The Urban Dharma Newsletter - June 26, 2008
In This Issue: Buddhism and Thomas Merton
1. At Thomas Merton's Hermitage / by Murray Bodo, OFM
2. Towards a Critical Appreciation of Thomas Merton
3. The Thomas Merton We Knew / Part 6 / by Edward Rice and James Knight
4. The Dalai Lama Visits Gethsemani / By Murray Bodo, O.F.M.
Just posted a short video on YouTube of Thomas Merton's Hermitage, you can find it at: http://youtube.com/user/Gethsemani3
I have come to have a new appreciation for Thomas Merton after staying at the Abbey of Gethsemani and seeing where Thomas Merton spent the last couple years of his life (the hermitage). I am surprised at how many Buddhists have never heard of him... So with this newsletter I hope to change that a bit, by turning some of you on to Thomas Merton and reminding the rest of you, what you may have forgotten.
Please check out the video and the music I picked for the video, if you get the chance... Enjoy the newsletter, I hope it will encourage you to discover Merton the Monk and Merton the Man.
1. At Thomas Merton's Hermitage / by Murray Bodo, OFM
Thomas Merton resigned his post as Master of Novices at the Monastery of Gethsemani in mid-August of 1965 and entered upon a more solitary life, living in a small, cinderblock hermitage in a wooded area overlooking the old abbey in Nelson County, Kentucky. Brother Patrick Hart, The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton
That I should be here in Mertons hermitage! Sunday, March 19, 1995, the Feast of St. Joseph. I am here, by exception and with special permission of Father Abbot, for a six-day private retreatI, who when I read The Seven Storey Mountain as a boy of thirteen in Gallup, New Mexico, thought Id entered a world like that of the Arabian Nights, so fantastical did that story seem, so remote was Gethsemani, Kentucky. And now forty-four years later I sit at Mertons table, the one designed by Victor Hammer. At my back is the fireplace before which, still and empty, waits the rocker Jacques Maritain sat in when he visited Merton here.
The dwelling is quite spare. The smell of burnt wood permeates the hermitage, and I wonder how long before my clothes reek of smoke. The sunlight frets the concrete floor as it passes through the partially opened Venetian blinds. Firewood is stacked next to the fireplace. In the corner are several walking sticks.
On the table rest a few books Ive 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.
How different from my three books on the same table, The Bostonians by Henry James, Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, and Rainer Maria Rilke: New Poems 1907.
I walk out on Mertons porch and am overwhelmed with stars, the whole sky alive with their lights as when a boy I would look up into the New Mexico sky in wonder.
Stars and daffodils and a dead bluebird. When I cleaned the ashes out of the wood stove earlier in the afternoon, there on the grate, not fallen through like the ashes, was a dead bluebird, its tiny feet aloft and rigid as if clinging upside down to a branch no longer there. I lifted the bird reverently from the cold grate and buried him on the path behind the hermitage. I placed two twigs in the sign of the cross on the earth beneath which his blue feathers would now begin to fade into the black Kentucky soil. Would I have noticed a dead bird as I rushed to class from our friary on Pleasant Street in inner-city Cincinnati?
Maybe this is the beginning of contemplation, the part about the bird, I mean. At least, it strikes me that finding the bird and burying it was the beginning of Franciscan contemplation, not because of St. Francis and the birdbath thing, but because of St. Franciss reverence for all things, his sacramental eyes that saw the Incarnation concretely in the sacredness of everything animate and inanimate. Be praised, My Lord, he sang, through all that You have made.
When I was out earlier, the sky full of stars, I looked for but did not find the moon. Now getting ready to retire, I look up and there is the moon, yellow, just beginning to wane, low on the horizon to the left of the hermitages front window. The silent moon. I go out on the porch for a better view. Silent the moon in rising, silent in its sentinel watching.
I retire to the bedroom, where a single bed is pushed up close against the wall, but return to the front room again, just to check on the moon. When was the last time I did anything like that? My hermitage retreat must be beginning.
I care now about the moon, when before I came here all my care was on what to bring. I remembered Thoreaus simplify, simplify, simplify. But just in case, I brought two loaves of bread, canned soups, fruit, laptop computer, underclothes, socks, sweat pants, extra jeans, extra shoes, umbrella, three coats (one for cold, one for cool, one for rain), flashlight, cellular phone (notice how I sneaked in computer and cellular phone the way adultery is sneaked into Confession between harmless peccadilloes), batteries, two tape recorders (one that plays only, one that records), books and books and books, juices and candy, two cameras (one in fact did jam and I had to use the other), binoculars, Sorel boots (in case of a surprise snow storm the first week of spring), pills and pills and Skin-So-Soft (in case of early mosquitoes), whiskey (Heaven Hill bourbon, Mertons favorite)in case of snake bite or for hot toddies should I catch a chill.
All of that and more, and now all I see is the moon, all I care about is the silence and the night full of stars.
I had thought the silence might frighten me. Instead its more than comfortable hereIm happy. Especially with the sun rising now where the moon surprised me last night. And no phone ringing. Ive unplugged the cellular phone, put it away.
Im lounging with a cup of coffee, having slept well. Im following the Italian dictum dolce far niente, sweetly doing nothing, as I prepare for morning Mass in Mertons chapel. Theres a small ceramic cross here, fashioned for Merton by Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan priest and poet, who was for a time in the late fifties Mertons novice at Gethsemani Abbey. There are three icons as well. None is the original icon given to Merton by Marco Pallis in 1965. That marvelous Greek, probably Macedonian, icon from around 1700 is now wisely preserved in the archives of the Abbey.
Merton describes the icon thus: The Holy Mother and Child and then on panels that open out, St. Nicholas and St. George, St. Demetrius and St. Chorlandroswhoever that is.
Merton wrote to Pallis that he never tired of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true Thaboric light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage.
Earlier I took a walk down the road to where I could see the abbey unobstructed by trees and brush. Photographed the back of the abbey church and monastery.
Back here in the hermitage, I take in the silence Mertons icon bequeathed to this cinder-block dwelling. I recall the distinctions of silence which John F. Teahan made in his Cistercian Studies paper about the place of silence in Mertons life. He divides silence into public, ascetical, and meditational:
The public or ritual use of silence facilitates solemnity, reverence, recollection, and sense of mystery.... [Ascetical silence], the attempt to rescue physical quiet from verbal overload, is normally considered a means to the more important goal of calming interior consciousness, an important prerequisite for many forms of mystical experience.... A final type of religious silence is associated with the practice of meditation.... The silence of meditation directs attention away from everyday turbulence, fosters inner calm, and thus makes the meditator more aware of innermost self.
The purpose of religious solitude is to be alone with God, to find myself in God, and in God to see and understand my communion with everything that is. In solitude and silence I come to know the interconnection of all things. In their aloneness in God, who is their source, all things are both unique and in union. To know the One in my own aloneness is to know the many. Even the word alone contains the word one and a suggestion of the word all.
I enter into solitude and silence in order to know that I am not alone. In aloneness I experience that all are one and one is somehow all.
Franciscan eremitism follows through on the implications of such a discovery of the many in the one. I enter into solitude to rediscover my connectedness with all that is; I leave the hermitage for the open road impelled by charity to make manifest in my life and relationship with others that we are all in God. That relationship ultimately comes down to seeing, listening, and responding in charity.
But service, doing, even seeing and listening, dulls; and I enter solitude again in order to renew my sight and hearing, to rediscover the One who is the source of my reason for listening to and serving the many.
In silence and solitude I re-learn that I am in others and they are in me, whether or not we are physically present to one another. My own uniqueness discovered in the One who made me and dwells in me, is my simultaneous discovery of everything that is in the same One who inhabits silence and solitudea silence and solitude I carry with me in the tabernacle of my deepest self. A silence and solitude I forget is there when I abandon retreating into that center and allow myself to be distracted by the proliferation of things and people, by noise and sound that obscure the way back into the center of myself where I realize how deeply connected I am to others. If I continue to immerse myself in other things and people, I paradoxically become alienated from them and myself. I lose myself in them and resent their demands on my time and attention. If I take the time to withdraw periodically into silence and solitude, I reconnect to myself and others from whom Ive grown alienated.
Silence, solitude, and communion are all complementary. In communion I know solitude; in solitude I know communion; in silence I know both solitude and communion. For Gods silence is Gods speaking beyond words and ideas. It is Gods communication to the heart silent and alone, listening beyond words for the truth of its oneness and communion.
All of which sounds terribly abstract. I better go out and look at the daffodils.
Im back from yesterdays daffodils. Seeing them and loving them made me realize that when I came here to Mertons hermitage, I was angry about a lot of things: like politics and politicians, the incessant chatter of newspeople whose talk is largely made up of half-truths and sometimes downright liesfor effect or ratings, or whatever else words become when they are detached from truth and reflection.
I was appalled at the sensationalism of talk shows and the O.J. Simpson trial. The invasion of privacy, the lack of taste and decorum and basic human decency depressed me. What was happening to the world? How could we permit the atrocities in Bosnia to go unnoticed, except in passing, and spend hours and hours and hours on the O.J. Simpson trial?
And now here in solitude, Im no longer angry or alienated from those others who dont think or act like me. I feel, rather, compassion and love and connectedness, communion with all of them. I see myself in those I criticize; they are in me and I in them. They, too, long for solitude and silence where they can find themselves again. They, like me, are really solitudes trying to connect with one another. We all feel disconnected when we fail or refuse to be alone long enough to know we are not alone.
All great religious leaders entered into solitude and there heard the word of God. When they returned again to community, they shared Gods word. Those who heard and became disciples of that word, if they, too, did not enter into solitude with the word they had heard from their teacher or prophet, often used the word theyd heard to make other words that divide and separate. These other words breed hatred and even war among other hearers of these new words that have nothing of solitude and silence in them and therefore do not derive from God but from the perversity of the human heart when it refuses to listen to the silence wherein God speaks to it.
So in a very real way we enter into silence in order to keep from killing each other. We find in solitude the reason why we need to love one another or lose our very selves.
Already last night I wished Id brought a small TV to relax with late at night. But I hadnt brought one, and so I was forced to look elsewhere. Thats when I began to really see the hermitage, the woods, the tone of the evening. A thunderstorm was gathering and I went out onto the porch to watch the black clouds gather. Lightning began to crack around the hermitage and I withdrew to the safety of the living room where I already had a fire roaring in the wood stove. I wanted to stand by the large window next to the stove, but the trees were beginning to bend in the strong wind, and I was afraid here on this knoll one of the trees would be hit by lightning, especially the tall beech next to the window.
I retreated to the kitchen and then into the chapel where I could watch the incredible electrical display moving east where Id seen the moon the night before and the sun rising that same morning. The thunder and lightning lasted only about twenty minutes, abut the length of a half-hour sitcom minus the commercials.
I walked back to the kitchen, and light was breaking in the west even as the last flashes of lightning strobed the interior of the hermitage. Light following light. As the storm had approached, there were patches of light in the sky over the hermitage and the western horizon was black and thunderous. Now the east was black as light broke in the west, the suns last rays illumining a sliver of horizon where the black clouds were lifting, moving east with the rest of the storm.
The whole thing was better than most half-hour TV shows and I felt much more involved with the consequences of what might happen before it was over.
Then, just as I thought it was all over, the grounds in front of the hermitage lit up like a visitation of angels, and the town of New Hope, far in the distance beyond, shone like a painting of Bethlehems first Christmas with its flood of light from the Magis guiding star.
I usually dont carry on like this about TV shows, nor do I write about what Ive watched on the screen. But here in the hermitage I was seeing something actually happening, not seeing what the cameras eye is seeing whether or not its live or recorded, fact or fiction. I was directing my own eyes east and west, before and after, not watching what someone else has decided I should see.
How often Ive been shocked or felt pity for victims of the cameras merciless, invasive eye. Compassion, mercy, or simply decency would have moved me to look aside, allow the person or scene its private sorrow or shame or pain. How cruel is the cameras eye, or more accurately, those who direct and aim and focus that indifferent lens.
This knowledge, too, I will take home with me. I probably knew as much before, but this retreat has made the knowledge more real somehow. Ive seen, reflected, written, and been led into prayer that centers on the incarnate, not the televised, eventa storm over the hermitage, light flaring over the town of New Hope.
When darkness falls at the hermitage, I am at first apprehensive, even fearful. Night. Within and without we feel more vulnerable, especially in a strange place, removed from the security of friends and loved ones. We notice every small sound until we can identify it and dismiss it. We wonder what ghosts might inhabit such places deep in the woods where there are no street lights, no passing cars, no sirens and horns. Or are the ghosts only our own fears?
I take up a book to distract me, I do chores like stoke the stove, wash dishes, order the table where I will write in the morning. I pray Divine Office in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. My fears dissipate.
Routine, familiar and not so familiar, begins to fill the night hours. I pen some notes, pray, take up the novel I brought with me, Henry Jamess The Bostonians. I put it down, wish Id brought something lighter, surrender to silence, solitude, oncoming drowsiness.
It is already the fourth day in the hermitage when I begin to understand the importance of domestic chores. I wake and put on the coffee water, open the blinds, and welcome the morning. Shaking down the ashes from the grate into the ash pan at the bottom of the stove, and carrying in wood and sweeping the floor afterwards and lighting the newspapers under the kindling wood, all of these mundane, small activities become the vehicles of grace for me. 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. In a letter to the poet Clayton Eshleman, Merton writes of the simplicity of his own rhythm at the hermitage: I get some writing done, read a fair amount, chop wood, think a lot.
Instead of being wrenched and tortured by the demands of others, the greed and competition, the frenetic pace of the modern world, if I can bring myself to retreat from time to time, if for no other reason than to listen to my own heart and body, then this other, simpler, often more domestic rhythm begins to modulate the hearts nervous pounding. Simple, deliberate acts humanize what has become, little by little, a robot-like existence. Tis a gift to be simple, as the old Shaker hymn has it.
The hope, of course, is that I take this new rhythm with me when I return to other responsibilities, that what I have experienced within, I can return to as to a memory of where I need to be, how I need to be if I am to be fully human with myself, fully loving toward others.
I know from past experience that what I learn here in the hermitage wont last long in the onslaught of the real world. But I know also that the experience will beckon me to return, to enter into retreat again and again until it does in fact become portable like an inner habit I carry with me though it may lie dormant in the face of other demands.
Its about discovering anew my true self which I find paradoxically when I forget myself in simple tasks: in an ordering routine, silence, solitude, and above all, in God. For every quiet, ordering task, every murmured prayer, every contemplation of tree or flower or weather is a losing of myself in the other in preparation for losing myself in the Other, God. God, who comes not when I am straining, twisting the Divine arm to reveal his presence, but who comes when I least expect, when Im sweeping the hermitage floor, lighting the fire, drinking a cup of coffee. God is gift. God comes when I am quiet, when I surrender to the rhythm of my own heart, when I take time to refind the time that is not clock time, chronological time, but inner time, fullness of time, the time of mystery.
I look at my watch and see the second hand move. I look at the morning sun and dont see it move though I know it will continue to be in different places in the sky as the earth moves; and time becomes something other than linear movement.
Time is something I dont see but rest in as in Gods presence, something which affects the tone and color of everything. Time reveals itself as God does in brief epiphanies that come as intuitions, glimpses of something I cant quite see but know is there affecting everything I do, everything I am.
Today is the first day of spring. The view from the hermitage is of a clear, crisp morning after a night of lightning and thunder and wind clearing the sky for this grace of morning. Gratitude rises in me like the sun. I am suddenly immensely grateful for the silence and for simple things like naps and leisure and long walks in the woods, and food I havent given sufficient thanks for before.
Here at the hermitage, for example, I look forward to the simple meals. Lots of fruit and homemade bread, and strong, stinky, marvelous Trappist cheese that Brother Patrick gave me when I arrived. Someone baked me a loaf of pumpkin bread, too, which I brought along for a breakfast substitute for oatmeal a couple of mornings. And coffee for mornings, Earl Grey tea for late afternoons. And some M&Ms I said I wouldnt bring but did and have enjoyed inordinately.
I feel thankful, too, for a new awareness of time, pregnant time that gives birth to ones own private revelation, ones own insight, only in the fullness of time, when gestation has come full term within and God is born from the soul. This gratitude and this new awareness of time is common to all traditions, to all who enter solitude in order to pray and listen to silence.
Each day of the hermitage experience I ventured farther into the woods surrounding the hermitage, each night I stayed out longer looking at the stars. At first I holed up in the hermitage as in a safe refuge from whatever was out there; I pretty much kept to the main fireplace and wood-stove living room where there was light and warmth and a door I could secure. Like someone put down in the wilderness I needed a hut, a cabin, an anchoring place.
The same is true of the human soul. It stays indoors at first, only tentatively exploring the other, the unknown, the seemingly unsafe. It fears the dark. What I feel my body doing, exploring, is what my soul is doing as well.
On the fifth afternoon I leave the hermitage to travel to a small grocery mart in Culvertown, a couple of miles down the road. My emotions surprise me. It feels almost like a sin to leave, and I cant wait to return. This gift is so precious, so rare, I dont want to waste a minute of itthen I realize I am back in linear time again and surrender to what needs to be done and return to the hermitage after picking up a head of lettuce and a half pint of milkand all is well again.
I guess Im growing accustomed to this place. I wonder why, though? Is this just a romantic junket like a Caribbean cruise, something different, a fling in the woods pretending to be Thoreau or Merton or anyone else whos entered solitude without a car waiting to whisk them away as soon as possible after the quick fix of solitude? Well, Ive done the hermitage thing; now what?
I dont think its that at all. Its certainly not a cruise; no luxuries here, no fellow travelers. Why, then, am I here?
The only answer I can give is that somehow we gravitate to solitude and silence as to the ground of our being; but something has to happen inside for us to act upon that simple truth. What that is is as varied as are the human beings who find their way to a place of hermitage. It has something to do with wanting to find God or ourselves, which is the same thing. For only in God do we know who we are and only in our deepest selves do we find God. Our selves in solitude and prayer, or our selves loving selflessly another or others, or our selves responding to a sacred ritual.
In religious hermitage there are all of these: God, self, solitude, prayer, charity, and ritual. But the key to all of them is prayer. For it is in prayer that God finds us and we find ourselves, find love, have the need to ritualize our experience.
Nor is Gods finding us always an experience of sweetness and light. It may be like the divine wrestling Jacob experienced in the Book of Genesis:
"And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacobs thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name should be called no more, Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it thou ask me after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."
Prayer is often a struggle, a wrestling with ourselves to quiet down, to focus, to listen. A wrestling with faith to believe were not just talking to ourselves but are in fact in dialogue with a God we cannot hear. A wrestling with the God we do hear deep inside those insights and convictions that invite us to change, to begin moving out of our self-preoccupation into charity and other-centeredness motivated by Gods love for us. A wrestling at last with a God who may not be who we thought God was, who may even wound us that we might know who it is we are wrestling with.
But no matter how prolonged the wrestling, in the end we know from the peace in our hearts that it is God weve been struggling with; it is God who finally has our attention.
This sort of dynamic happens in practically all prolonged prayer, and even, at times, in short prayer. We settle down, try to move to that quiet place within, try to become conscious of our breathing, its rhythm, its calming effect. We begin to feel we are being breathed by the Other we have come to listen to, to surrender to. And then, in spite of our focus, all our concerns and worries rush in. How are we going to pay the mortgage, whos going to pick up the kids from the pool, what am I going to cook for supper, did I remember to pay the light bill, was I supposed to call Aunt Clara, will I pass algebra, will I get a job, why doesnt he/she love me the way I love her/him, do I have an ulcer, will God cure Uncle Frank? Etc., etc.
We wrestle with these and myriad other concerns, trying to put them out of our minds, trying to focus on the one thing necessary; and mostly we fail at it until the very end of the time weve set aside for prayer. If its an hour, usually the last ten minutes or so we begin to settle down; and peace comes. Comes we dont know how, but we suspect its from God, and the wound that the headache, worry and struggle have caused us is worth it; and we remember the place where we were wounded. We want to return there tomorrow for the five or ten minutes of mysterious peace. And we do because we got through the day better after the wrestling and its attendant peace.
Sometimes, as in Jacobs other experience of God, we want to ritualize our experience in some tangible way.
"And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And Jacob awakened out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it.... And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be Gods house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee."
Like Jacob we are moved to set up a pillar, a stone, or hollow out a place in the earth, a womb, a kiva; or we are moved to turn toward Mecca, to pray at Jerusalems Wailing Wall, to go to a mosque or synagogue or church or meeting house, to go on pilgrimage to our own holy place, that place where God dropped a ladder down to us. Or we want to prolong the experience or allow time to let the experience of God in prayer take root, become a pillar of strength within us.
And so we enter into our inner hermitage where prayer becomes an intensification and celebration of these daily wrestlings with God, an act of profound thanksgiving and commemoration of the wound and the ladder we carry with us daily.
It is interesting that in the story of Jacobs ladder, which comes before the wrestling with God, God reveals, I am the Lord God, but in the wrestling, God asks, Wherefore is it thou ask me after my name? God knows that Jacob knows, as we do, with whom we are wrestling, even if we have no image or name for Him.
As quoted in A Thomas Merton Reader, the Tao Teh Ching says:
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.
Its name is Formless.
Listen to it, but you cannot hear it!
Its name is Soundless.
Grasp at it, but you cannot get it!
Its name is Incorporeal.
This, too, is what we find in prayer. For most of us, there is no tangible person to wrestle with; there is no voice of God; there is only Formless, Soundless, Incorporeal. But we know that that, too, is God. God comes to us as God will, and we know when we have been in the presence of the Divine. We know it in the peace that follows upon the experience, even if the experience itself is a wrestling; we know it in the impulse to love more selflessly, to reach out to the poor, the despised, the rejected; we know it in that Formless, Soundless, Incorporeal Other we bear with us that transforms us little by little from superficial, outer-dominated persons to persons who act from the inside out rather than feeling always acted upon, pushed and shoved and forced to go where we dont really want to go, to be who we know we arent.
Leaving. When it comes time to leave this solitude, I begin to have the same feelings I had leaving home. I am anxious, a bit sad, wondering how it will be to face everything again. Will I be better able to handle things? Will I continue to feel as whole as I do now, as close to God? Will I be able to take something of this experience with me and hold it for awhile?
And the birds, the daffodils, the wood stove, the other solitudes I have met here, what of them? Wont I need to return again to this place, this feeling, this quiet that Ive found? Somehow I know Ill take it with me but then eventually it will seem all used up, and Ill need to return to refund the place in the heart that this experience has opened up. Hermitage, like prayer, is for doing again and again. For what you find there and bring from it, you seldom find elsewhere. It neednt be the same physical locale, but the same kind of experience whose geography you recognize each time you find it again.
And what about the return Im so worried about? Wont it be like the hermitage itself, something Ill get used to? And wont I grieve, or at least miss, my time in solitude?
Thomas Merton spent his whole monastic life fretting in one way or another whether he should leave the cenobitic, communal, Trappist life for a more heremetical, solitary life. And even toward the end of his life, when he finally had his hermitage in the woods, he would return to the monastery to reconnect with his brothers. Mertons secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, remembers how at the beginning of his hermitage life,
"Each Sunday afternoon...he could be seen hiking through the woods and jumping over the creek in blue jeans with an empty water jug hung from his shoulder. He was returning to continue his conferences, or informal talks, to the novices and young monks. Later he opened them up to the entire community, where the attendance grew as he began to explore more literary themes, such as the poetry of Rilke....
In January of 1967, Father Merton commenced his lectures on The Classical Values in William Faulkner, which continued for several months."
And yet, Merton was always happy to return to his hermitage. He said if he really knew how, he would set these words to a beautiful music: I can imagine no greater cause for gratitude on my fiftieth birthday than that I wake up in a hermitage.
The short distance between Mertons hermitage and the Abbey of Gethsemani, which he could see from the front porch, and the tension between the two, is the distance and tension we experience entering and leaving a hermitage. We want to stay, but we need community, companionship, human love; we want community but we need some solitude, silence. That tension brings us to the hermitage and allows us to leave. Like a pilgrimage to a holy shrine, there is always the return and the subsequent longing to go on pilgrimage again.
Even Merton, who had in the end found the solitary hermitage he wanted all his life, left it to go on pilgrimage to the East, where he learned what he must have known all along:
"The rimpoches all advise against absolute solitude and stress compassion. They seem to agree that being in solitude much of the year and coming out for awhile would be a good solution."
For most of us it is the other way around, and each experience of prayerful solitude makes it more so: being with others most of the year, but needing to enter solitude for awhile, as well. That rhythm, that silent music of the soul.
2. Towards a Critical Appreciation of Thomas Merton
A little more than a year ago, Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead voice their disappointment with the inclusion of Thomas Merton in the draft of the NCCB's new National Adult Catechism in an article for Catholic World News (The New National Adult Catechism Revisited CWNews, Nov. 2003). Their article contained a blatantly slanderous and damning portrayal of Thomas Merton as an unfaithful Catholic:
. . . we now turn immediately to the very first "story" in Part 1, Chapter 1, of the draft NAC, and we find that, incredibly, the supposed "exemplary Catholic" featured in this first story is none other than that lapsed monk, Thomas Merton, a one-time professed Catholic religious, who later left his monastery, and, at the end of his life, was actually off wandering in the East, seeking the consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality. Now it is true that Thomas Merton was a gifted writer, which in part explains why he continues to have votaries today; he wrote beautiful words about the needs of the human heart in its search for truth and grace. Some of these words are quoted here, and apparently were the pretext for featuring Merton in this chapter. The chapter is actually richer than that, though, and features at the end some wonderful quotations from St. Augustine.
But Thomas Merton was no St. Augustine. The latter, though he had sinned greatly, nevertheless devoted the rest of his life to the strict practice and promotion of the Christian faith. He was all the more effective in that he understood what the lack of faith entailed. Thomas Merton, on the other hand, converted when he was fairly young and only later, after he had incurred the solemn responsibilities that accompany religious vows, did he apparently give in to "itching ears" and went off "searching" in the manner of those modern seekers who will not be tied down by concrete demands of genuine religious faith -- especially the moral demands.
This chapter actually speaks about "those who have drifted away from the faith," yet does not see the irony inherent in the fact that Thomas Merton was himself apparently one of these. We do not take notice of this in order to judge him, but only in order to indicate that he can scarcely be considered an "exemplary Catholic." The very fact that the editors of the this text could have included him as such in their very first chapter immediately casts doubt on their understanding of Catholic teaching and practice and the needs of contemporary Catholics, especially in the wake of the scandals of other priests unfaithful to their vows. The choice of Merton here surely resembles the recent choice of the pro-abortion Leon Panetta as a member of the bishops' National Review Board on clerical sex abuse -- one of those mistakes that ought not to have been made. And this will undoubtedly be the reaction of many Catholics if this particular story is retained in the final NAC draft; it will likely be taken as one more piece of evidence that the American bishops still don't "get it."
Blogger and fellow member of St. Blog's Parish Bill Cork has recently defended Merton against the slander that he had "left the Church", pointing out that:
Merton was not a "lapsed monk," nor a "one-time professed Catholic religious," nor did he ever leave his monastery. He remained a faithful Catholic and a faithful member of the Trappists until he died; he is buried at Gethsemane as "Fr. Louis." He was not "actually off wandering in the East," but went to Thailand for a conference of Christian and Eastern monks, and had other dialogues with leaders of Eastern religions along the way; he died at the Thailand conference when he accidentally pulled an electric fan onto himself. This is simple history known to anyone who knows anything about Merton.
Unfortunately, Wrenn & Whitehead's critical article is now suspected as having contributed to the decision of the U.S. Bishops to replace the profile of Merton with American Catholic Elizabeth Ann Seton (the rationale being: "to provide more gender balance, because most of the other profiles [included in the catechism] are of men"). Merton's rejection has sparked protest of hundreds of Catholics, as reported by the Louisville Courier ("Hundreds want Merton back in Catholic guide" January 1, 2005) and monitered by Dan Phillips, who runs a popular website on all things Merton).
The International Merton Society has released open letter to Bishop Donald Wuerl, chair of the committee charged with writing the catechism, and USCCB president Bishop William Skylstad, questioning Donald Wuerl's claim that "we don't know all the details of the searching at the end of his life":
As for the "secondary" consideration ". . . we are aware of no reputable Merton scholars or even of careful readers of Merton who think that his interest in Eastern religions toward the end of his life, which led to his Asian journey and his untimely death, in any way compromised his commitment to the Catholic Christianity that he had embraced thirty years before. On the contrary, a reading of the major biographies by James Forest, Michael Mott and William Shannon, of The Other Side of the Mountain, the final volume of his journals, of his retreat conferences in Thomas Merton in Alaska, given immediately before leaving for Asia, and of his final talk on the day of his death, published in The Asian Journal, confirm that it was because of the deep grounding in his own Catholic, Cistercian, contemplative tradition that he was able to enter into meaningful dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions like the Dalai Lama, who has repeatedly said that it was his encounter with Merton that first allowed him to recognize the beauty and authentic spiritual depths of Christianity.
As Merton himself said in a classic passage in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (published two years before his death):
"I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot 'affirm' and 'accept,' but first one must say 'yes' where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it."
If that wasn't enough to persuade Wrenn & Whitehead, let's hear a refutation from Jim Forest himself, from a lecture given at Boston College (Nov. 13, 1995):
Because Merton was drawn to develop relationships with non-Christians -- Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists -- casual readers occasionally form the impression that Merton's bond with Christianity was wearing thin during the latter years of his life and that he was window-shopping for something else. It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton's life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton's hermitage -- he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious. The Dalai Lama has remarked, "When I think of the word Christian, immediately I think -- Thomas Merton!"
Merton - Conventional Catholic and Otherwise
Whatever position one takes in the present debate, it must be recognized that Merton was anything but a conventional Trappist monk.
On one hand, Merton very much catered to such a portrayal as a "traditional" Catholic -- he wrote a spiritual biography heralded as one of the most influential religious works of the twentieth century (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948); he produced lengthy meditations on traditional Catholic subjects like the Eucharist (The Living Bread, 1956), the Carmelite spirituality of St. John of the Cross (The Ascent to Truth, 1951) and the monastic calling (The Silent Life, 1957).
On the other hand, the latter period of Merton's relatively brief life did everything to call his portrayal as a "traditional Catholic" into question: he ventered into political activism in the 1960's (protesting the Vietnam war, racial segregation and the nuclear arms race); displayed a genuine interest in other religions and engaged in dialogue with their practicioners (including D.T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lhama) in a spirit that anticipated Vatican II's Nostra Aetate, and journeyed to Japan and India to attend conferences on Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
There is no denying that the later Merton had changed to some degree in his thought and attitude toward the Catholic Church. In fact, according to Merton's friend Edward Rice, he went on to say
I have become very different than what I used to be. The man who began this journal [The Sign of Jonas] is dead, just as the man who finished The Seven Storey Mountain when this journal began is also dead, and what is more, the man who was the central figure in The Seven Story Mountain was dead over and over . . . The Seven Story Mountain is the work of a man I had never even heard of." [The Man in a Sycamore Tree, p 101].
The remark can be interpreted on a number of levels. Rice interprets it as a sign of Merton's disappointment with Trappist life, that it did not bring the peace and contentment he had envisioned when initially becoming a monk. But perhaps Merton's statement can be read as well as a sign of his personal exasperation with Seven Storey Mountain, which propelled him into the public eye and branded him as a kind of "poster boy for American Catholicism" sought after by thousands of adoring readers -- not an easy situation for a Trappist monk attempting to live a life of solitude, seeking to relenquish his ego in the quest for God.
However much we may appreciate Seven Storey Mountain, one can also recognize an underlying current of pious revulsion at the secular world, a distinct attitude which laid the groundwork for further change -- as can be seen by Merton's account of his spiritual epiphany en route to the city of Louisville in The Sign of Jonas:The Sign of Jonas:
I wondered how I would react at meeting once again, face to face, the wicked world. I met the world and found it no longer so wicked after all. Perhaps the things I resented about the world when I left it were defects of my own that I had projected upon it. Now, on the contrary, I found that everything stirred me with a deep and mute sense of compassion . . . I seemed to have lost an eye for merely exterior detail and to have discovered, instead, a deep sense of respect and love and pity for the souls that such details never fully reveal. I went through the city, realizing for the first time in my life how good are all the people in the world and how much value they have in the sight of God."
The Universal Appeal of Thomas Merton
Jim Knight and Edward Rice, two of Merton's close friends, published an online recollections of their memories of Merton -- The Real Merton -- resisting the characterization of their friend as a triumphant Catholic ("a portrait that was unrecognizable, that of a plastic saint, a monk interested mainly in pulling nonbelievers, and believers in other faiths, into the one true religion"). According to Knight and Rice:
The Merton we knew, who is still in the lives of both of us, was a different man, and monk, from the saintly person of pre-fabricated purity that has become his image these days. He was a real person, not a saint; he was a mystic searching for God, but a God that crossed the boundaries of all religions; his was not a purely Christian soul. He developed closer spiritual ties than Church authorities will ever admit to the Eastern religions, Hinduism as well as Buddhism. In fact just before his appalling accidental death in December 1968, he was saying openly that Christianity could be greatly improved by a strong dose of Buddhism and Hinduism into its faith. These are things the record needs.
For us Merton was one of the seminal figures of our time. He was deeply curious about all religions, all areas of thought and philosophy. Rice says: "The Church has not done right by him. In fact, the Church has wronged him, and continues to wrong him, by glossing over, by evading the universality of his thought. The Church wants to obscure his basic human nature, his reaching out to other people in a desire to create a common bond, not necessarily based on religion."
Edward Rice, who sponsored Merton's conversion, goes on to challenge what he calls the "Thomas Merton Cult":
"['The Thomas Merton cult'] presents Merton as a plastic saint," Rice says, "a contemporary Little Flower, a sweet, sinless individual who has a direct line to God. But the God some people see Merton communicating with is not the God that I think Merton would have been praying to. I am not comfortable with the plastic saint image of Merton; he was no such thing. I see Merton as an individual in the grand scheme, and it makes no difference whether he is approached as a Roman Catholic monk or a Buddhist lama. He was Merton, and he has his influence as Merton."
Granted, Rice's vision of salvation may be deemed more universalistic and non-traditional than most Catholics ("in Paradise with Merton, Rice says, are Lao Tse, Isaac the Blind, Ibn el Arab[i], Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Charles de Foucau[l]d, . . . "an endless number, hundreds, thousands of saints of all faiths, some with no faith at all"), and I am not altogether certain where such a "Thomas Merton Cult" is to be found (the appreciations I've read of Merton readily acknowledge his defects in character), but I believe he is nevertheless correct in challenging those who seek to claim Merton entirely as Catholic, who could only be appreciated in the context of Catholicism and denying his universal appeal by other religious, or even non-religious folk.
Merton's Interest in Other Religions - Two Closing Observations
It would be mistaken to assume that Merton's interest in other religions was a post-conversion manifestation of his disappointment with Catholicism, as alleged by Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead. I question this because Merton displayed an interest in the other religions (especially those of the East) from the time he was a college student at Columbia University.
For one thing, the young Merton was impressed by the spiritual conversion of Alduous Huxley (from materialism to mysticism recognizing "a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds . . . [as can be found] among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions"), and who was fascinated by Huxley's investigation of mysticism in the world's religions The Perennial Philosophy.
Likewise, it was at Columbia University, that Merton met a Hindu spiritual pilgrim -- Bramachari -- who first encouraged him to read St. Augustine's Confessions and The Imitation of Christ, and thus played a part in his journey to Catholicism. Both Merton's encounters with Huxley and Bramachari are described in The Seven Storey Mountain). According to Alexander Lipski (Thomas Merton and Asia: His Quest for Utopia), around the same time he met Bramachari Merton also was reading the Hindu scholar Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (initially in connection with his M.A. thesis on William Blake).
Again, to borrow from Bill Cork, much of this is common knowledge to anybody who has studied Merton or has read Merton's biography. I suppose the real question here is not when did Merton begin to study Eastern religions, but rather to what degree did Merton's Catholicism inform and influence his post-Christian exploration of Eastern religions? -- Write and Wrenn have their own conclusions, but so do Robert Forest, Jim Knight, Edward Rice and a number of Merton scholars worldwide.
That said, Merton's later writings on other religions -- particularly those on Buddhism -- should nevertheless be read with great care and critical judgement by the laity. Raymond Bailey (curiously, a Southern Baptist minister who became Director of the Thomas Merton Studies Center at Bellannine College in the early 80s) goes into detail as to why this caution is necessary in his study Thomas Merton on Mysticism (Doubleday Image, 1975). It's a little long, but worth repeating in full:
Merton's writings on Eastern mysticism are tempered by repeated allusions to traditional Christian symbols. His diaries written in the last months he spent at the hermitage record his preferences for the Fathers for reading in the cottage and for the works of the Zen masters in the fields. However, his published works are not always instructive as to how the Zen experience can contribute to the Christian experience or how the study of Eastern religions or the practice of oriental techniques engender or complement the Christian experience. Some of his published works might well be interpeted as syncretistic and might leave the reader with the im pression that it does not matter what religious expression one's spirituality takes as long as it has broken through the facade of the illusionary self.
Published discourses excerpted from continuing dialogue between or among two spiritual masters do not always mean the same thing to the general reader as to the dialogue participants. Few Westerners are endowed with the ability to think "oriental" or to translate their Western experience into Eastern modes. Some are deluded by teachers who interpet oriental an occidental religious concepts as univocal when in fact the differences are profound [emphasis mine]. The casual reader might overlook the fact that Merton spent half his life disciplining himself and reaching a level where he could think and write in terms of the "universal" man and transculturation. Even then, he considered himself a beginnner who had much to learn.
The ease with which he accepted the potential worth of Eastern spirituality at this stage was undoubtedly due to his "Augustinian bent." Augustine refused to differentiate "truth," contending that all truth is of God, and th erefore, revelatory. An accurate impression of Merton or understanding of his thought cannnot be gained from any single work bearing his name. He is open to abuse and distortion by one using his writings as prooftexts for a position on almost any theological question. Because of the revelatory nature of his work, i.e, the record of personal dialectic, there is a certain danger in isolating any one work or phase of his work as definitive of him or his philosophy.
Should Merton be recognized in the new American Catechism?
When it comes to Merton, I find myself agreeing with Robert Royal, on why -- despite his apparent flaws -- we may regard Merton as worthy of praise:
Merton's true greatness lies in having engaged in person the whole range of challenges and trials of life in the late twentieth century and yet remaining essentially faithful to his Catholic inspiration. Many of those issues we still confront: poverty and war, the relationship of Eastern and Western thought, and especially how a deep religious life may be lived in contemporary conditions. As we near the end of the century, religion-even contemplative practices-have had a tremendous resurgence. Many of the paths religious people took during the 1960s are coming more and more to look like a dead end. But the attempt to bring a deeper spirituality to the public realm-to say nothing of recovering authentic spirituality-remains a burning necessity.
Merton is beyond doubt one of the great spiritual masters of our century. His personal turmoil and the misjudgments in his social thought notwithstanding, he is a forceful reminder that what may appear the most rarefied of contemplative speculations have powerful and concrete implications for the world. God dealt Thomas Merton a difficult hand. His greatness as a man lies not only in that he was able, more or less, to keep several different persons together in difficult times under the banner of "Thomas Merton," but that he provides an enduring witness to all of us much less gifted seekers who have to shore up our own fragmentary lives in quest for the "hidden wholeness." Requiscat in pace.
Does Merton deserve placement in the USCCB's Catechism for adult American Catholics? -- I'm inclined to think that Robert Royal might say yes for the reasons stated above, even with due respect to the concerns raised by Merton's interest in Eastern religions. I would answer in the affirmative as well, although I admit here to being a little biased in the matter, since it was through reading Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day that I discovered and was led to the Catholic faith in the first place.
I would also question (if the Louisville Courier-Journal is correct) Bishop Wuerl's justification that young people "had no idea" who Merton was -- as if he were an eclectic relic of the early 20th century better swept underneath the rug, whose life and thought simply had no relevance for Catholics of today. Judging by the staying power of Merton in bookstores and conferences on Merton attended by those interested in "the silent life" of contemplation, perhaps Bishop Wuerl underestimates the prevalence Merton has in the hearts of the laity, and his influence (even today) in leading souls to the Catholic faith.
Related Readings (Online and In Print):
* The Real Merton, recollections by Edward Rice and James Knight, two close and lifelong friends of Thomas Merton.
* The Seven Storey Mountain remains a classic story of one man's journey to the Catholic Faith, and while you're at it, check out Mark Gauvreau Judge's appraisal of recent editions which parodixically use the novel as a means to bash the "pre-Vatican II" Catholicism: Strangers in the House: When Catholics in the Media Turned Against the Church", Crisis Nov. 4, 2003.
* The Thomas Merton Foundation draws attention to Merton's writings and contemplative practices.
* The Fons Vitate Publishing House as several books on Merton's dialogue with other traditions. I've read the first in the series, Merton & Sufism: The Untold Story (on Merton's little-publicized friendship and correspondence w/ various Muslims as well as his study of the Catholic mystic and Islamic scholar Louis Massignon); two more follow: Merton and Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart (Eastern Christianity) and Merton & Judaism: Recognition, Repentence, and Renewal.
* Thomas Merton's Dialogue with Buddhism, as seen by Alan Altany, professor of religious studies at Marshall University in Huntington.
* The Several-Storied Thomas Merton by Robert Royal. First Things 70 (February 1997): 34-3. A good, honest appraisal of the multi-faceted Thomas Merton from a conservative perspective.
* Thomas Merton and Asia: His Quest for Utopia, by Alexander Lipski (Cistercian Publications, 1984). A critical study of Merton's Asian interest in general, and examination of "the extent to which Merton's idealistic presuppositions colored his image of Asia and his interpretation of Asian religions."
* The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, by Michael Mott. The official biography sanctioned by the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust, written with access to Merton's private journals which were not made public until 25 years after his death.
* Thomas Merton on Mysticism, by Raymond Bailey. Originally published in 1974, it is an exhaustively researched study of Merton's writings on the topic. Definitely worth reading.
3. The Thomas Merton We Knew / Part 6 / by Edward Rice and James Knight
Rice says: "Merton saw other religions and other denominations as travellers on the same road. He was a student for years of Judaism and non-Christian religions. He went deeply into Hinduism and Buddhism. The monastery (Gethsemani) did not appreciate that he wrote so much about non-Christian religions. Christians, then and today, see non-Christians as potential targets for conversion, souls to be captured and turned into good Christians. Merton didn't see it like that. His writings on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and later, Islam, are significant because of his belief that all of them are searching, as he was, for the ultimate truth."
The Merton I knew never lost his sense of fun. Even as a monk he kept a sense of irreverence, especially where social behavior was concerned. He felt a little embarrassed, as an example, over the elaborate Merton Library set up for him in Kentucky. He visited the Merton Room, where he had helped put together the materials representing his life, on the day before he left on what was to be his fatal trip to Asia. "A good place to cut a fart and run," he said to a friend.
I'll never forget the expression we usually found on Merton's face. The eyes were bright, and often on the verge of registering a smile, or a laugh. Merton loved to laugh more than anybody I've known. There was always a hint of mischief in his expression. In one of many letters to Henry Miller, he sent along a picture of himself; Miller responded: "What's amazing to me is that it seems to combine my mug and (Jean) Genet's (the French writer who had been a convicted thief and lowlife). You, too, have the look of an ex-convict, of one who had been through the fires."
Rice remembers, too. "Oh, yes, he had a wonderfully expressive face. Ex-convict, no, but Miller was right, he had been through the fires. For me, though, he looked more like the Hindu holy man of our youth, Bramachari, who came and lived with us a while on the Columbia campus. And nearer to the time of his death, he began to look more and more like a Buddhist holy man."
Bramachari in his white Indian robes was the friend of Freedgood, Lax and Merton; they hid him in the Columbia dormitories, brought him food, talked with him of mystical Indian cults. Rice, during one of his frequent trips to India, after a long search in Calcutta finally found an older, stockier Bramachari there in the 60s; he was still the Indian holy man, and carried fond memories of his Columbia days. Rice has a picture of him that bears hardly any resemblance to the younger man.
"I last saw Merton in the late summer of 1968, a few months before his death," Rice says. "I had been travelling around America working on a photographic book, and on my way home I stopped at Gethsemani and spent several days with him. He told me he finally was going to Asia, that he had been dreaming about it for a long time. He was not in good health, but he was still enthusiastic about the trip, looking forward to meeting holy people like the Dalai Lama. He had a long list of holy people to see in India, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia. I believe he managed to see most of them."
Merton has written in "The Asian Journal" of several mystical experiences he had during the trip.
Rice says of them: "Merton was a mystic in the classic sense, in the sense that the Desert Fathers were, or anybody else who seeks God on a personal basis. His mystical practices were similar to those of most holy men, whether European or Asian. There is a common thread that unites them.
"In India, he visited a Buddhist shrine and there had what seems to me to be a mystical experience. As I understand it, he was visited by a presence that took him out of the body.
"In another experience, in Sri Lanka, he was visited by the Gautama Buddha, the original Buddha upon whom contemporary beliefs are based. This is an amazing thing, for Merton or any other Westerner, to meet Buddha face to face. It's also amazing that not a word of this has ever been spoken by the so-called Merton scholars.
"For me, it is an important fact that Merton was in contact with the central figure of Buddhism. Many people doubt that this happened. For me, there is no doubt at all."
The depth of his openness and commitment to Eastern religions came out clearly in the last words of his life, in the lecture he delivered at the Conference of Benedictine and Cistercian Abbots, on December 10, 1968, at Samutprakan, just south of Bangkok. Merton spoke on Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.
The night before, few of the participants were able to sleep because of continued yowling of cats from nearby roofs; Merton's laughter over the cat noise could be heard echoing in the night air. As he began his lecture, he noticed with some nervousness that a Dutch television crew was moving into place; because of all the controversy about his peace activities he had promised his Abbot to stay clear of the press.
He got to his main point at the end of the lecture. "What is essential in the monastic life is not embedded in buildings, is not embedded even in a rule...It is concerned with the business of total inner transformation...all other things serve that end...
"...the question of Asian monasticism for Christians should not be interpreted in terms of just playing an Asian part or an Asian role. It is not that we want to look like Asians; it is not sufficient simply to present an Asian image...I think we have to go much deeper than this.
"...And I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they (the Asians) have gone, from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have. The combination of the natural techniques and the graces and the other things that have been manifested in Asia, and the Christian liberty of the gospel should bring us all at last to that full and transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural difference and mere externals -- and mere this and that."
I will conclude on that note, Merton said. That note seems to have been a clear proposal for a blending of the religions, and for the mutual advantages such a blending should bring. The world's best- known monk was speaking out and the television cameras were there.
After his talk, Merton said he would take questions later, "so I will disappear," he said, obviously not realizing the true meaning of his words. He had a bath -- and later was found dead on the floor with a tall electric fan lying across his body. The official theory was that he had stumbled getting out of the bath and grabbed the fan for support. A faulty electric cord was found inside the fan; the current was strong enough to produce a heart attack.
"There has been a lot of gossip about this," Rice says, "whether he was killed accidentally, or by an enemy. He had many enemies; the CIA feared he had connections in religious circles in Asia that might have an adverse effect on the U.S. war effort in Vietnam; the FBI felt the same kind of fear over his role in the peace movement in America; neither side in Vietnam liked him; the Communists, both Russian and Chinese, were suspicious of him.
"He had enemies who simply objected to his beliefs. He still has this type of enemy in the United States. I frequently get letters from people who are trying to prove he only became a monk to avoid the draft -- an idea that is ridiculous on the face of it, especially when you know the depth of the man's faith and of his commitment to God. (I've had a few of these letters myself.) And of course, there were enemies, some of them powerful, within his own Church, even with his own Order. And the latter probably felt even more justified in their opposition during Merton's Asian trip.
"It could have been assassination by some unrevealed force, or it could have been what it was said to have been, just an accident. Having lived on and off in Asia for some sixteen years, I am always a little sceptical of anything I hear. And I do know, there are lots of defective electrical appliances lying around.
"I suppose it's something we will never know. There was no autopsy. The man who hated the war in Vietnam was shipped quickly back to the United States, via Vietnam, along with casualties of the war, in a U. S. Air Force plane. Merton was buried in the Trappist cemetery at Gethsemani in a very simple grave. Until I got Parkinson's, I went regularly to visit his grave."
Well, I don't know either, but we all know there were a number of violent deaths of important national figures during the decade of the 60s. President Kennedy, in November 1963; his brother, Robert, in June 1968; Martin Luther King, April 1968 -- and then Merton, December 1968. Tom was in very good company; there is indeed a resemblance among the four men, in terms of humanity and dedication, demeanor and outlook. In view of the nature of the three violent deaths preceding his, it seems a wonder that there were not more doubts over the way Thomas Merton left us.
Merton wrote a remarkable letter to Ping Ferry in January 1962, a year and a half before John Kennedy's assassination. Discussing his writings against the Bomb, he said: "I have little confidence in Kennedy, I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task, and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensitivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don't have; depth, humanity and a certain totality of self-forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole; a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that some day by miracle."
"But," he went on, "such people are before long marked out for assassination..."
It would be difficult to say that Kennedy within a year and a half would have acquired those characteristics; I believe he was certainly on the way, and perhaps that is why he died. Merton, I know, had them.
Merton's death at the age of 53 was recorded on the front page of "The New York Times" alongside that of the Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, who had died in his sleep at the age of 82 at his home in Switzerland. Coincidentally, Merton had written about Karl Barth in his book, "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander." "Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart," Merton said. In the dream, Barth had been appointed to examine Mozart on his theology, and he was trying to make things easy for him. But Mozart did not answer. Merton felt that Barth's dream was about Barth's salvation, and that Barth felt he would be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by theology. "Each day, for years," Merton wrote, "Barth played Mozart every morning before going to work on his dogma, unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love...
"Fear not, Karl Barth," Merton continued. "Trust in the divine mercy...Your books and mine matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation."
For Tom, always a poet as well as a mystic, Mozart's music flows from faith, and faith leads to inner transformation and peace of the spirit. He left us in the way that Mozart fancied that he, himself, would go. The Commander grasped not Don Juan, but the poet, and thrust him into the hereafter. Is it possible that there is something out there that destroys poets? I certainly hope not, for that would be bad for all of us.
4. The Dalai Lama Visits Gethsemani / By Murray Bodo, O.F.M.
Thomas Merton met with the Dalai Lama weeks before Merton's 1968 death. Last summer (July 1996) the Buddhist leader returned the visit by coming to Gethsemani Abbey to attend an interreligious gathering of monks... Also See - http://monasticdialog.com/conference.php?id=95
"Now our spirits are one," the Dalai Lama said after praying at Merton's grave along with Abbot Timothy Kelly.
When Pope John Paul II called for interfaith dialogue to be a key component of Christian preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, his words were surely welcomed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The exiled spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhists has himself been calling for renewed cooperation among the world's religions. And so it came that a few months back the Dalai Lama, under heavy security because of constant threats to his life, descended by helicopter to the Trappist Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, to attend an East-West gathering of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. It was a gesture of solidarity to his friend the late Thomas Merton, taking place on the grounds where Merton had lived.
At the July (1996) gathering, saffron-robed Buddhist monks and nuns, gray-robed Zen monks and nuns pray and share spiritual insights with black-robed Benedictine and white-and-black-robed Cistercian monks and nuns. And in their midst the Dalai Lama, a world religious leader, sits as a monk among monks, not separately on a dais.
A man of humility and holiness, the Dalai Lama is participating in an interreligious monastic dialogue whose roots are in Vatican II. That Council's Relationship of the Church to Non- Christian Religions made the ground-breaking observation that truth is also to be found in non-Christian religions.
It was in response to Vatican II that the Confederation of Benedictine Abbots sponsored their first Asian East-West Intermonastic Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968. That conference brought the Cistercian monk Father Louis, better known as Thomas Merton, to Bangkok, preceded by a three-day meeting in India with the Dalai Lama. As it turned out, it was Merton's last trip. He died tragically in Bangkok, apparently electrocuted by a faulty room fan.
Merton and the Dalai Lama
Now, in a reciprocal pilgrimage 28 years later, the Dalai Lama walks the gentle Kentucky rise to Thomas Merton's grave where he kneels and prays. As he rises from the ground, he says, "Now our spirits are one; I am at peace." This whole conference is for the Dalai Lama more than an inter-religious dialogue: It is a belated but longed-for reunion with the spirit of his friend Thomas Merton.
In a letter to his abbot, Dom Flavian Burns, Merton wrote of his own 1968 encounter with the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile: "The talks with the Dalai Lama were very fine. He did a lot of off-the-record talking, very open and sincere, a very impressive person, deeply concerned about the contemplative life, and also very learned. I have seldom met anyone with whom I clicked so well, and I feel that we have become good friends."
And so they had. For here in the midst of this dialogue and retreat, it is evident to everyone that the Dalai Lama maintains a deep affection for Thomas Merton. Officially this visit to a Catholic monastery is a follow-up to 1987's Assisi encounter, where Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama and other representatives of world religions met in St. Francis' hometown to pray together. Yet one suspects that Merton is the main reason the Dalai Lama has come to Gethsemani.
His Holiness Pope John Paul, following the example of Vatican II and of Pope Paul VI, has lent his encouragement to ongoing interreligious dialogue like the one happening here at Gethsemani. In 1981 he wrote, "All Christians must be committed to dialogue with believers of all religions, so that mutual understanding and collaboration may grow, so that moral values may be strengthened, and so that God may be praised in all creation." Those words are prominently displayed on the brochure for this dialogue retreat--and it is a retreat.
Here is much prayer and silence, much "deep breathing-in of the thoughts and words of others, much exhaling of what is alien and divisive." That image was proposed by Father Pierre de Bethune, Benedictine prior of the Priory of Clerlande in Belgium, consultor at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue since 1985, and general secretary of Monastic Interfaith Dialogue Committees. Father Pierre's presence and that of Portland, Maine, Bishop Joseph Gerry, member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, are a signal to all of us Catholics present. This Gethsemani encounter is important to our hierarchy.
On the Buddhist side the roster reads like a Who's Who of important leaders from India, Myanmar (the former Burma), Cambodia, Japan, Taiwan, England and the United States. It includes the Venerable Maha Ghosananda, "the Cambodian Gandhi," nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work among Cambodian refugees.
The atmosphere is cordial and friendly; the schedule, monastic. A typical day of this five-day encounter is as follows: 5:45 a.m. sitting meditation, 6:15 Catholic Mass, 7:00 breakfast, 8:00 morning sessions, 11:00 Buddhist rituals, noon lunch, 1:00 p.m. rest/one-on-one sharing, 2:30 afternoon sessions, 5:30 vespers in Abbey Church, 6:00 dinner, 6:45 evening session. Three of the scholarly talks are given by the Dalai Lama: "The Tibetan Buddhist Approaches to Meditation," "Meditation Stages and Experiences on the Tibetan Buddhist Path" and "The Bodhisattva as an Ideal for Both Personal-Contemplative and Collective-Social Transformation."
The Dalai Lama sits and listens to the other talks as well, including Christian talks like Father Pierre De Bethune's "Stages of Prayer and Contemplation in the Christian Spiritual Life" and Sister Gilchrist Lavigne's "Phenomena Associated With the Stages in Spiritual Growth." And like the other speakers, the Dalai Lama entertains questions and takes part in dialogue.
The Way(s) of Truth
For many of us the high point of the Dalai Lama's presence is the interfaith ritual in the Abbey Church in memory of Thomas Merton. It is led by Dom James Conner, Cistercian abbot of Assumption Abbey at Ava, Missouri, who lived with Merton at Gethsemani. Thomas Merton, Conner says, "came to recognize that the East has something which we in the West tend to overlook or neglect." Quoting Merton's Asian Journal, Connor continues, "I think that we have now reached a stage of (long overdue) religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment and yet learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline or experience."
The Dalai Lama credits Merton with opening his eyes to the truth that Tibetan Buddhism does not hold the world's only truth. "As a result of meeting with him, my attitude toward Christianity was much changed," he tells the group. He says that the Gethsemani meeting would fulfill Merton's wishes for both scholarly sharing and praying together among monks of different traditions. "Thomas Merton is someone we can look up to. He had the qualities of being learned, disciplined and having a good heart."
Then the Dalai Lama places zinnia blossoms around a picture of Merton which rests on a table in front of the choir podium. He places a white shawl about the picture. He then offers Abbot Timothy Kelly of Gethsemani a silver chalice containing an orange--a chalice is never given empty. Abbot Timothy gives the Dalai Lama the three recently published volumes of Thomas Merton's early diaries.
Simple gestures like these abound during this retreat: Abbot Timothy and the Dalai Lama planting an evergreen tree, small acts of kindness between Buddhists and Christians, quiet conversations taking place in corners of the abbey, on hillsides, on patios. And every day there are vans taking participants to Thomas Merton's hermitage, a short distance from the Abbey.
Prayer and Action
The simple cinder-block hermitage becomes a daily pilgrimage for practically all the participants: Merton has touched everyone here in one way or another. Speakers quote him often, tell stories, cite from his books, more than 40 of which are still in print. "Merton was part of my own spiritual journey in college," says Joseph Goldstein, a Buddhist and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society of Barre, Massachusetts.
Following the example of Merton, Christians ask Buddhists about methods and practices of prayer. Buddhists, in turn, ask about the long tradition of social action in the Christian tradition. Sister Mary Margaret Funk, a Benedictine nun from Beech Grove, Indiana, and executive director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, notes that, while Christianity has a long tradition of meditation, it has been obscured by centuries of emphasis on social action. Now many Christians are looking to the East to relearn meditation.
Sister Mary Margaret asks the Dalai Lama, who is encouraging Tibetan monks to become more socially involved, how he reconciles the apparent conflict between prayer and social action. The Dalai Lama has no easy answer, but he says he would recommend a "50-50" split between prayer and action. Buddhists are inclined to withdraw from the world, he says. "We have to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters. We should have more socially engaged activities." He acknowledges that Buddhist monks' lack of social action partly prompted Pope John Paul II's widely publicized criticism of Buddhism in his 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. But the Dalai Lama downplays the controversy and says he had a warm meeting with Pope John Paul earlier this year.
One Buddhist monk who personi-fies social action among Buddhist monastics is the Venerable Maha Ghosananda of Cambodia. This man of peace says simply, "We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos and the battlefields will become our temples. We have so much work to do."
This will be a slow transformation, he adds, since many Asians rely on traditional monkhood. Many fellow Cambodians tell him that monks belong in the temple. In spite of the difficult adjustment, he says, "We monks must answer the increasingly loud cries of suffering. We only need to remember that our temple is with us always. We are our temple."
Here in this simple, holy man, I hear the very essence of this retreat. Neither prayer nor retreat is for us alone; always they imply an entering in, as in breathing in, that necessarily involves a coming out, a breathing out, if there is to be a life-giving balance. We pray and we learn to act with love in the world; we act with love in the world and we learn to pray.
The Temple Within
There is much discussion of this temple within, that we take with us wherever we go. Sister Gilchrist Lavigne, a Trappistine nun from Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, reads a passage from Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that bears repeating: "At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.
"This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely....I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere."
I think of St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan mystical theologian, of his beautiful rendering of the same experience in his book On the Perfection of Life: "When you pray, gather up your whole self, enter with your Beloved into the chamber of your heart, and there remain alone with him, forgetting all exterior concerns; and so rise aloft with all your love and all your mind, your affections, your desires and devotion.
"And let not your mind wander away from your prayer, but rise again and again in the fervor of your piety until you enter into the place of the wonderful tabernacle, even the house of God. There your heart will be delighted at the sight of the Beloved, and you will taste and see how good the Lord is, and how great is his goodness."
For me and for many others this whole dialogue retreat has been the search for that place within all of us, named differently in different traditions, where we meet that which is deepest in ourselves and in our tradition. It is from there that we reach out to others in love, or in the language of Buddhism, in lovingkindness, a single word. The Dalai Lama himself says, "My religion is kindness." And to those of us who have been privileged to experience his presence, his actions match his words.
A Close Encounter
At one point of the retreat, unexpectedly and unsought, I find myself, with only a very few of the participants in the room, very close to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Something moves me to approach him and ask if we could pray together briefly. Taking my hand, he prays with me in silence, then looks into my eyes with lovingkindness such as I have seldom experienced. Such is the effect of holiness; it speaks without words.
This simple, loving gesture touches some deep part of me, as does the Dalai Lama's encouragement of each of us to remain faithful to our own tradition. He says, "We need to experience more deeply the meanings and spiritual values of our own religious tradition--we need to know these teachings not only on an intellectual level but also through our own deeper experience. We must practice our own religion sincerely; it must become part of our lives." He adds that there is no competition among those gathered at Gethsemani, "except in implementation: We should compete in implementing in our lives what we believe."
The Dalai Lama's love for Christ and his ecumenical spirit are evident during this whole retreat. They are a part of all his talks on spirituality and world peace. In fact, he has just published a book on Jesus, entitled The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Wisdom Publications).
In a talk given in Melbourne, Australia, in 1992, the Dalai Lama told a story that is emblematic of the ecumenical spirit he exudes here at Gethsemani: "On another occasion I met with a Catholic monk in Monserrat, one of Spain's famous monasteries. I was told that this monk had lived for several years as a hermit on a hill just behind the monastery. When I visited the monastery, he came down from his hermitage especially to meet me.
"As it happened, his English was even worse than mine, and this gave me more courage to speak with him! We remained face-to-face, and I inquired, ëIn those few years, what were you doing on that hill?' He looked at me and answered, "Meditation on compassion, on love." As he said those few words, I understood the message through his eyes. I truly developed genuine admiration for this person and for others like him. Such experiences have helped confirm in my mind that all the world's religions have the potential to produce good people, despite their differences of philosophy and doctrine."
Such is my own experience of the Dalai Lama. The whole conference for me is in his eyes, in the warm touch of his hand in mine, in his silent prayer with me: prayer, silence, lovingkindness. As one Buddhist monk observed, lovingkindness, like the arms of Jesus on the cross, reaches out and embraces the whole world.
The Good in Other Traditions
The witness of an ecumenical retreat such as this Gethsemani encounter is that one need not give up one's own convictions or beliefs in order to pray together, talk together in love and kindness. In fact, by adhering with deep faith to one's own traditions and yet keeping ever an open heart for all good, we all can more easily see the good in other traditions.
In the words of Pope Paul Vl, "Other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ëways,' comprising teachings, rules of life and sacred rites."
I see these other "ways," these "teachings, rules of life and sacred rites" here at Gethsemani. I turn again to my own, examine the practices, the teachings, the rules and sacred rites that have brought me to this point in my spiritual life. Being here, listening, observing and receiving the lovingkindness of my Buddhist brothers and sisters has enriched me. It has made me want to learn more about how they pray, what prayer does in their lives. It makes me want to share with them what Christ has done in my life, how he has taught me to pray, what Christian contemplation and meditation have done for me.
The Gethsemani encounter is about people praying together, sharing and learning, as the Dalai Lama counsels, that "each religious tradition has its own wonderful message to convey." I hear these words and I agree, but I am also aware, as a Catholic priest, of Pope John Paul II's caveats in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, making the point that Buddhism and Christianity view creation differently: "The 'enlightenment' experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man....The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world" (pp. 85-86).
Then I hear Venerable Havanpola Ratanasara, president of the College of Buddhist Studies in Los Angeles, responding to the pope's comments: "Now it seems that such 'indifference' to the world, were it true, would be but a step removed from contempt for the world. And nothing could be farther removed from the Buddhist attitude. In fact, it was out of love for the world that the Buddha spent 45 years of his life teaching. Nor was he reticent about involving himself in what today we would call "social issues."
Venerable Ratanasara's response reminds me that this is a serious theological dialogue as well as a retreat. I remind myself that I am not a theologian, I am a practitioner of prayer and a Catholic priest who needs to remember who he is and how central is Christ to any prayer-form he enters. I am here to pray and to listen, mindful always that, even as a pray-er, I need to hear Pope John Paul II's further words in Crossing the Threshold of Hope: "...it is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East--for example, techniques and methods of meditation and ascetical practice. In some quarters these have become fashionable, and are accepted rather uncritically. First one should know one's own spiritual heritage well and consider whether it is right to set it aside lightly" (pp. 89-90).
With these words I am back to the Dalai Lama's exhortation that we remain faithful to our own tradition, which is what this whole retreat has encouraged in me. I hear about prayer techniques here; I hear words like Nibbana, Buddha self, Buddha nature, lovingkindness. I see Buddhist monks and laypeople whose Buddhist practices have led them to deep interiority and kindness. I see Christian monks and laypeople whose Christian meditation and contemplation have led them to deep interiority and charity.
Most of all, I begin to remember the depth and continuity of my own Christian ascetical and contemplative tradition. I think of Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, Henry Suso, Jan de Ruysbroeck, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius Loyola, and particularly of my own holy father, St. Francis of Assisi, the greatest Christian mystic of the Middle Ages.
For all of them Jesus Christ is the source, the center and the object of all prayer, for it is in him, through him, with him and for him that all creation exists. He is the Incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As a Christian I must be deeply grounded in that reality before I begin to incorporate techniques and insights from other prayer practices into my own life of prayer.
This retreat with His Holiness the Dalai Lama did just that for me: It made me even more aware of the centrality of Christ in my own prayer life. It made me even more eager to share with others in the future about where it is that all genuine prayer finally comes together. All things eventually come together in God, who meets us in prayer.
Murray Bodo, O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest and the author of 14 books, most recently A Retreat With Francis and Clare of Assisi, coauthored with Susan Saint Sing (St. Anthony Messenger Press). Frequently published in literary magazines, Father Murray is presently writer-in-residence at Thomas More College, Crestview Hills, Kentucky. This article is adapted from a book about religious retreats that he is writing for Dial Press.
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