Tuesday, February 26, 2019

silent exclamations

Photo by Thomas Merton
"Words were so very important to Merton. One reads his books not only for his surprising and challenging insights but because he plays with the music of words as if he were playing jazz clarinet or saxophone. No one is more articulate than Merton but also no one was more aware than he of the limits of words. Like arrows, words point but they are not the target. As he once remarked to his novices, “He who follows words is destroyed.”
Merton explores this topic more deeply a letter the Venezuelan poet, Ludivico Silva:
The religion of our time,
to be authentic,
needs to be the kind that escapes practically all religious definition.
Because there had been endless definition,
endless verbalizing,
and words have become gods. 
There are so many words that one cannot get to God
as long as He is thought to be on the other side of the words.
But when he is placed firmly beyond the other side of the words,
the words multiply like flies
and there is a great buzzing religion,
very profitable,
very holy,
very spurious. 
One tries to escape it by acts of truth that fail.
One's whole being must be an act for which there can be found no word.
This is the primary meaning of faith.
On this basis, other dimensions of belief can be mad credible.
Otherwise not. 
My whole being must be a yes
and an amen
and an exclamation
that is not heard.
Only after that is there any point in exclamations
and even after that there is no point in exclamations.
One's acts must be part of the same silent exclamation.
It is because this is dimly and unconsciously realized by everyone,
and because no one can reconcile this with the state of
division and alienation in which we find ourselves,
that they all without meaning it
gravitate toward the big exclamation
that means nothing and says nothing:
The triumph of speech,
when all the words have worn out,
and when everybody still thinks
that there remain an infinite amount of truths
to be uttered. 
If only they could realize
that nothing has to be uttered. 
Utterance makes sense
only when it is spontaneous and free ....
[This] is where the silence of the woods comes in.
Not that there is something new
to be thought and discovered
in the woods,
but only that the trees
are all sufficient exclamations of silence,
and one works there,
cutting wood,
clearing ground,
cutting grass,
cooking soup,
drinking fruit juice,
making fire,
smelling smoke,
sweeping, etc. 
This is religion. 
The further one gets away from this,
the more one sinks in the mud
of words and gestures.
The flies gather.
- Jim Forest,  "Thomas Merton: One Foot in the Wilderness, One Foot in the World."

Monday, February 25, 2019

the virginal point of pure nothingness

Photo by Thomas Merton
"In 1965, a few months before Merton began living as a full-time hermit, he wrote a descriptive essay, “Day of a Stranger,” about what he had so far experienced in his several years of being a part-time hermit. In it he speaks in rapturous terms of what he has been learning day-by-day in the woods of Gethsemani:
One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. 
The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife.
Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence,
but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered
by all the lovers in their beds
all over the world. 
So perhaps I have an obligation
to preserve the stillness,
the silence,
the poverty,
the virginal point of pure nothingness
which is at the center of all other loves. 
I attempt to cultivate this plant
without contempt
in the middle of the night
and water it with psalms and prophecies
in silence.
It becomes the most rare
of all the trees in the garden,
at once the primordial paradise tree,
the cosmic axle,
and the Cross ... 
There is only one such tree.
It cannot be multiplied. 
- Thomas Merton, essay, "Day of the Stranger", 1965

- Jim Forest,  "Thomas Merton: One Foot in the Wilderness, One Foot in the World."

Sunday, February 24, 2019

the door to silence is everywhere

Photo by Thomas Merton, New Mexico 1968
"Silence is not silent. There is a torrent of sound even at midnight on the driest, most remote desert: breezes scraping the sand, the tireless conversation of insects, the tidal sound of one’s own breathing, the drumming of one’s heart, the roar of being. It’s an active silence, being attentive rather than speaking, praying rather than engaging in chatter. So long as we breathe, so long as our heart keeps beating, we will never hear absolute silence, but by avoiding distractions and listening to what remains, we discover that the door to silence is everywhere, even in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. To listen is always an act of being silent. Yet finding places of relative silence can help a pilgrim discover inner silence. As Merton’s friend, the poet Bob Lax, who in his later years made his hermit-like home on the quiet Greek island of Patmos, once put it in a letter:
The thing to do with nature … is to listen to it, and watch it, and look deep into its eyes in a sense, as though you were listening to and watching a friend, not just hearing the words or even just watching the gestures but trying to guess, or get a sense, or share the spirit underneath it, trying to listen (if this isn’t too fancy) to the silence under the sound and trying to get an idea (not starting with any preconceived formulation) of what kind of silence it is." 
- Robert Lax, Letter by Bob Lax to Jubilee magazine staff, quoted by Jim Harford in his book Merton and Friends; New York: Continuum, 2006, p 105-6
- Jim Forest, "Thomas Merton: One Foot in the Wilderness, One Foot in the World."

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Merton's 3rd level of Silence

Still deeper down, Merton was aware of a third level,

"Swimming in the rich darkness
which is no longer thick like water
but pure, like air.

and you do not know where it is coming from.

Moonlight is in this prayer,
waiting for the Redeemer ...

Everything is charged with intelligence,
though all is night.

There is no speculation here.
There is vigilance ...
Everything is spirit.

Here God is adored,
His coming is recognized,
He is received as soon as He is expected
and because He is expected He is receieved,
but He has passed by sooner than He arrived,
He was gone before He came.
He returned forever.
He never yet passed by
and already He had disappeared for all eternity.

He is and He is not.

Everything and Nothing.

Not light not dark,
not high not low,
not this side not that side.

Forever and forever.

In the wind of His passing the angels cry,
"The Holy One is gone."

Therefore I lie dead in the air of their wings ...

It is a strange awakening to find the sky inside you
and beneath you
and above you
and all around you
so that your spirit is one with the sky,
and all is positive night."


From an essay by Jim Forest, "Thomas Merton: One Foot in the Wilderness, One Foot in the World."

Merton's quoted words from Sign of Jonas, 338-39

Merton's 2nd level of Silence

Photo by Thomas Merton

February, 1952

Siting on a cedar log under a tree
gazing out at light blue hills in the distance,
Merton saw his true self
as a kind of 
solitary sea creature
dwelling in a water cavern
which knows of the world of dry land
only by faint rumor.

When he got free of plans and projects 
-- the first level of the sea with its troubled surface --
then he entered a deeper second level,
the deep waters out of reach of storms
where there was ...

"peace, peace, peace ...
We pray therein, slightly waving among the fish ...
Words, as I think, do not spring from this second level.
They are only meant to drown there."

"The question of socialization does not concern
these waters.
They are nobody's property."

"No questions whatever
perturb their holy botany.
Neutral territory.
No man's sea."

"I think God meant me to write about this second level."

From an essay by Jim Forest, "Thomas Merton: One Foot in the Wilderness, One Foot in the World."

Merton's quoted words from Sign of Jonas, 338-39

striving to rid ourselves of our fear

The present world crisis is not merely a political and economic conflict. It goes deeper than ideologies. It is a crisis of man’s spirit. It is a great religious and moral upheaval of the human race, and we do not really know half the causes of this upheaval. We cannot pretend to have a full understanding of what is going on in ourselves and in our society. That is why our desperate hunger for clear and definite solutions sometimes leads us into temptation. We oversimplify. We seek the cause of evil and find it here or there in a particular nation, class, race, ideology, system. And we discharge upon this scapegoat all the virulent force of our hatred, compounded with fear and anguish, striving to rid ourselves of our fear by destroying the object we have arbitrarily singled out as the embodiment of all evil. Far from curing us, this is only another paroxysm which aggravates our sickness. 
The moral evil in the world is due to man’s alienation from the deepest truth, from the springs of spiritual life within himself, to his alienation from God. Those who realize this, try desperately to persuade and enlighten their brothers. But we are in a radically different position from the first Christians, who revolutionized an essentially religious world of paganism with the message of a new religion that had never been heard of."

— Thomas Merton
From his essay “Christian Action in World Crisis”
Passion for Peace: The Social Essays of Thomas Merton; William Shannon, editor (New York: Crossroad, 1995), p 83.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

On the Road with Thomas Merton

 Photo by Thomas Merton - New Mexico 1968
This is really well done.

On the Road with Thomas Merton
Film by Jeremy Seifert
Essay by Fred Bahnson

I, too, have made my way to some of the places in California that Merton visited and to the Christ in the Desert monastery in New Mexico. I, too, was inspired by Merton's 1968 spring trip. I wanted to see what he saw when he ventured out of his Gethsemane monastery those months before he died.

There are many good Merton thoughts in this film and essay. Many good reflections. Many Merton photos I had not seen before. Even some Merton words that are new to me.
"Man instinctively regards himself as a wanderer and wayfarer, and it is second nature for him to go on pilgrimage in search of a privileged and holy place, a center and source of indefectible life. This hope is built into his psychology, and whether he acts it out or simply dreams it, his heart seeks to return to a mythical source, a place of “origin,” the “home” where the ancestors came from, the mountain where the ancient fathers were in direct communication with heaven, the place of the creation of the world, paradise itself, with its sacred tree of life."
- Thomas Merton, from the essay, "From Pilgrimage to Crusade"


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