Farewell to a Monk

“did merton and i make any resolutions as young men? one (& it wasn’t just tacit) was to talk simply. merton certainly succeeded in that, & got a lot said in simple (not simplistic) language.” Robert Lax, journal C.

by J.S. Porter

He walked, said Lax, like a dancer. James Laughlin learned some Sanskrit and something about Eastern religions so he could understand the notes for The Asian Journal and then for years afterwards let words like “dzogchen” and “sunyata” float in his head so he could keep close to his dead friend. Lax waited for him in the island of Patmos. Denise Levertov and Jack Kerouac dedicated poems to him. Lenny Bruce sometimes ended his nightclub act by reading his satiric meditation on Adolf Eichmann. He ping-ponged into Allen Ginsberg’s dreams. He was the world’s penpal. And I’ve been a kind of missionary for him, a cheerleader, a proselytizer for his work, along with hundreds of other fellow-nameless ones who have responded to his photogenic face, his firecracker walk, and, in Ron Seitz’s words, his “chomp chomp chomp umm good lip-puckered ‘Aaahhhh!’ to life.”

It’s not easy saying goodbye to a monk, especially one with whom you’ve hung around for the last sixteen years. Monks with moon faces, with beautifully flawed and cracked porcelain lives, and with warm human laughs who are sometimes mistaken for Henry Miller or Pablo Picasso are especially hard to let go of. They’re stickier than gum, as unshakable as smoke. My monk looks down impishly upon me in my study, denim jacket over cassock, his hand underlining a script. I write under his smiling face and under his prayers: “Give me humility in which alone is rest and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens.” And my favourite, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.”

Just when you think it really is time to let go, to move on—you can’t be a cheerleader all your life—something tugs you back. Some unfinished business, you tell yourself. Shouldn’t everybody in the world know this monk in the blood the way you do? If only you write one more piece, frame one more window so others can see the monk as you do, lean on his strength as you’ve done, then you can call it quits. Don’t you have a special relationship with this monk? Or isn’t that at least the illusion he continues to foist and the delusion you continue to embrace?

There was a time when it seemed that I was making discoveries about the world as he was making them, and they were the same discoveries. I’d be reading Rilke, and then I’d read about him in his journals reading Rilke. I’d come upon Jeffers in my reading, and a day or so later I’d read about his having stumbled upon Jeffers. And so it went with Milosz, Picard and a host of others. It seemed that as I was making up the world he was too, and I’d go to where he had gone or sometimes get there before I read of his already being there. Does that make any sense?

Closing time doesn’t come easily when your life seems to be bleeding into somebody else’s or somebody else’s life seems to be bleeding into yours. You’re having a “trans-fusion,” and you’ve built up a dependency. Then, out of the blue, to make matters worse, thirty years after his death in Bangkok, his private journals fall into your lap, and you’re tempted to go on: one more conference, one more speech, one more paper, one more essay, one more Thomas Merton weekend at Five Oaks in Paris, Ontario, one more…

I tell my sister that if she goes before me I want her Updike poster, Updike in each decade of his Rabbit books. I like the pleasant pain of looking at photographs and seeing what the world does to a face, how it engraves a line, erupts a pothole, bequeaths a blemish. Updike, in Rabbit One, starts by looking like a boyish little league pitcher, a cow’s lick of hair, windblown like a Kennedy, and he ends, in Rabbit Four, looking like a younger, better preserved version of W.H. Auden. With Merton, you don’t see the face wearing time; he didn’t live long enough to age theatrically. He moves a short distance from young and bald to middle-aged and bald, the face a little chubbier than its earlier manifestations. Anyway, in return for Updike, if I go first, I’ll give Caroline my Merton, all my books by and about him, two of my library shelves… Wait a minute… I have to reconsider. I don’t dispense books beneficently or easily. I shouldn’t promise more than I can keep.

What do you take away from an encounter with a monk? Maybe something as simple as this: be who you are, stay in the flesh, stay on the earth, laugh when you can, love as much as you can. Again, Lax sums up clairvoyantly, a life in a phrase: “hermit at the heart of things.” My connection to Merton has always been more emotional than intellectual. You could almost say, if saying so made any logical sense, more physical than spiritual. It’s not that I don’t remember his insights into Zen or Sufism, or Christianity for that matter, but the ideas are not the wine with which I fill my stomach. Rather: “Tom, the great laugher. God, was he ever that! Open-mouthed ‘Oh Ah Ha’ with head thrown back, hands on hips.” That’s what Ron Seitz remembers in his “memory vision” in Song For Nobody, and that’s what I’d like to retain in mine.

Merton is a man I’ve felt along with, thought with, fought with, laughed with, dreamt with. I’ve been trying to let go. But he’s been such a big part of my mental life over the years it’s like letting go a part of myself. I’ve reviewed his letters to writers. I’ve written a poetic documentary on his life and work. I’ve compared him to Anais Nin and Wendell Berry. I’ve written a poem about him, imagining him in Las Vegas, surveyed his metaphors and his changing theories of the self, and lectured on his impact on the poet Denise Levertov and the literary critic Frank Lentricchia. But there’s still so much more to say.

I’m as dumbfounded by what has fallen away as by what has persisted and deepened. The romance with S holds little interest for me now. The epiphanies, even the one in which he sees through “the shadow and the disguise” before the Buddha statues at Polonnaruwa, mean less to me now than they once did. It’s not that I discount mystical experience—in no way whatsoever would I want to mock any aspect of human experience beyond my ken—but the ordinary grips more tightly now than the extraordinary. To the quotidian I am beholden. I’m also no longer interested in whether he had a son, whether the son died or whether he continues to live off the interest from The Seven Story Mountain. I’m not interested in the degree to which the electrocution was purely accidental or partly willed. By Bangkok, it seems to me, Merton had decided to be carefree, even careless. He would take his chances.

What I am interested in more and more is his friendship with Robert Lax. I’d like to meditate on that friendship, and how it was sustained largely through letters for over thirty years, and how they spoke in their own private language; how they frolicked with different pseudonyms, and how if you blocked off the names you wouldn’t always be sure who was speaking. The voice of one would take on the nuance and timbre of the other, and one would anticipate the other’s moves and moods.

I’d like to go more deeply into Merton’s dreams. A dream analysis of The Asian Journal perhaps, where his night-mind ferries from dream to dream, from balloons to clothes. I’d like to compare him to Jack Kerouac, two good old Catholic boys who went a little “Zeny.” In his free-falling, tumbleweed prose, Merton can sound like Kerouac, and Kerouac in his meditations on the world can sound like Merton. Here’s Merton, sounding like Beat Jack, in a letter to Lax about the death of the “black monk” of abstract expressionist, Ad Reinhardt:

Make Mass beautiful silence like big black picture speaking requiem. Tears in the shadows of hermit hatch requiems blue black tone. Sorrows for Ad in the oblation quiet peace request rest. Tomorrow is solemns in the hermit hatch for old lutheran reinhardt commie paintblack… Tomorrow is the eternal solemns and the barefoots and the ashes and the masses, oldstyle liturgy masses without the colonels… Just old black quiet requiems in hermit hatch with decent sorrows good by college chum.

And here’s Kerouac in Desolation Angels sounding like Zen Tom:

Hold together, Jack, pass through everything, and everything is one dream, one appearance, one flash, one sad eye, one crystal lucid mystery, one word— Hold still, man, regain your love of life and go down from this mountain and simply be—be—be the infinite fertilities of the one mind of infinity, make no comments, complaints, criticism, appraisals, avowals, sayings, shooting stars of thought, just flow, flow, be you what it is, it is only what it always is—Hope is a word like a now-drift—This is the Great Knowing, this is the Awakening, this is Voidness—So shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless and dont be sorry…

You could read a meditative nugget like that in Merton’s Zen And The Birds of Appetite or take the passage as a mini-yack from The Asian Journal. Tom and Jack were making one grand “mind-movie” all their lives, one on-going Book of Self. They wrote, therefore, they were. Both men were made of words, Merton an orphan who wrote himself into being. And both have that informal Yankee drawl that takes you back to Huck rafting on the river, where Hemingway says all good American literature gurgles up from. I’d like to call my imaginary piece “Tom & Jack” and imagine the reaction from staid publishers and stodgy editors. But somebody else can do it. I’m formally done with companero Merton now. It’s time to move on.

Somebody else can do a good psychoanalytical biography, from the British School of Object Relations, and a good Freudian biography, and a good feminist one. Somebody else can analyze his dreams, his rhetoric, his tone. Somebody else can catalogue his reading. There are plenty of workers in the vineyards. Let them pick the grapes and bottle the wine. I’m happy as a footnote to a footnote in Merton studies, a disposable entry in the bibliography, a mini-byte on the website. I once happened to stumble upon the fact that much of Merton’s Asian trip was duplicated, unknowingly, ten years later by Anais Nin. Call it a small discovery. Enough for me…

Mind you, when I gave a paper at the Fourth General Meeting of The International Thomas Merton Society at St. Bonaventure University in l995, I felt the old pull of lingering longer. For the first time I saw his handwritten lecture notes from when he was an English teacher at Bonaventure. The experience transported me back to the First General Meeting in Louisville in l988. There I heard Merton’s tapped voice in Bangkok, and saw his televized face for the first time, heard those final words about standing on your own two feet when the institutions around you are crumbling, felt a power I didn’t expect to feel from a guy who sometimes seems mixed-up in the journals. At Bonvaventure, a gorgeous campus with red-tilled Spanish roofs and enough trees and space for walkabouts, I saw for the first time Merton’s disciplined hand on Pope and the Augustans, on Donne and the Metaphysicals, on Milton, on Shakespeare, dozens of hardcover notebooks. Organized, systematic, insightful, detailed. The notes made my own makeshift lecture notes, written for the most part on throwaway scraps of paper, seem grossly inadequate.

I thought to myself how his hand had changed over the years. The hand of The Asian Journal, Merton’s final notebook, a hen-scratch, indecipherable at times, so rapidly did it try to record the surrounding scene. Can a hand reveal a life? In the early monk years following Bonaventure, Merton, in hand and in personality, was tight; he was linear, moralistic, serious, sure of himself. As he went on he got looser, more tolerant, funnier, less sure of himself.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at how tidy his Bonaventure hand was. After all, Merton was a consummate man of the arts. You can’t think of many in our century more thoroughly artistic. He liked to call his visual work “abstractions” or “graffiti.” For him they were “simple signs and ciphers of energy…” because “one who makes such nondescript marks as these is conscious of a special vocation to be inconsequent.” He took photographs; he painted; he drew; he did calligraphy; he wrote novels; he wrote poems; he translated other people’s poems. Was there a form in which he did not at some time or other dabble, and often, excel?

I’m particularly fond of the photographs and the Zen drawings. In my predilection for praise, I find myself wanting to boast about his photographs of windows and doors, of chairs, of simple human objects, and his photographs of walls and rocks and roots and birds; the sleeping Buddhas at Polonnaruwa, the Tibetan child, the standing and arms-folded Georgia O’Keeffe. I want to tell people about his Zen rooster. The will to proselytize itches from time to time. Shouldn’t every student in the country have a copy of his essay “Rain and The Rhinoceros” in his knapsack? And what about my favourite Merton stir-fry—his own poems, his translations of other poets’ poems, his meditational prose pieces, all in a single, slim volume—the now extinct Emblems of A Season of Fury?

Robert Lax, the long-limbed, elongated-faced poet and friend (physically a male Modigliani and a natural mystic) looked at the full artistic production, written and visual, and said:

the poems help the calligraphies
the calligraphies help the poems;
the poems and the calligraphies help the manifestoes;
you will see; you will see.

How right he was. The work is all cut from the same stone, and a deep-seeing friend can see the “hidden wholeness” to it all.

Everybody has a favourite Merton. Mine is in The Asian Journal, which is part photo album, bar list, travelogue, booklist, Buddhist commentary and glossary, part letter and speech, part dream and journal… All quintessentially Merton: his loves, his beefs, his doubts, his passions, his speculations, his dreams. All very human. No entry privileged over another. The times he drinks too much, the times he has an irritating cold, the times he feels himself levitating in joy are all recorded with equal faithfulness. Here Merton moves on paper the way he moved in life: fast. And he moves in this last journal with a special poignancy. You know it’s the end, and you know the truth of John Berger’s phrase: “And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.”

Maybe you never really know someone, or feel their true weight, until you lift you hand to wave goodbye. Maybe elegy is our deepest form of knowing: not head knowledge or heart knowledge but bone knowledge. The bone knowledge you can only get to when you’re leaving or the other person is leaving. Maybe you can only activate the deep reservoirs of feeling when you know something, or someone, can’t last. Like saying goodbye to a grandfather you only met for a day when you were very young and remembering every hour of that day, and remembering the wave at the window. But maybe you want to wave first this time, say goodbye to the other before he says goodbye to you. Is that why I want to wave goodbye to Merton because I didn’t wave goodbye to my grandfather? There’s a line in the New Testament about not leaving a place until you’ve fully dwelt there. I’ve dwelt in Merton, maybe not fully, but enough.

So what am I going to miss? Certainly not the conferences, though I met good friends there. I’ve grown tired of my own voice, sick of my own bleating, and less sure that academic minutiae on his life and work will resuscitate much of his vitality. The intimacy, I’ll miss. The feeling that I had found my writer and wouldn’t have to hunt for another. The feeling that my journey was somehow like his: to burrow down deep into the central stone of the self after scraping off as many false attachments as I could. And in that digging and burrowing and scraping I wouldn’t feel alone. I would sometimes hear a voice, a voice I could almost convince myself was his: don’t worry, things are ok, there are things you don’t know about, and won’t and can’t, the world does not depend on you, don’t carry burdens that aren’t yours, mercy is the secret word of the universe, someone will catch you if you fall.

Merton (middle and late Merton) speaks to you as if he were you or you were he or you and he were one. He speaks brother to brother, brother to sister. He cracks open Ursula Le Guin’s bi-polarity of the father tongue and mother tongue with a third possibility: the brother-sister tongue. He doesn’t lecture from the pulpit (Dad) or banter from the kitchen (Mom) but talks from the table at which the two of you are seated. He shows you his cuts and bruises in words as simple as bread, as full-bodied as wine. And when he finishes talking you ask yourself: is he talking about himself or is he talking about me?

You know he’s read more (he really is one of the important readers of the century, staggeringly broad and deep in his raids) and thought more, because in a monastery you have time to do those things, but inside, in the tormented heart and the stuttering soul, he’s just like you. That’s the illusion at any rate Merton persuades you of. Here’s how he puts it in his famous Preface to the Japanese Edition of The Seven Storey Mountain: “It is not as an author I would speak to you, not as a story-teller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only: I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self…Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know.”

The reader, the hearer—for Merton is someone you hear more than read— is witness to a life, (Simone de Beauvoir’s arresting phrase to describe her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre), privy to the unveiling of a human personality in its struggle to be fully human. The miracle in his writing, in his tone, is that in unveiling his own face he unveils ours, in writing the Book of Himself he manages to write the Book of Self in general.

Axioms, in the Keatsian manner, are played out on the pulses, brought into the bloodstream. Merton’s ideas are lived, tested, reformulated, retested, relived. What he passes on to you, you know he’s lived through, the best of his work existential and experiential. He speaks not “in the language of speculation” but “in terms of personal experience.” This, he says, is “always a little hazardous, because it means leaving the sure, plain path of an accepted terminology and traveling in the byways of poetry and intuition…to talk about my own soul.” There are very few purely intellectual ideas in Merton that are not first made real by the heart and the body, and in relationship.

When you ingest as much as Merton did, you lose the baby fat of cocksureness. You learn to live with your hives of desire, and your gourdful of tension. You become at times a little confused, impatient and grumpy (listen to his short-fuse lectures to the Novices at Gethsemani), self-obsessed and self-forgetful. You become a little paradoxical but aware of the paradoxes:

I have also had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me, if only because someone so complicated and prone to confusion and self-defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.

Merton said on one occasion: “I know that to some people I give a distressing impression of agitation and rambunctiousness.” On another occasion he wrote: “It’s not much fun to live the spiritual life with the spiritual equipment of an artist.” Vintage Merton. He would have been trying for any superior, one breath going up, another coming down, one shoulder leaning west, the other east. When you read the biographies, you come away with a certain sympathy for Dom James, Gethsemani’s head honcho and Merton’s sparring partner through the fifties and early sixties. Merton can be as wearying as a puppy, even in the journals, when you sometimes want to scream at his insatiable hungers and relentless energies: give yourself peace, man, take a break, have a rest, sleep on it.

I once had the experience of sitting with Merton’s friend and secretary and principal editor of the new private journals trickling out. During a longwinded lecture at the Third General Meeting in Colorado Springs, Brother Patrick Hart fidgeted, yawned, crossed his legs one way and then the other, closed his eyes, opened them and surveyed the room, rested his head in his hands, and so on. I thought to myself: this is what it would have been like sitting beside Merton. A dynamo. The man who walked fast, talked fast, typed fast, ate fast, the man with a dozen projects cooking in his head and a dozen books on the go. What did his friend Jean Leclercq say? “Someone asked me recently: ‘When he died, was he not going through a crisis?’ I answered: ‘I think he always had been in one long continuous crisis.’”

I like the fact that Merton never really found a conventional literary form, a genre, he could make his own. He’s a failed novelist, and at times a poet manque and an uneven essayist. What he does best resides within marginal forms like notes, meditations, journal entries, letters. He’s a master of marginal forms, and it amazes me that after two decades of dabbling in story and poem I’ve only begun to realize that whatever writing talent I may possess has more to do with these marginalia than with the central forms. I too am a notemaker and a writer of meditations. I too write best about “the things I love: ideas, places, certain people: all very definite, individual, identifiable objects of love…”

Merton should have taught me the value of the marginal earlier, but I couldn’t see the obvious until a poet-friend pointed it out to me. Now, this late in the game, Merton has harvested a new form for me: neither this nor that, a controlled chaos, a wild domesticity. The marginal monk wrote “marginal notes,” and that’s what I have aspired to and done a little of in my notes on Emily Dickinson, Bruce Powe and Dennis Lee. I would even seek to set down my notes, as he does in The Sign of Jonas, in the context “of ambivalence, of questioning, of supreme spiritual risk.”

Some writers find their forms, others spend their whole lives searching. Yeats, for example, wrote prophecy, plays and autobiography, but he is remembered for his poetry. And that’s what you think of writers. She’s a novelist. He’s a poet. That one’s a playwright. But I like the unclassifiable ones, the ones like Lawrence and Camus and Merton who try their hand at a variety of forms but never really find the one they’re totally at peace with. These ones you take whole, with their flaws and cracks, or you don’t take them at all. Me, I want the whole Lawrence—sermons, paintings, diatribes, novels, stories, poems, plays, letters, propaganda, rants—and I want the whole Merton from his Catch of Anti-Letters to his New Seeds of Contemplation. The only thing in the Merton canon I can’t stomach is the hack and hagiographic work he did early on for the Catholic Church and the monastery: Catholic apologetics. On that I’ll pass.

There’s another cable of connection, more existential, more psychological. I feel marginal most of the time. I feel hyphenated, the way Merton perhaps felt. Not a poet-monk but a poet-teacher, or someone, on the poet side, with delusions of that kind of hybrid grandeur. Like Merton, born on the border of France and Spain, I’ve always felt border-born, border-driven, border-crossed, a bit Irish, a bit Canadian, but neither really. At home nowhere and comfortable only with strangers or foreigners or foreign things. I understand Merton’s flirtation with the East, with Buddhism, with multicultural penpals, psychically, from the inside. It’s what I would have done given half the talent. Neither this nor that, but something else, but I’m not sure what the something else is. Did he ever feel at home? Have I ever felt at home? When I wrote in The Thomas Merton Poems

I am polyglot
not sure which language is native
which country is home

and all my skins are itchy
was I talking as Merton or as myself?

“In the blue west the moon is uttered like the word:/’Farewell.’” Merton wrote that once in a poem. So how do I say goodbye to my moon-monk? I want to remember him through the words of his student, Matthew Kelty: “I would always think of him not as being brilliant and an intellectual and all that, I think of him as being poor, and simple, and little and fragile and dearly loved…” And I want to remember him through the words of Lax: “he grew to be/the person/he knew/he was.” And I want to pass on some last teacherly advice. Walk towards him slyly, friend. Slowly. Peek slantedly at his calligraphies, his photographs and prayers, his poems, meditations and notes: those unguarded moments when his heart opens to receive you, and you don’t worry where one self begins and another ends.

  • Published in The Antigonish Review, #108, Winter, 1997.

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