Monday, December 31, 2018

the darkness is enough

Photograph: During Christmas services in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Palestine, by the American Colony Jerusalem Photo Department, between 1934 and 1939.

“Your brightness is my darkness.
I know nothing of You and, by myself,
I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You.
If I imagine You, I am mistaken.
If I understand You, I am deluded.
If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy.
The darkness is enough.”
—Thomas Merton, prayer before midnight mass at Christmas, 1941.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

I have to be the person that nobody knows

This article, Thomas Merton - Modern Monk, is in this week's New Yorker magazine.

Being a lifelong Merton reader and fan, I'm picky with many of the "about Merton" articles that appear. They seem to be just a little off, projecting an agenda or persona onto Merton that doesn't sit right with me. Not the Merton that I know.

That is the case with this article. The author (Alan Jacobs) is punchy and quick to draw conclusions right from the start --
"If he had continued to live in the world, he might have died not by electrocution but by overstimulation."
I googled Mr. Jacobs. He is a fine, and well regarded teacher and writer at a school in Texas, but talk about overstimulation. Take a look at his website, and venture, if you dare, into something called "bullet journalism"! Yikes. I can imagine Merton's rant. No wonder Jacobs' writing feels "punchy".

The New Yorker article gets worse before it gets better. I sort of like the way Jacobs presents Merton's struggle with "the world", politics, peacemaking, and world religions. But he doesn't quite get to the contemplative root of it all.

Anyway, toward the end of the article is an insight that I find quite remarkable. An insight that comes by way of Rowan Williams.
In 1978, marking the tenth anniversary of Merton’s death, a young Anglican theologian named Rowan Williams wrote, “Merton’s genius was largely that he was a massively unoriginal man.” And by “unoriginal” Williams means that Merton was not the kind of genius who was always himself, always some distinctive “original” force, but rather was “dramatically absorbed by every environment” that he found himself in. To which one might add: “absorbed by,” yes, but also “in conflict with.” Merton rebelled against Gethsemani’s discipline, but then he rebelled against the character of Clare College, too. Every environment shaped him profoundly, but he always found the shaping painful. He was always, in some sense, and down to the core of his being, at the mercy of his surroundings. 
This is why Williams focusses his inquiry on something Merton wrote in “The Sign of Jonas,” one of the first books he worked on after entering Gethsemani: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead.” Williams says, “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows, because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire . . . seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent.” Williams believes that it is this distinctive absence that helps us to understand how Merton “could give almost equal veneration to Catholic and Buddhist traditions.”
And then Jacobs, still punchy, says this:
"He repeatedly affirmed a creed that can be stated in words, but was drawn to a discipline whose masters insist that Zen cannot be articulated. He was his contradictions: the person in motion who seeks stillness; the monk who wants to belong to the world; the famous person who wants to be unknown. ...
"He sought the peace of pure and silent contemplation, but came to believe that the value of that experience is to send us back into the world that killed us."
I think I would call it paradox, rather than contradiction. 

Jacobs is trying to put Merton into a box (or a bulleted list), and that's not going to work. I hope he reads some of Merton's poetry before writing about him again.

Here is the link to the New Yorker article. You need a subscription to the New Yorker, but the 1st 3 articles are free to read.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Inward Sea

"There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea there is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the "angel with the flaming sword." Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of your inner authority. Nothing passes "the angel with the flaming sword" to be placed upon your altar unless it be part of "the fluid area of your consent." This is your crucial link with the Eternal."
- Howard Thurman, Meditations

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


photo by Thomas Merton

“In humility is the greatest freedom. As long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart. As soon as you compare that shadow with the shadows of other people, you lose all joy, because you have begun to trade in unrealities and there is no joy in things that do not exist.”

~Thomas Merton

there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no "mystery"

Photo by Thomas Merton
Merton arrived in Kandy, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), on Dec. 2 and a car took him to Polonnaruwa, the site of an assemblage of large stone Buddhas carved out of a hillside, and “the most impressive things I have seen in Asia.”
Two days later, he wrote in his diary, “Polonnaruwa was such an experience that I could not write hastily of it and cannot write now, or not at all adequately.” During the visit, Merton’s spirit seemed to have opened to the point of bursting forth upon seeing the languid, relaxed forms of the Buddhas in peaceful repose.
“I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. I mean I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for.  I don’t know what else remains, but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.”
“Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious….The things about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.” All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.  I don’t know when in my life I have every had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.”
This illumination came a week before his death.

[See also pollonnaruwa ]


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