone Walkabout

Jubilate Deo, omnis terra

Merton was quite involved with a remarkable journal called "Jubilee", which was founded by his godfather, Ed Rice. The magazine's "roving editor" was his dear friend, Bob Lax.  I have explored Jubilee, which was published from 1953 - 1967, on this blog HERE, with several photos of the magazine.

A comprehensive essay about Jubilee by Mary Ann Rivera is on the web:

Jubilee: a magazine of the church and her people: toward a Vatican II ecclesiology

Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Fall, 2007 by Mary Anne Rivera

"Jubilee magazine was a public proclamation of "Jubilate Deo, omnis terra "(Shout with joy to God, all the earth). For its founder, Edward Rice, the magazine proclaimed the "cheerfulness and joy" of everyday life and was a concrete expression of the believers' experience of God."

HT: to Jim Forest

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

how to be alone

This remarkable and whimsical video captures the joy of contemplative awareness and solitude.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Shrine to the Little Flower - St. Bonaventure University

Wandering around the St. Bonaventure University campus yesterday, I happened upon the Shrine to St. Theresa of the Divine Child of Jesus, the Little Flower.

I'm pretty sure this is the shrine before which Thomas Merton was praying when he received the message that he was to join the Trappists.

Update:  This is from a brochure showing the Merton places on the St. Bonaventure campus:
St. Therese’s shrine is also known as the shrine of the “Little Flower.” It was at this shrine that Thomas Merton prayed for guidance one evening. “You show me what to do. If I get into the monastery, I will be your monk. Now show me what to do.” It was then he imagined he heard the Trappist bells of Gethsemani monastery which he had visited the previous Easter. Soon afterward he left St. Bonaventure and joined the Trappists in Louisville, Kentucky.
And there is an error in that entry.  The Trappist monastery which Merton joined is not in Louisville.  Our Lady of Gethsemani monastery is in Nelson County, Kentucky, at least 45 miles from Louisville.  I think that the official post office for Gethsemani is Nerinx, Ky.  The nearest towns are New Haven and Bardstown KY.

Update 2, 8/24/2010 from Gabrielle's comments:

  ... It's November 28, 1941. Merton is anxious and experiencing many conflicts in his mind. He finally decides to go and talk to Fr. Philotheus, but he can't get up the courage to go see him right away. "So I pray to Saint Theresa, in the grove. While I am praying to her the question becomes clear: all I want to know is, do I have a chance to be a priest after all. I don't want him to argue for or against the Trappists. I know I want to be a Trappist... I want to be a priest - but I am told there is an impediment [note: what the Franciscans told him, re his having a child]. While I am praying to her, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, it is like hearing the bells in the tower, ringing for Matins in the middle of the night. I walk through the grove saying she will help me to be her Trappist - Theresa's Trappist, at Gethsemani."

He finally got up the courage to talk to Fr. Philotheus who gave his opinion immediately that canonically there was no impediment to Merton's being a priest, and advised him to take a retreat at Gethsemani during the upcoming Christmas vacation.

He truly loved St. Therese (he was "knocked out" by the story of her life), but not so much the typical statues of her: "...the scandal of cheap, molasses-art and gorgonzola angels that surrounds the cultus of this great saint." [Oct. 8, 1941]

I took this info from "Run to the Mountain. The Journals of Thomas Merton, Vol. 1"

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

peacemaking - loving your enemy

"Here we touch one of the greatest dangers that face peacemakers: that peacemakers themselves become the victims of the evil forces they are trying to overcome. The same fear of "the enemy" that leads warmakers to war can begin to affect the peacemaker who sees the warmaker as "the enemy." Words of anger and hostility can gradually enter into the language of the peacemaker. Even the sense of urgency and emergency that motivates the arms race can become the driving force behind the peacemaker. Then indeed the strategy of war and the strategy of peace have become the same, and peacemaking has lost its heart.

"One of the reasons why so many people have developed strong reservations about the peace movement is precisely that they do not see the peace they seek in the peacemakers themselves. Often what they see are fearful and angry people trying to convince others of the urgency of their protest. The tragedy is that peacemakers often reveal more of the demons they are fighting than of the peace they want to bring about.

"The words of Jesus go right to the heart of our struggle: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly" (Lk 6: 27-28). The more I reflect on these words, the more I consider them to be the test for peacemakers. What my enemies deserve is not my anger, rejection, resentment, or disdain, but my love. Spiritual guides throughout history have said that love for the enemy is the cornerstone of the message of Jesus and the core of holiness."

-- Henri J. M. Nouwen in “Peacework”

Monday, August 2, 2010

an integrated conscience

"one woman i know has sat in and been arrested at both abortion clinics and the pentagon. thus enraging someone in both places. her crime: an integrated conscience."- Daniel Berrigan

Saturday, July 31, 2010

the contemplative stance

"Contemplation becomes a way of life.  I don’t like to think of it so much as something I do, but something I am; so I often use the phrase “the contemplative stance.”  It’s a way of living, moving, and being in this world.  The very word means “to see.”

"I fully admit that we don’t live all of our twenty-four hours there.  The world keeps pulling us back into our false and small self.  “Put on this hat.  Attach to this identity.  Take on this hurt.  Put on this self-importance,” we say to ourselves.  It’s all right as long as we know how to take it back off again, and rather quickly, if possible.  “Who was I before I was hurt?” is your original face, your true identity in God, your own “immaculate conception.”  We must all crawl our way back to such innocence and such freedom."

- Fr. Richard Rohr OFM, Adapted from Contemplative Prayer (CD)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

what is your relationship with silence?

"As a rule, most people are afraid of silence.  That’s our major barrier to prayer and to depth.  Silence and words are related.  Words that don’t come out of silence probably don’t say much.  They probably are more an unloading than a communicating.

"Yet good words can also feed silence.  But even the word of God doesn’t bear a great deal of fruit—it doesn’t really break open the heart—unless it’s tasted and chewed, unless it’s felt and suffered and enjoyed at a level deeper than words.  If you look for the citations of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels, she acts, waits, listens, and asks, and hardly ever “says.”

"If I had to advise one thing for spiritual growth, it would be silence.

- Fr. Richard Rohr OFM

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Gerard Manley Hopkins Connection

I got this passage about Merton's conversion to Catholicism in an email today from Jim Forest.  Today is the birthday of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I thought it was interesting, but deleted it after I read it.  Then I kept musing about it throughout the day.  Merton's conversion to Catholicism is amazing (almost miraculous) - it was while reading a biography of Hopkins that it became absolutely clear to Merton he must become a Catholic. I decided that I wanted this insight into Merton's conversion to be part of the louie collection.

An extract from “Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton” by Jim Forest:

... All the internal contradictions of the society in which Merton lived were converging within him. He could see that "my likes or dislikes, beliefs or disbeliefs meant absolutely nothing in the external, political order. I was just an individual, and the individual had ceased to count.... I would probably soon become a number on the list of those to be drafted. I would get a piece of metal with my number on it ... so as to help out the circulation of red-tape that would necessarily follow the disposal of my remains."

In the midst of such dark thoughts another important book landed in Merton's life, G.F. Leahy's biography of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a convert to Catholicism who later became a Jesuit priest. Merton was studying Hopkins for a doctoral thesis he never completed. Sitting in his room on West 114th Street on a wet fall day, Merton started reading a chapter that described Hopkins's journey to Catholicism while a student at Oxford in 1866.

"All of a sudden," Merton recalled, "something began to stir within me, something began to push me, to prompt me. It was a movement that spoke like a voice. ‘What are you waiting for?' it said. ‘Why are you sitting here? Why do you still hesitate? You know what you ought to do? Why don't you do it?'

"I stirred in the chair. I lit a cigarette, looked out the window at the rain, tried to shut the voice up. ‘Don't act on your impulses,' I thought. ‘This is crazy. This is not rational. Read your book.'"

He tried to press on with Hopkins's life, but the inner voice only renewed its appeal: "It's useless to hesitate any longer. Why don't you get up and go?" He read another few sentences about Hopkins's conversion, and then came his own moment of consent. "I could bear it no longer. I put down the book, and got into my raincoat, and started down the stairs. I went out into the street. I crossed over, and walked along by the gray wooden fence, towards Broadway, in the light rain. And then everything inside me began to sing."

Nine blocks away was Corpus Christi and its presbytery. As it happened, its pastor, Father Ford, was just returning.

"Father," Merton asked, "may I speak to you about something?"

"Yes, sure, come into the house."

They sat in the parlor.

"Father, I want to become a Catholic."

Father Ford gave him three books to read and arranged for Merton to return for instruction two evenings a week.

The news of his impending baptism (officially a "provisional baptism," as Merton had been baptized in a Protestant church near Prades when he was an infant) was broken to Bob Lax with a frisbee-like toss of his hat. "I remember the moment," said Lax, "because he'd never before, and never since, thrown a hat in my direction." On November 18, 1938, Merton was baptized.

"What do you ask from God's Church," Merton was asked. "Faith!" "What does faith bring you?" "Life everlasting."

Witnessing the rite of passage were four friends, three of them Jews: Bob Lax, Sy Freedgood, and Bob Gerdy. Only his godfather, Ed Rice, was Catholic.

Merton entered a confessional for the first time, worried that the young priest sitting on the other side of the partition might be shocked to hear some of the events and habits that were about to be recounted. "But one by one, species by species, as best I could, I tore out all those sins by their roots, like teeth. Some of them were hard."

Baptized and absolved, for the first time he was not only present at Mass but was able to receive communion. "Now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God ... goodness without end.... He called out to me from His own immense depths."
Here is a link to the Writer's Almanac Entry today about Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"... He is not waiting for anything. He is there."

From 1993 to 1999, two uncommon film-makers, Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel, spent several weeks every year with Robert Lax on Patmos where they developed a long-standing friendship with the poet and collaborated with him on several film projects.  I have no doubt that Lax, who wrote screenplays in his earlier years, was as much a part of the creative endeavor as the men who held the cameras.  A large amount of video commentary about Lax was accumulated.

There is no commentary in these films, nor is there any story.  It is just the present.

In an essay, “A Window on the Word”, Michael Philipp describes Three Windows: Hommage a Robert Lax,  a video installation produced by Humbert and Penzel after Lax's death, which attempts to approach a way of life and a philosophy with visual and aural media. 

Here are a few quotes from that essay:
"He does not hurry and bustle about, his activity is not purposeful or directed towards some end, but concentrates on what can be grasped in daily life.  He has no commission to carry out, no deadline to meet, no plan to observe.  His creative will is confined to the construction or words.  He has the equilibrium of the well-informed, the peace of experience, the composure of a man who has arrived, even when he is in a train or on a ferry.  He misses nothing.  He is not waiting for anything.  He is there."
"We see the simple life of his hermitage, the loner’s withdrawal from the world, the outsider’s retreat , monastic, Spartan, clear-cut, yet it is also a world that can be symbolically surveyed.  The symbols of everyday life, concrete, unspectacular, objective: a hat tilted at an angle on the back of the chair; a stick leaning against the door; a spoon on the table - the life of objects and life lived with those objects, the immediacy of handling them."
"Beside and in front of the symbols of the phenomena that become metaphors in the film stands the direct, the immediate and elementary: sea, house, mountain, bay - images like concepts: they show something, they explain nothing.  They show what is ordinary, just as what is said is what is meant; there are no abstractions in these images or in the text, nothing sensational, nothing didactic, no secret.  The only revelation is that life is the message, poetry is its medium, the word that was in the beginning is its element."
"The poet speaks: not to the camera, he does not need the camera.  Nor does it trouble him either, he simply ignores it.  It accompanies him - unobtrusively but intensively - not he lives without it.  The poet speaks to himself, but he does not speak of himself; he speaks of the world, his world.  He confesses to no belief, he is an observer; he does not describe, he names.  His poems are short, clear, pointed; they are polar rather than dialectical, their subtlety does not lie in synthesis; they link opposites without neutralizing them, they create relationships:
from a


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

At Thomas Merton's Hermitage

 photo by Thomas Merton

This is too good not to share.

Brian has sent a link to an article in Image Magazine, "At Thomas Merton's Hermitage".  Franciscan priest, Fr. Murray Bodo, spends 6 days in the spring of 1995 at Merton's hermitage at Gethsemani.  The recounting of his contemplative explorations in Merton's space is profoundly insightful for those who seek a more silent and solitary balance to contemporary living and who like Merton lore. 

For example, I found it intriguing to see what Merton had on his bookshelf as he left for Asia:

On the table rest a few books I’ve pulled off the shelf from the original collection Merton had here when he left for the Far East in 1968: The Portable Thoreau, The Mirror of Simple Souls by an unknown French mystic of the thirteenth century, Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Western Mysticism, The Mediaeval Mystics of England, The Flight from God by Max Picard, The Ancrene Riwle, The Book of the Poor in Spirit by a Friend of God (fourteenth century), A Guide to Rhineland Mysticism, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, The Teaching of SS. Augustine, Gregory, and Bernard.
Or, the way the way that time alone awakens one to the simple clarity of just being alive:

"... I putter about the hermitage, make the bed, wash the breakfast dishes, sweep the porch; and something begins to order itself inside me as I order my external world. The ordering and puttering become a kind of prayer, a way of attending to the human which is a way of attending to the divine, charged as we are and the world is with the presence of God.

Domestic chores also become simply something to do. One cannot pray and meditate unendingly. There is a rhythm to life lived anywhere that calms the heart if we surrender to the necessities of the world around us and the world within."

It's just an excellent article and I'm honored to add it to this eclectic collection of contemplative writing.  This is a really good find.  Thanks, Brian!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


To realize zen one has to pass through the barrier of the patriarch.  Enlightenment always comes after the road of thinking is blocked.  If you do not pass the barrier of the patriarchs or if your thinking road is not blocked, whatever you think, whatever you do, is like a tangling ghost.  You may ask: What is a barrier of a patriarch?  This one word, Mu, is it.

This is the barrier of zen.  If you pass through it, you will see Joshu [Chinese zen master] face to face.  Then you can work hand in hand with the whole line of patriarchs.  Is this not a pleasant thing to do?

If you want to pass this barrier, you must work through every bone in your body, through every pore of your skin, filled with this question: What is Mu? and carry it day and night.  Do not believe it is the common negative symbol meaning nothing.  It is not nothingness, the opposite of existence.  If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel like drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.

Then your previous lesser knowledge disappears.  As a fruit ripening in season, your subjectivity and objectivity naturally become one.  It is like a dumb man who has had a dream.  He knows about it but he cannot tell it.

When he enters this condition his ego-shell is crushed and he can shake the heaven and move the earth.  He is like a great warrior with a sharp sword.  If a Buddha stands in his way, he will cut him down; if a patriarch offers him any obstacle, he will kill him; and he will be free in his way of birth and death.  He can enter any world as if it were his own playground.  I will tell you how to do this with this koan:

Just concentrate your whole energy into this Mu, and do not allow any discontinuation.  When you enter this Mu and there is no discontinuation, your attainment will be as a candle burning and illuminating the whole universe.

Has a dog Buddha-nature?
This is the most serious question of all.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your own Buddha-nature.

- from "zen Flesh, zen Bones - a Collection of zen and pre-zen writings", 1957, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki

Monday, June 21, 2010

Poem for Thomas Merton by Dan Berrigan, Part 1

1. 1969 Opened Like This

I wish I had some joy --
the text of eyes that pay
this year, all the last exacted; tears.
When Merton died, we met, struck dumb,
the old year's locking jaw
let blood, one last time; death, then this death

We blow up big the photo Griffin made --
Kentucky woods, hunched arms
overalls, Picasso moon face, Eyes

like a wrapt stranger among mourners
on a road, of a noon, in a landscape
stinking like graves.  Hands outstretched
     filled with this world's
          (no other's)
               flowers, wounds;
               I have some joy!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

kentucky rock

Photograph by Thomas Merton

This is definitely Kentucky rock, the kind that plentiful in Nelson County.

(What are your thoughts on this one, Dr. Burpenstein? something about those striations that start looking like Merton's abstract drawings to me ...)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dan Berrigan, arrested again

Dan Berrigan was arrested on Good Friday (2010) for standing with about a dozen others and attempting to dissuade tourists from going on board the Intrepid, an aircraft carried moored in the Hudson River.  On June 1st a judge dismissed charges.  You can read more about the incident on The America Magazine blogsite

[I had to add the photo to louie-louie, being that I just posted the one from 1970.]

Monday, June 14, 2010


Photograph by Thomas Merton

"An artist must have downtime, time to do nothing.  Defending our right to such time takes courage, conviction and resiliency.  Such time, space, and quiet will strike our family as a withdrawal from them.  It is ... An artist requires the upkeep of creative solitude.  An artist requires the time of healing alone.  Without this period of recharging, our artist becomes depleted. ... We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be unselfish.  We want to be generous, of service, of the world.  But what we really want is to be left alone.  When we can’t get others to leave us alone, we eventually abandon ourselves.  To others, we may look like we’re there.  We may act like we’re there.  But our true self has gone to ground. ... Over time, it becomes something worse than out of sorts.  Death threats are issued."  - Julia Cameron, from The Artist's Way

"Finally got back to my routine of Saturday fasting.  Went out in the sun to Linton's farm and got a good burn on my shoulders, reading a little about Islam mystics and feeling once again something like myself.  The visits have been a drag, no matter how much I like Lax, Jonathan Greene, Ron Seitz, Dick Sisto, etc.  I just need to have long periods of no talking and no special thinking and immediate contact with the sun, the grass, the dirt, the leaves.  Undistracted by statements, jokes, opinions, news.  And undistracted by my own writing." - Merton, June 15, 1968, The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 130

clouds not clocks

Almeria 2008 from Vicente + Sara on Vimeo.

I saw this on Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, this morning.  It is lovely, contemplative.  According to Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, the world was once divided into clouds and clocks:

Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The mistake of modern science is to pretend that everything is a clock, which is why we get seduced again and again by the false promises of brain scanners and gene sequencers. We want to believe we will understand nature if we find the exact right tool to cut its joints. But that approach is doomed to failure. We live in a universe not of clocks but of clouds.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

that wordless gentleness ...

Photo by Thomas Merton

"Thomas Merton aimed for the image that was true to its subject and that had the mysterious ability to communicate fresh insights into it.  His photographs began to reveal, in a way that nothing else did, certain aspects of his interior vision and his qualities as a man.  His photographs were chosen not according to traditional canons of aesthetic beauty.  He cared nothing for "the decisive moment" or "the characteristic moment".  He selected only the frames that expressed his contemplative vision.  In the "tremendous action" of contemplation, Merton held that it was not so much what you did that counted, but what you allowed to be done to yourself.  He worked for photographic images which, when viewed without haste or pressure, might accomplish the slow work of communicating "a hidden wholeness", and perhaps reveal some hint of that wordless gentleness that flows out from "the unseen roots of all created being." - John Howard Griffin, The Hidden Wholeness, p. 4

Monday, June 7, 2010

On Prayer II

[Note: This poem appeared in the June/July 2004 edition of "The Other Side", a magazine which is no longer published. ]

On Prayer II

Some prayers are like spears.  They carry the whole weight
of the body behind them but they do not travel far.

Some prayers are like arrows flying light
and far and fast but they are never seen again.

Some prayers are like snares scattered in the woods,
ingenious and cunning -- but who knows what they will catch?

No.  You cannot bring down the Holy One with prayer.  He
is not caught in your traps.  Listen -- you are yourself the hunted.

Your prayer is the sudden stillness on the path,
the in-drawn breath, the pounding heart as you scent the wind.

Have you learned this?  Do you know?
You do not seek so much as you are sought.

You cannot pursue the Holy One -- or if you do,
it is only as the fish in the net pursues the fisherman.

- Robert Hudson
[Update: here is some more information about Robert Hudson.]

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dan Berrigan, arrested

I came across this photo of Dan Berrigan via a louie reader.  His comment: Who is really more free - D.B. or the sour faced g-men?

This photo definitely needs to be part of the louie collection! My guess is that this is the photo taken (August 12, 1970) when Berrigan was arrested after being "underground", hiding from the F.B.I for his part in the Cantonsville Nine action.  For several months Berrigan was in the home of Robert Coles in Cambridge.  He was finally caught on Block Island:

"Two F.B.I. agents attempting to disguise themselves as birders finally caught up with Berrigan, however, when he was staying in the home on Block Island, R.I., of the social activist and lay theologian William Stringfellow. “One day, Bill looked out the window and saw two men with binoculars acting as if they were bird watchers,” said Berrigan, “but since the weather was stormy, that seemed strange. ‘I think something’s up,’ Bill said, and sure enough they knocked on the door.” They took Berrigan back to Providence by ferry; the media, already alerted, were waiting at the pier. Berrigan showed me a poster in his apartment made from a photo taken at that moment. Smiling broadly, he was in handcuffs between two burly F.B.I. agents as they escorted him off the ferry. A reminder of Block Island lies on his living room floor: a dozen curiously shaped stones from the beach there. " - from an article in America Magazine by George Anderson, "Looking Back in Gratitude - a conversation with Daniel Berrigan", July 6, 2009

(louie-louie is going to kick back into gear soon, I promise.  I've been mulling over the relationship between art and contemplative-ness, lately, and can't quite come to a blog-way of putting it down.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

compassion as a meeting point

The Dalai Lama is one of the true spiritual teachers of our time.  This article, in today's NY Times, mentions the significance of his meeting with Merton in India in 1968.

More discussion of Merton's meetings with the Dalai Lama is here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

the news

"Nine-tenths of the news, as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten-tenths. The ritual morning trance, in which one scans columns of newsprint, creates a peculiar form of generalized pseudo-attention to a pseudo-reality. This experience is taken seriously. It is one's daily immersion in "reality." One's orientation to the rest of the world. One's way of reassuring himself that he has not fallen behind. That he is still there. That he still counts!

"My own experience has been that renunciation of this self-hypnosis, of this participation in the unquiet universal trance, is no sacrifice of reality at all. To "fall behind" in this sense is to get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly."

- Thomas Merton, p151, Faith and Violence. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968

Thursday, May 6, 2010

you do not need to leave your room ...

"You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet." - Franz Kafka

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) - "Art is art. Everything else is everything else."

Photo by Robert Lax

"Art is art. Everything else is everything else." - Ad Reinhardt

In other words, art does not represent something else.  Art stands on its own, a living entity, in and of itself. 

Reinhardt was a pioneer of conceptual and minimal art.  He was a critic of abstract expressionism.   Reinhardt’s earliest exhibited paintings avoided representation, and show a steady progression away from objects and external reference.  He is best known for his Black paintings of the 1960s.

Ad Reinhardt, Merton and Lax were friends.  They met while they were students at Columbia University in New York City.  (Actually, Reinhart and Lax attended the same high school, but that's another story) Ad was studying art history at Columbia and frequently contributed cartoons to the school newspaper, Jester, where Merton and Lax were staffers.   

The three were bonded by a common vision.  A similar calling that centered around simplicity and emptiness.  Though they each went their own way in the world, they never lost sight of each other.

"... I think Ad Reinhardt is possibly the best artist in America ... Reinhardt's abstract art is pure and religious.  It flies away from all naturalism, from all representation ... " - Merton, 1940, "Run to the Mountain, page 128

Merton, Lax, and Reinhardt form a potent troika, forging into new territory.  Continuing the "Beat" style of their youth, they are unusual, contrary to what is considered traditional or accepted, off the beaten track, outside the norm.  Reinhardt's paintings remain controversial decades after they were composed.  Lax's poetry is shocking in its simplicity and is still relatively unknown in America.  Merton's writings are popular, but he was rejected for inclusion in the Catholic Catechism.

In the spring of 1959 Lax and Reinhardt visited Merton at Gethsemane.  In his thank you note, Reinhardt says to Merton:

"... let's argue about art and religion some more.  If you're doing a book on it, and you have a world-wide audience, can I help you say what's right, instead of saying things people want to hear and agree with?  You just make people happy if you don't say what's right, true (beautiful?) ... thanks for the weekend."

In fact, in 1962 Merton was taken with the art of William Congdon, an American painter, abstract expressionist and devout Catholic who focused on religious themes.  Merton wrote a few paragraphs praising Congdon's work, and threw in a line condemning abstraction:

"... here the dynamism of abstraction has been set free from its compulsive, Donysian and potentially orgiastic self-frustraion and raised to the level of spirituality." - Thomas Merton, jacket copy for William Congdon, In My Disc of Gold: Itinerary to Christ of William Congdon, 1962
Well, Reinhardt soon caught wind of this and fired off to Merton a blistering letter, taking him to task for his poor judgement.
" ... I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw ... Why shouldn't you be human after all ... have you given up on hope?  Have you no respect for sacredness and art? ... Are you throwing in the trowel at long last?  Can't you tell your impasto from a holy ground? ... We'll send help, hold on, old man." - Ad Reinhardt letter to Merton, 1962
Merton had the good sense to listen to Reinhardt's criticism.  His reply, though superficially humerous, shows that Merton and Reinhardt were looking at each other, eye to eye, and this was a time of reckoning.
"Dear Ad,
"Once, twice, often, repeatedly, I have reached out for your letter and for the typewriter.  Choked with sobs, or rather more often carried away by the futilities of life, I have desisted ...

"Truly immersed in the five skandhas and plunged in avidya, I have taken the shell for the nut and the nut for the nugget and the nugget for the essence and the essence for the such-ness ... I have embraced a bucket of schmaltz.  I have accepted the mish mash of kitsch.  I have been made public with a mitre of marshmallows upon my dumkopf.  This is the price of folly and the wages of middle-aged perversity.  I thought my friends would never know ... I am up to my neck.  I am in the wash.  I am under the mangle.  I am publicly identified with all the idols.  I am the byword of critics and galleries.  I am eaten alive by the art racket.  I am threatened with publication of a great book of horrors which I have despised and do recant." - Merton letter to Ad Reinhardt, 1962
Merton decisively moved to Reinhardt's camp and the world of contemporary art.  As an artist, he would not go back to his drawings of Our Lady.   As an author, he would not turn medieval concepts to a task for which they were not suited.

Like Lax and Reinhardt, Merton headed into the Unknown.

Ad Reinhardt died on August 30, 1967, of heart problems.  He was 53 years old.

[photo by Merton, cover of Monk's Pond 1st edition, spring 1968]

As a memorial to Reinhardt, Merton published in the first issue of his literary magazine, Monk's Pond, a chantlike text by Reinhardt, dating to 1962.  Here is one verse of that text:
"The one object of fifty years of abstract art is to present art-as-art and as nothing else, to make it into the one thing it is only, separating and defining it more and more, making it purer and emptier, more absolute and more exclusive - non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-expressionist, non-subjective.  the only and one way to say what abstract art or art-as-art is, is to say what it is not." - Ad Reinhardt, Monk's Pond 1, Spring 1968, p. 6 first published in Art International, December 1962

Sounds like God, doesn't it?

See also - does art have anything to do with life? (Robert Lax on Ad Reinhardt)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

song for our lady of cobre

In April of 1940 (70 years ago), Merton took a vacation/pilgrimage to Cuba.  At the time he was teaching English at St. Bonaventure's College in Olean and had applied to join the Franciscans (and was soon to be rejected).  Merton was enchanted with the Cuban people, their friendliness, their dance and song.

He visited several monasteries and churches:

"... as for the churches around Cuba, I must say that I have never seen such churches or such things when I was in a church.  There is a church here called La Soledad which has in it a miraculous image, and when I walked into the place I was picked up by my feet off the floor and seen not a ring of pure and endless light but rather a great ring of nothing which was absolutely real, indescribable and also a little frightening.  It was clearer than if I had seen it which my eyes, but it was simply nothing, and there was no sensible note included in it anywhere, and anyway I was on the edge of it like on the edge of an abyss ... " - from a letter to Lax dated April 1940
 Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad in Camabuey

Merton also visited the church of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre), patroness of Cuba.  A woman of mixed race, she also represents, Ochun, the African goddess of love, femininity and the river.   She is the symbol of feminine sensuality.

This is probably the finest of Merton's early poems.  Merton later made some changes to it, but I like it in its original form.  He seems to be influenced by the beat of calypso music.

Song for Our Lady of Cobre

The white girls stir their heads like trees,
The black girls go
Reflected like flamingoes in the street.

The white girls sing as shrill as water,
The black girls speak
As loud as clay.
[The published version reads: The black girls talk/As quiet as day."]

The white girls open their arms like clouds,
The black girls close their eyes like wings;
Angels bow down like bells,
Angels look up like toys,

Because the heavenly stars
Stand in a ring,
And all the pieces of the mosaic, earth,
Get up and fly away like birds.

-Thomas Merton

[drawings by Thomas Merton]

Friday, April 23, 2010

My Eye Your Eye

Merton said that Lax had a direct link to the living God.

On the DVD, middle of the moment, there is a bonus film, My Eye Your Eye.  Filmed in Patmos in May 1999, this is Robert Lax’s last year in Greece, roughly his last year of life.  For 21 minutes you see only Lax’s head and his right hand, which holds a wooden staff of sorts (a walking stick or ... a broomstick?!).  He wears a navy blue knit hat. The only movement is in his eyes, and ever so slight movements of his head.  Lax does not look at the camera, his eyes are mostly downcast, but he is awake and aware, watching and waiting, and you are drawn into his profound stillness.

All of those who were able to meet Lax during his lifetime consider it a particular stroke of fortune.  They say that from that point on he became part of their bodies and souls, as though they had met a true saint.

My Eye Your Eye is like being in the presence of holiness.  For 20 minutes.  Watching and waiting.  I've always wanted to know better what Bob Lax was like - how he was.  This film does it.

There is a poem of the same name by Lax:

My eye. Your eye. Or even if it’s mine and mine.
Why should my eye look at your eye?
Why should yours look into mine?
Am I seeking out a glance, a look in darkness?

Robert Lax

Thursday, April 22, 2010

middle of the moment

If you appreciated the film, "Into Great Silence", you will like "middle of the moment", a cinepoem about nomadic life by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel.    The film not only chronicles people as they move from place to place, it becomes a nomadic experience itself - not afraid to stay in one place, but knowing when it's time to move on.

"The essence of any experience, any moment, is to be found where people are in most intense contact with the place they occupy. And, paradoxically, it is through a nomadic existence that one occupies a space the most intensely. Whether the nature of this nomadism is largely physical, as for the wandering tribes that travel the South Sahara and Cirque O or rather abstract, as for American philosopher and poet Robert Lax, is not so important. What the people portrayed in this documentary share is that their nomadic disposition, which strips life down to its bare essentials, makes them into completely centred human beings. They are not stuck in life’s cycles but co-exist with them, partaking in them with a freedom that is unknown to most of us."

--Miram Van Leer

Saturday, April 10, 2010

more Lax quotes

 photo by Nicolas Humbert

" mountains where sheep are
indistinguishable from snow
the snow from the cloud, the
clouds from the sky..."

and one more,

"no hope of comprehending the whole, no hope
of understanding any one object either, without
some comprehension of the whole.

no hope of solution of these problems;
no possibility of abandoning them either (as
long as one lives)

better to be engaged in them to be engaged by
them, in spirit of play (serious spirit, serious
play) while time passes over one, under one, through

Robert Lax, from something called the "C Journal"

Monday, March 22, 2010

"always divided and pulled in many directions"

“When we live superficially ... we are always outside ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in many directions ... we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be worthless and without meaning in our lives.”

-- Thomas Merton
Love and Living

Saturday, March 20, 2010

let the great world spin

Occasionally on this blog I have recommended a book because of its relation to Merton’s writings, or because of its unique contemplative perspective.  I’ve got another one: “Let The Great World Spin” by Colum McCann.  It has nothing to do with Merton other than sharing a city.

At first glance, it might seem to have little to do with contemplativeness either.   Sirens are mentioned often.  On one hand it is a simple narrative of lives entwined in the early 1970’s. Most of it takes place on one day in New York in August 1974 when Phillipe Petit (unnamed in the book) makes his tightrope walk across the World Trade Center towers, a walk that was called “the artistic crime of the 20th century.”

Here is a description from Random House:

In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

... a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.

... A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a “fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal.

I don't want to say too much and spoil the discovery.  I feel more in love and more alive for having read this book. 

Monday, March 15, 2010

sheep & wolves

"In the refectory a tendentious book about Communism is being read. Communism is insidious. We should hate all that is insidious, especially this ultimate diabolical insidiousness which is Communism. If we truly hate it with all the power of our being, then we can be sure that we ourselves are, and will remain righteous, free, sincere, honest, open. Today, then (we are told) hatred of Communism is the test of a good Christian. The pledge of all truth is political hate. Hate Castro. Khrushchev. Hate Mao. All this in the same breath as "God's merciful love" and "the beatings of the Sacred Heart." There seems to be some other dimension we have not discovered....

[St. John] Chrysostom has some fine things to say about sheep and wolves in the III Nocturn of St. Barnabas' Day. "As long as we remain sheep, we overcome. Even though we may be surrounded by a thousand wolves, we overcome and are victorious. But as soon as we are wolves, we are beaten: for then we lose the support of the Shepherd, who feeds not wolves, but only sheep." (from Homily 34 on St. Matthew)"

-- Thomas Merton
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
p 33 of the Doubleday hardcover edition, p 44-45 of the Image
paperback edition

HP to Jim Forest

Sunday, March 7, 2010


"In silence we face and admit the gap between the depth of our being, which we consistently ignore, and the surface which is untrue to our own reality. We recognize the need to be at home with ourselves in order that we may go out to meet others, not just with a mask of affability, but with real commitment and authentic love.

That is the reason for choosing silence."

Merton, Thomas. Love & Living. Naomi Burton Stone and Br. Patrick Hart, Editors. New York: Harcourt. 1979, p. 41.

From the daily Lenten series of quotes being sent out by Vanessa Hurst at The Merton Institute.  Her selection of Merton writings is excellent.  You can subscribe to the daily emails at

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

snowy road

Photo by Thomas Merton

(A reader requested a "snow" photograph from Merton.  Being in Florida now, I can't really relate ...

Another photo of the hermitage in heavy snow is here.)

"prayer is something that happens to you ..."

"Prayer is something that happens to you (Romans 8:26-27), much more than anything you privately do. It is an allowing of the Big Self more than an assertion of the small self. Eventually you will find yourself preferring to say, “Prayer happened, and I was there” more than “I prayed today.” All you know is that you are being led, being guided, being loved, being used, being prayed through—and you are no longer in the driver’s seat.

"God stops being an object of attention like any other object in the world, and becomes at some level your own “I am.” You start knowing through, with, and in Somebody Else. Your little “I Am” becomes “We Are.” Please trust me on this. It might be the most important thing I could tell you."

Fr. Richard Rohr, from The Naked Now, pp. 102-103

HT to barefoot toward the Light

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lax - the peacemaker's handbook

Lax’s poetry is vertical, going down the page instead of across.  In order to get the cadence, you have to read and see the vertical lines as they go up and down and across the page as well, like stanzas. It does a number on your mind, reading this way.  You can't assume that you know what is coming next.

The St. Bonaventure Archive site has pdf files of one of Lax’s works - The Peacemaker’s HandbookPeacemaker’s Handbook was first published by Pendo Verlag of Zurich Switzerland in 2001.  Most of Lax's poetry was published by European book companies in English with facing German translated pages.  I could find many of them on, but not the U.S. site.

The reproduced text on the pdf's linked to below is a digital copy of the original typescript/printout submitted for that publication. It differs from the published version in regards to the arrangement of some portions of the text.   But it gives you a good idea of how Lax’s poetry should look on a page.  (I would love to see this book reproduced in America.)

Here is a little snippet from the Peacemaking part:







(seriously, though, you need to read the whole thing to get the breadth and depth of Lax's simple wisdom)

And here is a little snippet from the Contemplation part:

















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