Sunday, March 4, 2012

like swimming in the heart of the sun

Ordination Day, May 1949, photograph of Thomas Merton
May, 1949.   Merton had been at Gethsemani for 6 years and was ordained.  He was 33 years old.  For days after this event Merton's journals go on and on about his joy in being a priest, saying Mass.

This is the passage I like best:
"Yet a certain restraint seems to be the best thing about the Mass in our liturgy.  The whole thing is so tremendous that no amount of exuberance will ever get you anywhere in expressing it.  To bend down, unnoticed, and kiss the altar at the Supplices te rogamos [Humbly we pray to you] is a movement that lifts me out of myself and doubles my peace, and saying the Pater [Our Father] is like swimming in the heart of the sun."  -Entering the Silence, p. 320-321
I am reminded that this, pious as it is, is the ground from which Merton was able to write with such wisdom and authority - a total surrender to God.


  1. Thank you Beth -

    "Total Surrender to God." This is obedience. There are teachings of the Church that are hard to grasp - and many times these teachings seem wrong - and very hard to accept. Yet, we are called to obedience. Mary and Jesus were both obedient - and they are our greatest models. I have been with the Missionaries of Charity for many years - as a volunteer, and as a Lay Missionary of Charity - and now as a deacon. I once questioned a sister about why she was doing a task that I found to be a waste of energy. She told me that her "obedience" was perfect. And that was all God was asking of her.

    Merton was an obedient Catholic Monk. He loved the Lord and he loved Mary. Many articles are written about Merton - about his involvement in the peace movement - his study of eastern thought and prayer. It seems to me that the "secular" world we live in wants to embrace Merton for the wrong reasons.

    Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were more articles, videos and books about Merton - the Merton that embraced "total surrender." His love for Mother Church - his giving up his own will for God's will - and living behind those walls for so many years. I love Merton, and I think it is for all the right reasons.

    I hope I made myself clear.

    Beth, what are your thoughts on this ?

    God bless you!

  2. Brian, Merton as I experience him is orthodox in that he celebrated his tradition. As a culture very few of us deepen our search and allow the media to present a profile. Happily Merton can't be put into any one box and that is why he still bridges the deep waters of religion and spirit. As a catholic and Sufi which Merton also saw himself to be, He is a compass , his heart a vessel, his pilgrim soul a friend. And yes I know what you mean.

    A POEM Midnight Rounds to Merton

    He made his midnight rounds In Kentucky’s darkest light.
    A fire watch he said

    He wrote and taught in those
    Cloistered walls

    His heart turned east, his head turned west
    He loved the Dali Lama with the rest.
    He swore he was a Sufi it was his right

    Sophia came in blazing light,
    he spun the Tao and
    danced in Zen

    When destiny did call he flew returning in a B52
    that beast he knew

    His fame goes on
    He roams those woods, We read his works ,
    we say his name. If we
    listen to the stream we can hear his call
    Merton was his name
    A seeker of Divine
    his game.

    Namaste Said

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, Brian.

    I think that one of the amazing things about Merton is the way he bridges the divide between the "liberal" and "conservative" factions of Catholicism. He is both, speaks to both, lives both.

    Yes, Merton was deeply Catholic, and his obedience to his Abbot, difficult as it was for Merton at times, is probably what saved him from himself. All through his journals, from the very beginning to the very end, he is struggling with obedience, and he always sided with obedience. Not my way, but Your Way.

    His spirituality is personal and deep, and as a non-Churched child, he was able to grab onto the Catholic icons and truly take them to heart and make them his own and grow with them.

    He was able to know the very best of what is Catholicism, and then was free to explore and dialogue with other religious traditions without feeling that he was somehow being "untrue" to his own spiritual roots. From his ground of stable and authentic spiritual wisdom, he was able to see and criticize the many pseudo aspects of "false religion" in the world, the superstitions and idols that we can make of religion.

    Personally, I think that "secular world" is a misleading term. There is only one world that we live in, not a religious one or a secular one, and it is this one world that is holy.

    And I think that Merton's growth into a monk who could speak to the contemporary problems of a war-torn world - his involvement in peace movements - is vital to understanding the whole Merton. I don't think that you can divide Merton up into one who was "conservative" or one who was "liberal". You have to see the whole man. If you do, you don't understand him.

    Anyway, that's what I think :-)

    1. That last paragraph is kind of confusing as I read it.

      I'm not sure that you can ever "understand" Merton - put him in a category. He was that monk who flies very fast without knowing where he is going :-) ...

      He would not have become who he did without Zen of Sufi or the Peace Movement or the monastery or the Mass.

  4. I have been thinking more about obedience, Brian - how tricky it can be. My thoughts are just my thoughts, not in any way the final answer or anything -- I'm very open to other ideas, and especially appreciate your honest comments here.

    But obedience seems to me to really get at the heart of Trust. Knowing that one is being led by the specific circumstances of ones life, and trust what is given moment by moment. It isn't a blind obedience to authority but it isn't following ones own whims either. I think it involves complete (almost uncanny) honesty with oneself.

    Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded by Hitler as a conscientious objector even though he was advised by priest and bishop to conform and obey. They actually told him that his conscience was "in error". But Jägerstätter wasn't just doing his own thing. In a child's notebook he wrote a precise essay on "Irresponsibility" citing two Germans who both perform the same service for the Nazis. One believes in Nazism, the other condemns it - and thinks himself better. Jägerstätter says that the one who thinks himself better is the more guilty of the two.

    Jägerstätter's conclusion shows how closely he had to examine himself in choosing to go against the advice of his bishop, and how much he had to trust the guiding force of his inner relationship with God.

    Merton wrestled with joining a more solitary order of monks (the Carthusians) since he first got to Gethsemani. It seemed to him that this was his "calling". Yet his abbot saw otherwise. Merton even took his request for dispensation all the way to the Vatican. Merton could not let go of this until it became clear that the circumstances of his life were asking him to stay where he was. He accepted and finally found deep peace in that obedience.

    I think that what I'm saying is that obedience is not always a clear road, and sometimes what looks like disobedience can, in fact, be obedience.

  5. Thank you Beth and Said -

    Yes, "secular world" is not a good term. I think, because of the latest attacks on the Church (and other religions as well), I have acquired an "us and them" mentality. And I know it is not good - and in many respects, not Christian.

    And yes - disobedience can certainly be obedience. As Aquinas said "an unjust law is no law at all." Many Christians will soon find themselves in civil disobedience.

    I wonder what Merton would think if he lived in these times.

  6. Thanks for getting back, Brian. I know what you mean about the "us and them" mentality - I have to always remind myself of how much we need each other, especially those who see things differently from the way I do. For some reason, God made us this way.

    " ... What we ourselves lack, God has given them. They must complete us where we are deficient ... " (from today's quote from the Merton Institute)

    Somehow we were each made specifically for these very strange times and each other. Thanks again, Brian, for being here. I loved your story about the sister doing the "perfect" obedience.

  7. Obedience to human authority is often difficult. I know that Merton struggled with obedience to his monastic superiors. In a conversation with Huston Smith (the famous religious studies scholar who authored the popular book introducing comparative religion "The Religions of Man", later retitled "The World's Religions"), Merton, speaking of his monastic vows, said:

    "Poverty - that’s a snap. Chastity a bit harder, but OK. But what is hard, hard, hard is obedience."

    Yet inspite of this I think he really tried very hard to be a submissive monk, although towards the end of his life he was sometimes quite vocal in his criticism of certain things in his monastic order, and towards certain decisions of his monastic superiors. To his credit, in spite of this he remained faithful to his vows as a Trappist monk until his death.

  8. I've been reading through the "Turning Toward the World" journal, where it seems that Merton's struggles with obedience were in full flame. He didn't settle for an easy answer or solution to it, either - but stayed with the struggle, even trusted that the struggle, itself, was valid.

  9. Somehow this post slipped through my Google reader until today and I am thrilled to find it. I've devoured his readings for years as the reading that most speak to my heart.

    I wonder if he realizes how significant a role model he is to others? I have such respect for his intellect yet it in his tender, unguarded moment of writing that buoys me up in moments of despair for I know through his honesty in writing that he's been there too and found his way out.


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