(Photo: Thomas Merton)
for David Wagg
I carry two lines of poetry in my head every place I go:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The lines are by the American poet Mary Oliver and they occur in her poem “The Summer Day.” I ask the question of my grandsons and of myself.
One of the things I’ve done with my wild and precious life is to devote a good deal of my attention to a Trappist monk by the name of Thomas Merton (1915-1968) who was born in France, died in Thailand and spent most of his adult years in a monastery outside of Bardstown, Kentucky. Is there a part of me that wanted to be a monk? Maybe.
Silence and solitude have a strong appeal to me (mind you, Merton with his typewriter was seldom silent and with his gregarious nature he wasn’t all that solitary either). Certainly, I wanted to be a lifelong student as Merton was, a lifelong beginner, always open to new possibilities of interior growth and new ways of dreaming.
Merton seemed to be always under construction, always in process. He tattooed on his flesh, so to speak, a single radical idea: you grow or you rot. Merton chose to grow. In his journals, he writes of “[t]he need for constant self-revision, growth… My ideas are always changing, always moving around one centre, always seeing the centre from somewhere else. I will always be accused of inconsistencies – and will no longer be there to hear the accusation.” Any reader of a specific Merton work or utterance needs to ask in rapid succession, What’s the date? What’s the mood? Who’s the audience?
My personal dance with Merton began when my friend David dropped Edward Rice’s The Man in the Sycamore Tree: the Good Times and Hard Life of Thomas Merton in my lap. Rice, a Columbia University friend, presented the Buddhist Merton, the artistic Merton, the sixties Merton, the Merton sensitive to, and articulate on, Indigenous peoples. Later on in my readings, I discovered other Mertons –the Catholic Merton, the scholarly Merton, the poetic Merton, the political Merton etc. But something of that initial Merton presented by Rice – the zest and the hunger – remained with me.
In 1988, I attempted a suite of poems on my own version of Merton’s life and work entitled The Thomas Merton Poems. I tried to speak as he might if he were alive now. I mustn’t have been satisfied because I returned to Merton 20 years later in Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things, a prose account of his being a poet, a public intellectual, an activist, a contemplative, a reader, a translator, a letter writer, a journal keeper, and a synthesizer. He was also a photographer, a calligrapher, a drawer and a political activist.
His essay “The Root of War is Fear,” his dissection of the Nazi personality in “Chant to Be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces,” and his tract, “Original Child Bomb” on nuclear war remain as relevant now as they were on the day he wrote them.
I thought that was it: I’m done now. Two books about a monk are more than enough. Then my B.C. friend, poet Susan McCaslin, wrote to me and invited me to join her dance on Merton – a book about Merton’s relationship with feminism and his relationships with particular women, including the woman with whom he fell in love who goes by the initial M.
In the presence of such extraordinary generosity, how could one say no to what has now become Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton’s Dance with the Feminine? I make a small contribution to Susan’s book, a prose piece, and a poem. But the best of the book is Susan’s – her icon poems on such figures as Denise Levertov and Dorothy Day and her in-depth probe of Holy Wisdom and its association with the feminine. Susan and I come together in the middle of the book for a dialogue on Merton’s opening to the feminine and his relationship with M.
One of the things that draws both of us to Merton is his voice. I think we’re both entranced by it, the sheer honesty of it:
This is simply the voice of a self-questioning human person who, like all his brothers, struggles to cope with turbulent, mysterious, demanding, exciting, frustrating, confused existence in which almost nothing is really predictable, in which most definitions, explanations, and justifications become incredible even before they are uttered, in which people suffer together and are sometimes utterly beautiful…
Merton is a struggling human being who openly voices his struggles.
We’re both drawn to the voice in his prayers:
It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one’s hunger and sleep, one’s cold and warmth, rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying. I live as my ancestors have lived on this earth until eventually, I die. Amen.
I’m very happy that Susan invited me to join her in a word-dance about Merton, and very happy to join Thomas Merton’s general invitation to the dance at large:
…[N]o despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not…[W]e are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.
You can find my latest book with Susan McCaslin here: Superabundantly Alive – from Wood Lake Books.
icon-book You can also find this book on Amazon, or, if you prefer, order it from a good independent bookstore near you!