The Divine and Embodied Feminine: a Dialogue

Susan McCaslin and J.S. Porter

"In the end, it's the reality of personal relationships that saves everything." (Thomas Merton, letter to Jim Forest, Feb. 21, 1966)

"When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that [you] can have no other vocation than to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him...." (Albert Camus, quoted by Thomas Merton, journal entry, Oct. 16, 1966)

JSP: In some of your pieces, you seem concerned with how the archetypal feminine relates to the human and personal feminine in Merton's life and works. Why is this so important?

SM: Merton's writings and life as a monk can be interpreted, especially based on his best-selling spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), as a flight from the world, fuga mundi. Yet we see him growing increasingly committed to social and political engagement from the late fifties until his death in Asia in 1968. His ambivalent memories of his mother Ruth, who died when he was only six years old, his anguish at not being able to see her when she was dying of cancer, may have led him to experience her death as abandonment, and perhaps even abandonment by the feminine. In a letter to the young, emerging feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether (March 25, 1967), he implies he had been afraid of rejection by intellectual women. He also notes in his journals around the time of his affair with the young student nurse he called M. that his relationships with women as a young man at Cambridge had been at best superficial, at worse, damaging to both parties. One thinks of the young woman he is said to have impregnated during that time. It is interesting that, retrospectively, he does discuss his youthful relationships with women in his journal.

JSP: I sometimes think that of all the seismic cataclysms--call them revelations or epiphanies, if you prefer--the spasm that hit him hardest wasn't on a Louisville street corner or the statues in Polonnaruwa; it was his encounter with a particular woman whom we call M. When I think of Tom and Margie, I think of the Stanley Kunitz poem "Touch Me" and these specific lines:

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.

And it really was one season, one glorious-rich-confusing-turbulent-magical summer. And he's able to get it all down, the way only an artist can, in his Midsummer Diary for M., all his anguish and his love. He comes to two shattering realizations. One, "Lucidity does not prevent anguish" and two, "I have a rich life, but built on the central cost of cruel deprivation." His Midsummer Diary, or "the account of how I once again became untouchable," is a significant document on love, with one large weakness: it's primarily a monologue rather than a dialogue. The Diary is missing M.'s views, although she is present in the journal at large. He quotes her: "The happiest I have ever been is when I took care of you in the hospital...Being without you isn't the hardest thing--it's not being able to give you anything except thoughts and prayers...You keep me, you guard me, you protect me in all my ways." You can see by her words what Merton meant to her. I sometimes mischievously think that I ought to work on a poem called "Margie's reply to Tom" and have as my opening lines:

You became untouchable;
I became untouched.
Your condition was chosen;
mine was imposed.

When Merton chose the spiritual path over the family path, he made a decision that greatly affected them both. In Thoughts on Solitude, Merton recognizes that "[t]he spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived." You can't be a monk and be married. You'd end up not doing justice to either life. You can hear the pain in Merton's voice: "I do not know how on earth I am going to live without ever seeing you, talking to you, being with you, loving you warmly and directly, pressing you to myself and kissing you. It will have to be, but I do not know how it is going to be, or how I am going to stand it." And you can hear the pain in M.'s voice: "Will we ever see each other again?...What will I do without you?...How unfair it is, even inhuman...."

SM: What you say about Merton's relationship with Margie being a "seismic cataclysm" certainly expresses my sense of the importance of this relationship, John. My sense is it wasn't until he entered stumblingly into this messy, painful affair that he opened fully to the depths of human love with a real woman. As Michael Mott points out in his seminal biography The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (1984), after Margie, Merton "never again talked of his inability to love, or to be loved."

Certainly his post-conversion experiences of the feminine drew him into the realm of religious iconography, history, biblical and mystical traditions. His early monastic life as a Trappist monk, with its honoring of the sacred figures of Mary, our Lady of Cobre in Cuba, and Thérèse of Lisieux, his patron saint, allowed Merton to express his reverence for sacred images of the divine feminine. From the time of his conversion to Catholicism, he embraced archetypal icons of female saints and delved into studies of mystics like Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. In Mystics and Zen Masters (1961), he calls the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich "the greatest of all English mystics," and in his long poem Hagia Sophia (1962), he places her at the very centre of his canon of saints by alluding to her image of Jesus as Mother: "(When the recluses of fourteenth-century England heard their Church Bells and looked out upon the wolds and fens under a kind sky, they spoke in their hearts to Jesus our Mother. It was Sophia that had awakened in their childlike hearts.)"

Despite this adoration of the archetypal divine feminine in the first half of his life, he mostly lacked the opportunity to interact intimately with a broad range of living, breathing women. He did develop meaningful friendships with his agent and editor Naomi Burton Stone, his friend Tommie O'Callaghan, and trusted friend, editor, and assistant Sister Thérèse Lentfoehr. He respected and admired Raissa Maritan, the wife of his correspondent and friend philosopher Jacques Maritain. Yet it's interesting that toward the end of his life in 1965 he was reading psychiatrist Karl Stern's The Flight from Woman, which explores the polarity of the sexes as a damaging socially constructed division.

JSP: When you say that Merton's experience with women tended to be with nuns and editors and female correspondents, you take me back to his first words about M.: "M is terribly inflammable, and beautiful, and is no nun, and so tragically full of passion and so wide open." He knew from the start that she was a real woman in all her dimensions. They didn't stay together long enough to reach and overcome Leonard Cohen's lines in "Democracy" about "the homicidal bitchin'/ that goes down in every kitchen / to determine who will serve and who will eat." Yet they are together long enough to reveal and see each other's naked souls.

I agree with you on the importance of elevating the feminine principle to divinity, and so did Carl Jung. Jung regarded the papal proclamation of Mary's Assumption by the Catholic Church in 1950 as "the most important religious event since the Reformation." The affirmation of God as Mother as well as Father is enormously important. The difficulty I have is that we don't yet have a full enough image of the Feminine--the wild woman, the laughing woman, the working woman, the kick-ass woman and so on, along with the woman as nurturer, life-bearer and care-giver. With M., Merton experienced a woman in the flesh, not a woman you pray to or read about or give talks on, but a woman with real needs and demands. He comes as close to a balanced view of womanhood as his short years would allow him. The recent biography of James Laughlin, Merton's friend and publisher, makes clear that Laughlin reaches out to Margie shortly after Merton's death to reassure her that Merton had fully sensed the depth of her devotion to him: "It seems clear to me that he did understand, and that you were as close to him as any mortal person could be."

After his experience with M., Merton writes the very beautiful "Love and Need: Is Love a Package or a Message?" from the posthumous collection of essays entitled Love and Living. The piece is still somewhat idealistic, but it includes a very down-to-earth view of the process of falling in love: "If you don't look where you are going, you are liable to land in it [water]: the experience will normally be slightly ridiculous. Your friends will all find it funny...." To fall in love is to risk making a fool of yourself, whether you're Thomas Merton or you or me.

SM: I like what you're saying about these fuller, richer, less stereotypical aspects of what society has constructed as the feminine, John. I'm remembering how in the late fifties to early sixties, while experiencing a series of visionary dreams of Proverb or the Hebrew figure of Wisdom (1958), studying the eastern Orthodox Sophianic mystical traditions (1958-'59), and publishing Hagia Sophia, Merton began to awake to the wilder, less passive, feminine divine within himself and others. It's interesting to me that Proverb, the biblical figure of divine Wisdom, comes to him in dreams as an intense, young Jewish woman who clings to him. She is certainly not in this context a passive figure. For me, the trajectory of Merton's last decade is a steady turning to Proverb-Sophia as the active embodiment of the inclusive divine feminine in each of us. She, like the Hindu Shakti and the Jewish Kabbalistic Shekinah, is also the creative, active power of God immanent in the world. She comes to him not merely as the female face of a masculine God, but as creative Presence, an embodied power within what he calls God. She is God, but she is also one of the many names and images of the God beyond all concepts and names.

After this time Merton also turns more to active engagement with living women. Though he had developed friendships with strong women like the Baroness Catherine De Hueck Doherty at Friendship House, and with the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement Dorothy Day, he later comes not only to study Sophianic mystical traditions, but interacts with strong, creative, intellectually challenging women like Joan Baez, Denise Levertov, Mary Luke Tobin, and Rosemary Ruether.

JSP: A few notes on your women, Susan. Levertov, as you know, wrote two poems inspired by Merton's dreams. Who's lucky enough to get his dream life put into poems by a great poet? The feisty correspondence with Ruether is like nothing else he engaged in. I met her once at a weekend retreat. She was tremendously energetic and intellectually stimulating. She shook some of Merton's intellectual foundations just as M. shook his emotional foundations. Tobin I heard speak about Merton very warmly and affectionately at the Louisville Conference in 1988, the first international gathering. She spoke to the audience as if she had lost her brother. Then there's Baez. My wife and I were privileged to hear Baez twice, once in Lewiston, New York, at hillside, and once at the University of Toronto. All through his relationship with M., Merton played Baez's "Silver Dagger" song at the hermitage. She wrote a song ("Gethsemani's Bells") after reading Tom's elegy on the death of his brother. Imagine the thrill of an aging monk opening his door one morning and looking into the eyes of the young, beautiful and immensely gifted Joan Baez. Wow! Merton must have felt that he had died and gone to straight to heaven. In his journal Merton wrote of the experience of entertaining her at the hermitage where she sat on the rug "eating goat-milk cheese and bread and honey and drinking tea, in front of the fire." He describes her as a "precious, authentic, totally human person...a kind of mixture of frailty and indestructibility."

Clearly the encounter was of importance to Baez as well. She wrote about it in her autobiography and in Merton: By Those Who Knew Him Best. She writes: "The time I spent with Martin Luther King was laughing. I mean, we just laughed. That's how you survive. And the time I spent with Thomas Merton, we mostly laughed. It's a very important, life-sustaining."

SM: I'm glad you mentioned these creative and dynamic women with whom Merton shared laughter, John. When I met Rosemary Ruether (who is still living, teaching, and publishing) at a Merton conference at the Vancouver School of Theology (July 2007), we had an amicable chat on the balcony of the Iona Building overlooking the beautiful coastal mountains of British Columbia. I found her refreshingly unwilling to buy into a certain kind of hagiography that can sometimes surround Merton. She still refuses to be a "Merton fan," and I admire her for that. When she first corresponded with Merton as a young feminist (Aug. 1966-Feb. 1968), he was defending the kind of patriarchal monasticism she, as a young feminist, was radically questioning in favour of more direct social and political engagement. By dialoguing with her on such issues he demonstrated his openness to what was to become Second Wave feminism.

Before the correspondence with Ruether, while in hospital for back surgery, Merton (Tom), as we know, met Margie, a young student nurse. Her relationship to him as his nurse seemed uncannily foreshadowed by sections of Hagia Sophia, written four years earlier, of Sophia-Wisdom arousing him from sleep in the figure of a nurse. Years later, he and Margie had the turbulent, life-changing love affair you so eloquently described. Although one can be cynical about his affair with Margie, due to the discrepancy of their ages and the obvious power imbalance, I feel it wasn't until he entered stumblingly into this messy, painful affair that he opened fully to the depths of human love with a real woman.

JSP: Messy, yes. The human is messy. No messiness, no humanity. Bob Marley sings, "No Woman No Cry." If I could sing, I'd sing, "No Mess No Human."

I find your words so intriguing, Susan--how Merton seems to foretell his own future. He dreams of a nurse in Hagia Sophia with "a soft voice," who awakens him out of "languor and darkness, out of helplessness.... / In the cool hand of the nurse there is the touch of all life, the touch of Spirit." I love that conjoining of flesh and spirit, or Spirit--so very Mertonian. And that's what happens, doesn't it? The poetic meditation takes on flesh a few years after the writing of it. He finds himself in a hospital, he meets a nurse and she really does wake him up, and lift him up, for a time anyway. And amen to your, "he opened fully to the depths of human love with a real woman."

SM: Yes, Margie seems to have cracked Tom wide open. Some might argue that Merton, moving out of patriarchal structures, even in his poem Hagia Sophia, falls at times into gender stereotypes, assigning the soft, gentle and passive to the feminine and the strong, assertive, and active to the masculine. In this poem, the voice of Sophia-Wisdom is maternal in many ways, which indeed she is. But looking more deeply, it is she who also plays the role of "awakener," she who arouses the male figure representing humanity, the Logos (both the Word and Merton the speaker) from sleep; so in many ways she is an active, creative power in the world. In this poem, and in his living out its implications with real women, including Margie, he wrestles with apparent oppositions in himself, the world, and within the divine, seeking the "polarity within unity" which his early hero William Blake called "the contraries." Marion Woodman, the Jungian feminist writer, writes of the integration of masculine/feminine characteristics within each of us. In opening to various kinds of intimacies with women, Merton was opening to the deep feminine within himself, which is part of an enfolding, an indwelling, a flow, rather than a set of binaries.

JSP: Let me be personal here. I bristle when people associate gentleness and tenderness exclusively with the feminine. In my own case, whatever I learned about being gentle and tender, I learned from my father. My mother has these qualities too, but I didn't learn them from her. From my mother I think I learned a degree of clear-sightedness and a lack of sentimentality--toughness, in a word. From the masculine I received the gift of the feminine and from the feminine the gift of the masculine--go figure.

SM: In my family of origin this was the case as well. My father was the nurturer, the quieter, gentler spirit, while my mother was more outspoken, spirited, creative, and assertive. In Hagia Sophia Merton presents the feminine as gentleness; yet her peace is an active, creative power that also embodies a compelling energy, a vital force something like what Gandhi calls "soul power" or Satyagraha. Gender has a biological basis, but is also culturally constructed, not only in the west but worldwide. Therefore, many people still tend to see men and women in terms of these stereotypes.

At a retreat with the Sisters of Loretto in 1967, not long before Merton leaves for his final Asian tour, he engages with a group of nuns at a neighbouring convent where they touch on the controversy surrounding Betty Friedan's best-selling The Feminine Mystique (first published 1963).[i] He is quick to embrace Friedan's argument that the construction of women as sweet, mild, subordinate, man-pleasers is destructive to both men and women alike. During the same retreat, he references Mary Daly, the radical feminist theologian, who goes on to write Beyond God the Father (1973). At the Loretto retreat, Merton paraphrases what emerging feminist theologian Mary Daly had argued: "that, in one and the same breath, women are idealized and humiliated by it [the mystique]. This mystique is an instrument of oppression for women."[ii] He proceeds to urge the Sisters to assert themselves against the oppression of their male superiors by simply doing what they must do and say without always asking permission, which is exactly what Mary Luke Tobin, Merton's long-time friend, went on to do after his death. She participated as a witness at the Second Vatican Council, supported women's ordination, opposed nuclear proliferation, challenged the unsustainable practices of the Blue Diamond Coal Company, took part in nonviolent demonstrations at a nuclear weapons plant, danced, and founded a Buddhist-Christian dialogue/meditation group.

In the last decade of his life, Merton seems to be moving toward ever fuller integration with self, nature and humanity, living out the new gender equality of what would become second-wave feminism, not merely through theology or ideology, but through intimate encounter with challenging, living women like Rosemary Ruether, Denise Levertov, and Margie. What strikes me most is that his affirmation of the need for solitude and the need for community aren't contradictory, but two parts of a vital whole. Solitude and community. Retreat to the silent, inner ground of being and attention to our essential interconnectedness in the public realm. My hunch is that at the end of his life he experienced a conjunction of that yin and yang in himself. The feminine for Merton is gentle, soft, fierce, strong, wild, and evolutionary. His God is masculine, feminine, and mysterious beyond all our constructed categories.

JSP: Yes. Beautifully put, "His God is masculine, feminine, and mysterious beyond all our constructed categories." There's much I'm in sync with. I note your choice of words, however: "moving toward even fuller human integration...." Merton was moving toward integration, but I'm not sure he or anyone else fully achieves it. I'm not even sure it would be desirable to achieve it. Closing time, methinks...You might as well die. Nothing remains to be struggled with. You only get to live one life. You can only combine a certain number of things. Merton brought his poetry, his spirituality and his politics into integration, it seems to me. The richness of experiencing another human being over time in its fullness was not a part of his life. He has some lacks, like the rest of us in our broken alphabets. He didn't experience the joy and difficulty of loving a child over a long period of time, and so on. To live the life he chose he had to give up some things; he missed out on some things. What happened after his "break-up" with Margie is that he comes to the wisdom that the "I" is such a fragile thing. He becomes acquainted with his own fragility. On September 6, 1966, he writes this: "There is 'I' - this patchwork, this bundle of questions and doubts and obsessions, this gravitation to silence and to the woods and to love. This incoherence!!"

The Californian sculptor Stephen De Staebler, a Christian, makes the human patchwork visible. His sculptures often have incongruous bronze-and-clay body parts stuck awkwardly to each other, with bits hanging. There is an unfinished look to his work, a deliberately unintegrated look. If you made a visual for Merton's great sentence on his individual patchwork you'd be looking at a De Staebler sculpture. His "outsides" are our "insides."

I love Merton's definition of the "I," Susan. I love his doubts and questions and obsessions, his marginality and his humanness. His is the very best definition of selfhood I've ever come across. It would have been impossible without his encounter with M. He must have said prayers at night. Thank you, Lord, for putting that amazing woman on my path.

SM: I have to agree, John, not only with your sense of how M.'s presence led to a breakthrough, but with the gift of Merton's doubts and contradictions. I've written an essay called "The Problem with Perfect," and love the way you acknowledge his (and our) shared frailty, brokenness, incompleteness as held within a larger wholeness. Merton's humanity, how he expresses, embraces and surrenders it. This is what draws you, me, and so many others to him. In the end, his autobiographical writings aren't about Merton the personality so much as about us, his readers and the liminal spaces between his writings and us. Through his words, we are invited to embrace our own whole and broken selves with tenderness. He helps us see our original faces shining mysteriously in and through the imperfect. When I spoke of him moving toward integration, I didn't have in mind a sense of static arrival, but that he was constantly evolving rather than attaining "perfection" as an end product. In both eastern and western spirituality there is a sense of the spiritual life as growth toward maturity, a process of continual opening to mystery and greater love. The Dalai Lama calls it enlightenment (waking up), but not as an endgame, a finality. Merton expresses it as discovering within our fragmented selves "a hidden wholeness." Perhaps this state can only be expressed in the poetic language of paradox as feminist American poet Marge Piercy does in her poem "I Saw Her Dancing," since it lies beyond concepts and words:

I Saw Her Dancing

Nothing moves in straight lines
but in arcs, in epicycles, in spirals, in gyres.
Nothing living grows in cubes or cones or rhomboids
but we take a little here and give a little here
and we change
and the wind blows right through us and knocks the apples
from the tree and hangs a red kite suddenly there
and a fox comes to bite the apples curiously
and we change
or die
and then change.
It is many as drops
it is one as rain
and we are in it, in it, of it.
We eat it and it eats us
and fullness is never and now.

Merton expresses something similar at the end of The Asian Journal:
In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you
are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that
you are already there

In Asia Merton grapples with the mystery of how we are both fractured and whole, male and female, multi-gendered, and gender-transcendent in new and deeper ways. In his last journal entries, he writes of the holy mountain of Kanchenjunga, "O Tantric Mother Mountain! Yin-yang palace of opposites in unity!...The full beauty of the mountain is not seen until you too consent to the impossible paradox: it is and is not. When nothing more needs to be said, the smoke of ideas clears, the mountain is SEEN." The mountain is both a "mother" and a place where talk of opposites (mother/father) is held within a wordless mystery. If gender lies along a finely nuanced spectrum, then what Merton calls God, is both the entirety of that spectrum and what holds the masculine and feminine, flesh and spirit in unitive be-ing, that which lies on a continuum beyond words and concepts. Because he found and lost and found himself on what has been called the apophatic way or way of unknowing where individual consciousness arises from and returns to silence, Merton's words have the capacity to unify rather than divide.

If you envision a stream or river of multi-coloured light, then what the west has called "the Godhead" and the east "the One," is the unsayable mystery from which the colours emerge and into which they vanish. Or as Leonard Cohen puts it in "Boogie Street," "It is in love that we are made, in love we disappear.

About the Author

Susan McCaslin - I have been writing since the age of twelve when I discovered the magic of great books and the power of poetic language. In graduate school at Simon Fraser in 1969, poetry found me again and became my life's deep vocation. My "luminous companions" include William Blake and the Romantic poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, Vernon Watkins, and Denise Levertov. I am drawn to the mystical traditions of many cultures and religions and experience poetry as a musicality arising from silence. My most recent book is Into the Open: New and Selected Poems, Inanna Publications, September 2017.

Poet and essayist, J.S. Porter was born in Belfast and educated at McMaster University (MA in English literature) in Hamilton, Ontario. Culture Critic for The Nancy Duffy Show, he is a columnist for Dialogue Magazine and a frequent contributor to the online journal Hamilton Arts and Letters. His books include: The Thomas Merton Poems (Moonstone), an imaginative re-creation of Thomas Merton for our time; Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality (Novalis); Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things (Novalis); and Lightness and Soul: Musings on Eight Jewish Writers (Seraphim Editions), with a chapter on Robert Lax. He lives in Hamilton with his wife Cheryl.

McCaslin and Porter's new book, Thomas Merton Superabundantly Alive, Wood Lake Publishing, BC, is coming in the fall of 2018

Originally published in Works and Conversations, January 18, 2018

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