This week marked the 40th anniversary of the sudden death of Thomas Merton.
A few appreciations have appeared here and there, with some tut-tutting that Merton is still “controversial” in some Catholic circles.be
Well,one person’s “controversial” is another’s “just not canonized yet, okay?”
I have a deep appreciation forMerton. I have taught and passed on his books. He was a brilliant writer, and I think that, more than anything else, is what draws me to him. Not just that I appreciate fine writing, but that so many of his struggles are the struggle of an artist (or, to be humble, would-be artist.)
Reading the first couple of volumes in the journals really brought that home to me, since the questions of vocatio – not simply monastic, but also artistic – loomed so large in them.
But Merton was human and like any of us, not beyond criticism.
Nor is Merton everyone’s cup of tea.
For me, as interesting as find him, and as helpful it is for me to see things with him and through his eyes, I am often left a bit dissatisfied by Merton, as if I need to move on and out. Yes, he was a contemplative, and perhaps that is part of the problem, for me, at least. Knowing myself, the existential quest, even if it is God-centered, can only take me so far. The goal of my life is not to know myself perfectly. It is to serve and love as Jesus did.
I am not suggesting this last point is absent from Merton. It just does not seem to be the center of inquiry, exploration and energy. Which is fine. It is all a piece of the puzzle, but it does not define the entire puzzle, at least for me. Sometimes reading Merton can inspire me and answer questions, but sometimes it can tempt me to self-absorption. It all depends.
So talk about Merton. Promote him, thank him, question him. It’s all okay. You get the idea from some quarters that it is far more permissible to critique the Pope (any pope) than it is to say “hmmm” about aspects of the thought of certain other figures. I’ve never quite understood that. Even as far as actually canonized saints go – “canonization” does not equal “perfect” or “beyond critique” or “a perfect fit for everyone’s spirituality.”
Why do you fly from the drowned shores of Galilee,
From the sands and the lavender water?
Why do you leave the ordinary world, Virgin of Nazareth,
The yellow fishing boats, the farms,
The winesmelling yards and low cellars
Or the oilpress, and the women by the well?
Why do you fly those markets,
Those suburban gardens,
The trumpets of the jealous lilies,
Leaving them all, lovely among the lemon trees?
You have trusted no town
With the news behind your eyes.
You have drowned Gabriel’s word in thoughts like seas
And turned toward the stone mountain
To the treeless places.
Virgin of God, why are your clothes like sails?
The day Our Lady, full of Christ,
Entered the dooryard of her relative
Did not her steps, light steps, lay on the paving leaves
Did not her eyes as grey as doves
Alight like the peace of a new world upon that house, upon
Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John
Wakes in his mother’s body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery.
Sing in your cell, small anchorite!
How did you see her in the eyeless dark?
What secret syllable
Woke your young faith to the mad truth
That an unborn baby could be washed in the Spirit of God?
Oh burning joy!
What seas of life were planted by that voice!
With what new sense
Did your wise heart receive her Sacrament,
And know her cloistered Christ?
You need no eloquence, wild bairn,
Exulting in your hermitage.
Your ecstasy is your apostolate,
For whom to kick is contemplata tradere.
Your joy is the vocation of Mother Church’s hidden children –
Those who by vow lie buried in the cloister or the hermitage;
The speechless Trappist, or the grey, granite Carthusian,
The quiet Carmelite, the barefoot Clare, Planted in the night of
contemplation, Sealed in the dark and waiting to be born.
Night is our diocese and silence is our ministry
Poverty our charity and helplessness our tongue-tied
Beyond the scope of sight or sound we dwell upon the air
Seeking the world’s gain in an unthinkable experience.
We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners
With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier.
But in the days, rare days, when our Theotokos
Flying the prosperous world
Appears upon our mountain with her clothes like sails,
Then, like the wise, wild baby,
The unborn John who could not see a thing
We wake and know the Virgin Presence
Receive her Christ into our night
With stabs of an intelligence as white as lightning.
Cooled in the flame of God’s dark fire
Washed in His gladness like a vesture of new flame
We burn like eagles in His invincible awareness
And bound and bounce with happiness,
Leap in the womb, our cloud, our faith, our element,
Our contemplation, our anticipated heaven
Till Mother Church sings like an Evangelist.