Thomas Merton, Superabundantly Alive (Article)

(for Michael W. Higgins & Rev. Judith Hardcastle)

By J.S. Porter

Loss comes early and hard to Thomas Merton: loss of a mother, a father, a brother. An orphan mothered by a monastery.

He enters the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky on December 10th., 1941. Seven years later he publishes his autobiography. He is 30 years old. The Seven Storey Mountain, a book of losses. A book of radical reconstruction and re-orientation of the self.

He’s a hyphenated man: poet-monk, artist-monk, scholar-monk. Dancer, too. The monk secretly dances. A Zorba. A Zorbamonk (Dan Pilling’s phrase). To live monastically: read, pray, think, write, teach, eat, drink, dance…

He records his life in voluminous journals for fear that it may otherwise disappear.

A man of many turns. The biggest to monastic life. He turns towards serious reading in 1939; he turns towards Zen and the East in the early sixties. He turns to politics in a letter to Dorothy Day on August 23, 1961: “…I don’t feel that I can in conscience… go on writing just about things like meditation… I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues…” In the summer of 66, he also turns towards love, the love of a particular individual who bears the initial (or letter) M.

Love “is a certain special way of being alive;” it’s “an intensification of life, a completeness, a fullness, a wholeness of life.” These things he learns from his relationship with M., a student nurse who cared for him in a Louisville hospital for a short but memorable time.

Some of Merton’s lesser known vocations: cartoonist, book reviewer, translator, calligrapher, photographer, polemicist, reader, letter writer, bongo drummer… His scribbles gargantuan: thousands of poems, thousands of letters, hundreds of essays, hundreds of translations, dozens of published journals…

Merton: a man of the Americas. Interested in “Deeper roots, Indian roots. The Spanish, Portuguese Negro roots also.” The shallow English roots are not enough. “My vocation is American - to see and to understand and to have in myself the life and the roots and the belief and the destiny and the Orientation of the whole hemisphere.”

His heart in Latin America, his mind sometimes in Asia. The world in his bloodstream. He is, in poet-friend Robert Lax’s phrase, a “hermit at the heart of things.” Superabundantly alive in politics, poetry and prayer. A man with a poetic sensibility. He reads, translates, teaches and writes poetry all his adult life. The Latin American poets—Cardenal, Cortés, Cuadra, Parra, etc.—occupy a special place in his heart. He corresponds with them, translates them, writes about them, is inspired by them. Literary critic Stefan Baciu writes: “During the last two decades, Merton was one of the constant and most accurate spokesmen for this realm [the realm of Latin American poetry] through a series of translations without equal in the literature of the United States, or, for that matter, in world literature.” Merton “knew how to love, understand, and interpret the Spanish and Spanish-American worlds.”

Born in Prades, France - died in Bangkok, Thailand. The electric man dies from accidental electrocution (“an overdose of electricity,” says Michael Higgins).

According to the Bangkok police, he dies with a net worth of ten dollars. “Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success.” After a peripatetic childhood, his life for the most part lived quietly in a monastery, then in a hermitage, in the knobs of Kentucky.

Most nights: alone, cold, a glass of bourbon, some holy waiting…maybe Joan Baez will walk in, maybe M…some unexpected angel-woman…to his cabin on the monastery grounds.

Mercy his word, used the way most of us use the word grace…what holds you, surrounds you…

Selfhood defined, his own and that of others: “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.”

His haiku:

"High winds all night
Stole the voices of the bells:
No one knows what they said."

Merton on Zukofsky (and himself) - “He never reaches to make anything ‘musical’ or ‘poetic’; he just touches the words right and they give the right ringing and tone.”

The old monk
A woman walks by

And how did you spend “your one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver), Mr. Monk? Reading and writing, and dreaming of women. More reading than writing, more writing than dreaming.

The monk writes
One word, another
Worlds whisk by
A lifetime at read
Between the lines
Lives come and go

Living the monastic life: “a rich life…built on cruel deprivation” - you can observe the swoosh but not touch it.

Merton’s appetite: “I know that I have to read, and understand, and think, and grasp, and experience…”

In poet and friend Robert Lax’s phrase about his work, he was “superabundantly alive.” To Lax, his major characteristic was







Merton quotes Rilke’s “First Elegy” from The Duino Elegies in his journal — “Were you not forever distracted by expectation, as if everything were announcing to you some (coming) beloved?”—as a way of speaking to himself.

Dreams of women - Proverb, the Chinese princess, the black mother, Ann Winser, Jinny Burton, M.

On Nov. 28, 1967, he writes: “Then came back and began a new Penguin containing Basho’s travel notes. Completely shattered by them…”

On Dec. 19, 1967, a year before his death: “Reading Basho again. Deeply moved by the purity and beauty of his travel notes and Haiku.”

In Merton’s last poem, “Kandy Express,” he strings together travel notes and haikus. He has a haiku mind - jumps and linkages everywhere. When he reads Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, he writes: “It is like Zen—like Dostoevsky—like existentialism—like Francis—like the New Testament.” That’s Merton: connection and connection and connection, like and like and like.

More haiku: "Great train monster - Buddhabuddha!
Sawing everything down to tea's smallest leaf."
"A white crane standing in sunny water
briefly shakes herself.
Another flies low over green paddy and alights."

There is always more than one thing going on at any one time in Merton. The Asian Journal is his Book of Last Things: last dreams, last photographs, last speeches, last poems, last letters, last notes.

Sometimes in his journal notes Merton sounds like Basho:

“A very small, gold-winged moth came and settled on the back of my hand, and sat there, so light that I

could not feel it. I wondered at the beauty and delicacy of this being— so perfectly made, with mottled

golden wings. So perfect. I wonder if there is even a name for it. I never saw such a thing before. It would

not go away, until, needing my hand, I blew it lightly into the woods.”

Sometimes he gets his haiku, his Zen into a single line:

“My Zen is the slow swinging tops of sixteen pine trees.”

Sensitivity to nature - one of the constants in his life; he’s always aware of the weather, how the day is, where the birds and butterflies are.
He knows he is a part of the all, as each is interpenetrated by all.

> “[W]e have a deep and legitimate need to know in our entire being what the day is like, to see it and feel it, to know the sky is grey, paler in the south, with patches of blue in the southwest, with snow on the ground, the thermometer at 18, and cold wind making your ears ache. I have a real need to know these things because I myself am part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place, and a day in which I have not shared truly in all this is no day at all.”

“the bitter and lucid joys of solitude”

He reworks Luke 6: 38: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Merton a giver. What he gives is himself.

A mild tut-tut to his friend, the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki: … “his lineup of Buddha vs. Christ is also dualistic, and when he starts that he forgets his Zen… It seems to me the Cross says just as much about Zen, or just as little, as the serene face of the Buddha.”

His casual, unexpected prayers: these I like best.

“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.”

He greets the world bilingually, his first syllables in two languages:

"Oh sun! Oh joli!"
"bonjour buddha"
Bonjour "Monsieur Wind"

From Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable, the book that James Douglass brings into his discussion of the Kennedy assassination in JFK and the Unspeakable: “Guard the human image for it is the image of God.”

“Our very existence is ‘speech’ interpreting reality.”

Elena Malits in The Solitary Explorer on “the multistoried man:”
”He reintroduced and legitimized the use of “I” in religious inquiry…”

So much of his writing, Samizdat, underground writing (Higgins). His 111 Cold War Letters a case in point.

Just as there is the literary Merton and the spiritual Merton, there is also the political Merton. Merton’s political works on Nazism, racism, nuclear war and the military-industrial complex are an essential part of his body of work. He spent a significant portion of his intellectual life putting into words Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1988 oil painting, Unfinished Flag of the United States, where the blood red stripes extend across the globe. The image speaks to America’s unbridled appetite to spread its influence and control everywhere.

Merton mixes prayer with politics, his “Hagia Sophia” with “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants” in a single volume entitled Emblems of a Season of Fury. In this one New Directions volume you have poems, translations from the Spanish, satires, mini-biographies of Latin American writers, a prose poem and a political essay. In Raids, you have his calligraphies, parables, myths, meditations, manifestos, prose poetry and adaptations from a medieval Arab mystic. How he likes to join things. One is always more than one.

In the last year of his life he edits a hodgepodge called Monks Pond (a volume for each season). To the poet Zukofsky, he writes: “No money involved anywhere.” Instead: “Poems, creative things, Asian texts, blues, koans, ghost dances, all to be crammed into four issues.”

“The Bellarmine conferences last week. These busy but rewarding days, talking on wisdom, talking boldly, offending pious ears…urging a broadening of horizons in every direction - political leftism, peace (Gandhi), study of the Orient, creative work, writing, publishing and whatever else I could think of.”

A phrase - “broadening of horizons in every direction”—sums up a life.

For me, the necessary Merton, the urgent Merton, in the 21st century, these Swiftian works, these tracts of the sixties, these fusions of poetry, politics and prayer:

  • Original Child Bomb (an extended prose poem, now a documentary film)
* “Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces” (prose poem. Lenny Bruce sometimes closed his night club performance with Merton’s words.)
  • “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann” (essay)
* “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants” (essay)
  • “Epitaph for a Public Servant” (a found poem, a word collage, on Adolf Eichmann)

And don’t forget his essays: “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” “Message to Poets,” and the Orwellian “War and the Crisis of Language.”

His art, his writing, his life: “…one who makes such nondescript marks as these is conscious of a special vocation to be inconsequent…” The marginal monk chooses marginal forms: Zen drawings, notes, meditations, Zen photography, journal jottings. Fast—he eats fast, types fast, reads fast, walks fast, thinks fast—a defining word.

He knows what he’s doing: “The notes set down in this Journal must be seen in this context of ambivalence, of questioning, of supreme spiritual risk.”

[Distillate © HA&L + J. S. Porter 2 | {from the Greek bios} — the course of a life.]

[traverse to a place that is different, yet strikingly familiar, where you may read J. S. Porter’s Muriel Rukeyser: In each word, a storm]

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