Monday, February 16, 2015

Thomas Merton, William Blake, and I Contemplate Eternity



Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 6 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas



My son Terry overlooking the Grand Canyon.

The things of Time are in connivance with eternity.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

I turn a corner on the path and suddenly the Grand Canyon is before me.  In that moment, the bottom drops out of my experience of time.  Personal insignificance and timeless significance coincide.  People on the rim are just grains of sand arbitrarily blowing across the uppermost layer of strata.  A glance over the edge is a plunge into eternity.

While it sounds right and looks awesome, I don’t think this is what Thomas Merton is referring to in the sentence highlighted above—which happens to be my personal favorite sentence in “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” Merton’s sublime epilogue to his book The Sign of Jonas.  The Grand Canyon experience is powerful, a true contender for supreme iconic image of eternity colliding with time.  But I think Merton was referencing something on an altogether different scale, available to everyone on a daily basis without the investment in a Southwest vacation.

Merton prefaces this sentence with a paragraph that resonates with the poetry of William Blake:

But there is a greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.  Eternity is in the present.  Eternity is in the palm of the hand.  Eternity is a seed of fire, whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss.

The things of Time are in connivance with eternity…
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

The Grand Canyon.
Having written his Master’s thesis at Columbia University on William Blake (“Nature and Art in William Blake; A Essay in Interpretation”), Merton very intentionally echoes the famous first four lines of Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence”:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour…
“Auguries of Innocence”
by William Blake

Merton knows that God must be met in the present moment, which he has learned from Blake is a doorway opening to eternity.  But what sounds simple is difficult because the awareness of passing time is a barrier to the experience of the moment of time.  It is a problem unique to mankind.  As Merton writes, “Only man makes himself illuminations he conceives to be solid and eternal.”  The things of time tease us with intimations of eternity, while leading us away from an experience of the spirit.

Merton steps through the door of the tower, onto the monastery’s roof, open to an experience of God in the night and in the moment.  The “things of time” sentence opens a paragraph that relegates the created world to shadows.

The things of Time are in connivance with eternity.  The shadows serve You.  The beasts sing to You before they pass away.  The solid hills shall vanish like a worn-out garment.  All things change, and die and disappear.  Questions arrive, assume their actuality, and also disappear.  In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.  The world that Your love created, that the heat has distorted, and that my mind is always misinterpreting, shall cease to interfere with our voices.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

So while my view of the Grand Canyon is profoundly felt on one level, its very majesty connives to hide its ephemerality.  It, too, will “vanish like a worn-out garment,” a faith belief entirely in line with geological understanding.  Like the beasts in Merton, the view sings of eternity.  It blindsides us.  And then the mind pitches in and begins misinterpreting it.

Detail, Children's Games (1559-1560)
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)
oil on wood.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
My most profound experience of eternity was not at the Grand Canyon or any of the National Parks, much as I love them.  It took place nearly thirty years ago when I was playing on a swing set.  At the time, I was working as an assistant at a home for five women with severe mental retardation.  One afternoon, I remember sitting on a two-person swing set in the home’s backyard.  I was on one swing and Carol, a young woman with Down syndrome, was on the swing next to me.  And we were simply swaying in the fall breeze, both of us content for the moment.  She had a beautiful smile and I was happy that she was happy.  Then the particulars vanished in the knowledge that everything was good, that there was no need to worry, that there was endless love emanating from anywhere and everywhere in the world and we were both loved.

You’re sitting on a swing and the bottom unexpectedly drops out of your normal experience of time ticking by.  The second hand on the watch stops.  A moment expands into eternity.

And then it contracts, as the second hand inevitably starts circling again.  The things of time fall back into place.  I recall the impossible-to-capture experience but not how it ended.  Perhaps it was like this:

There are drops of dew that show like sapphires in the grass as soon as the great sun appears, and leaves stir behind the hushed flight of an escaping dove.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Those are the concluding words of “Fire Watch,” coming after God speaks in Paradise, conveying a message that everything is blessed. (“No more lay hold on time, Jonas, My son, lest the rivers bear you away.”)  In Merton’s case, his job on the Fire Watch ends as the sun rises.  He returns to the mundane tasks of being a monk while the Holy Spirit departs like a dove.

The Grand Canyon.

Reference Source
The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

Click here for the entire six-part Fire Watch series.

© 2015 Lee Price

Friday, February 13, 2015

Thomas Merton and a Hedgehog on the Hero's Journey


Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 5 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas




Part One:  Fear of the Dark
In Yuri Norstein's enchanting animated short
Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), our hero ventures
into the fog drawn by a beautiful vision.  It is
a classic hero story, where the hero embarks
on a quest that leads to deeper self-knowledge.
Hedgehog in the Fog shares much in common
with Thomas Merton's "Fire Watch," where
Merton's solitary trek through the monastery
 leads to revelation.

Defying traditional expectations, Thomas Merton depicts the dark as spiritually good.  This is in the nature of a paradigm shift—and it’s not easy to cause a shift in anything as hidebound as a 2,000- year-old religion anchored to a set of ancient sacred texts.

In the very first paragraph of “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” Merton writes:

“You (God) have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better.”

Merton’s God blesses the darkness.  This is a concept that would seem to fly in the face of much scripture:

The hero's journey continues.
Top frame: The hedgehog sees a beautiful
vision of a white horse in the fog.  Middle
frame:  Unseen by the hedgehog, the horse
sniffs a leaf that that the hedgehog has
dropped.  Bottom frame:  Safely home, the
hedgehog is haunted by the vision of
the horse.  In "Fire Watch," Merton
pursues an unattainable intimacy,
yearning to receive answers from God
to his existential questions.
“And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
Genesis 1:3-4

“So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days… but all the people of Israel had light where they dwelt.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
Exodus 10:22-23

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
Isaiah 9:2

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
John 1:5

“Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
Romans 13:12

While positive passages about darkness exist in the Bible, they are few and far between.  Negative views of darkness overwhelmingly predominate.

The hero's journey continues.
Wandering lost in the fog, hoping to see the
horse again, the hedgehog is frightened by
mysterious beasts of the night:  an owl, a
bat, and an elephant, dimly seen.  As he
wanders through the monastery at night,
Merton evokes a haunted house:  "Shadows
move everywhere... There are faint sounds
in the darkness, the empty choirstalls creak
and hidden boards mysteriously sigh."
But Merton saw through this darkness surrounding darkness to realize that the light-dark dichotomy was always intended as metaphor, and that sometimes metaphors must change with the times.  Darkness served as a favorite image in ancient times because it was universally known and feared.  Our contemporary fears of darkness are much milder by comparison.  If fear begins to seize us, we can simply flick on a light switch, performing our own, “Let there be light.”

When the books of the Bible were written, intense anxieties about the night, the darkness, and the wilderness were very real and reasonable. Communities banded close together to protect themselves from the dangers that lurked outside.  Assurances of safety dissolved when the sun sank below the horizon. The civilized space contracted.  People gathered together within known, familiar spaces... and they barred the doors.  The wilderness outside the city walls, home to dangerous animals and bandits, advanced closer in the darkness.  Any venture out into the dark carried considerable risk.  Better to wait inside for the night to pass and a new day to dawn.

A twentieth century man living in the first full century of electric illumination, Thomas Merton was open to finding new metaphors to express the old truths.  For him, the night was simply an unexplored space—like the terra incognita at the edge of an old map.  With less to fear, he was more aware that God was fully present in the dark, blessing the night just as he blessed the day.

At the close of “Fire Watch,” Merton prophetically speaks for God:

The Voice of God is heard in Paradise:
“What was vile has become precious.  What is now precious was never vile.  I have always known the vile as precious for what is vile I know not at all.”
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

In the new metaphor, there’s nothing to fear in the dark.  The night assumes a new dignity, now recognized as precious before God.

The hero's journey continues.
Despite his fears, the hedgehog ultimately finds only kindness and
compassion in the fog.  Left: A dog (with very scary jaws) returns the
hedgehog's lost bag to him.  Right: When the hedgehog falls into a
stream, a fish offers him a ride back to safety.  In "Fire Watch,"
Merton writes that the animals in the wilderness outside the monastery
are misunderstood.  "That is why some people act as if the night and the
forest and the heat and the animals had in them something of contagion,
whereas the heat is holy and the animals are the children of God..."

The hero's journey at its most sublime.
Perhaps the most beautiful of all the images in Hedgehog in the Fog,
the hedgehog uses a firefly to light his way as he moves forward
through a cathedral of trees.  The world appears sacred.  In "Fire Watch,"
Thomas Merton writes:  "Now the huge chorus of living beings rises up
out of the world beneath my feet:  life singing in the watercourses,
throbbing in the creeks and the fields and the trees, choirs of millions
and millions of jumping and flying and creeping things.  And far above
me the cool sky opens upon the frozen distance of the stars."





Watch Hedgehog in the Fog...
Purchase the The Complete Works of Yuri Norstein DVD at Amazon or other vendor.
Purchase Masters of Russian Animation 2 DVD at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Masters of Russian Animation 2 at Netflix or other rental service.

Reference Source
The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

Click here for the entire six-part Fire Watch series.

© 2015 Lee Price

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thomas Merton and Vincent van Gogh Under the Stars


Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 4 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas




Thomas Merton’s spiritual embrace of the night sky in “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” the epilogue to his book The Sign of Jonas, puts me in mind of Vincent van Gogh’s celebrations of the night.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that the Kingdom of God is in their midst.  I like to think that when Thomas Merton and Vincent van Gogh looked up at the night sky, they saw the Kingdom in their midst, encompassing and challenging them.


Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888,
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890),
oil on canvas.
Musee d'Orsay.



Lane of Poplars at Sunset, 1884,
by Vincent van Gogh,
oil on canvas.
Kroller-Muller Museum.


The Old Tower at Dusk (1884)
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890),
oil on canvas.
Private Collection.


Country Road in Provence by Night (1890)
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890),
oil on canvas.
Kroller-Muller Museum.



Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon (1889)
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890),
oil on canvas.
Kroller-Muller Museum.



Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum (1888)
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890),
oil on canvas.
Kroller-Muller Museum.
Vincent van Gogh ran into a problem when he decided he wanted to paint the night sky, so much more visible in the town of Arles than it had been in well-lit Paris.  His subject turned out to be uncooperative.  Desiring to paint Impressionist-style, en plein air, Van Gogh set up his easel on a sidewalk, positioning himself under a gas light so he could see his paints.  But, naturally, the artificial light masked a thousand stars above, defeating his intention.  As a result, his first great nocturnal scene from Arles, Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, does a fine job of capturing the personality of the cafe but left him unsatisfied with its depiction of a starry night.

He kept trying, driven by love of art, nature, and a spiritual impulse that he couldn’t deny.  He wrote, “I have a terrible need of—shall I say the word?—religion.  Then I go out at night to paint the stars.”

Van Gogh wanted to capture the colors of the night in a new way that would shatter conventional depictions of a black sky with pinprick white stars.  He wrote to his brother Theo, describing the sky as he saw it during a nighttime walk along the seashore:

“The deep blue sky was flecked with clouds of a blue deeper than the fundamental blue of intense cobalt, and others of a clearer blue, like the blue whiteness of the Milky Way.  In the blue depth the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, pink, more brilliant, more emeralds, lapis lazuli, rubies, sapphires.”

I think Thomas Merton and Vincent van Gogh were kindred spirits.  Both were seized by strong religious yearnings while young and felt themselves called to a religious life.  Although personally dedicated to the Trappist traditions, Merton found that he continued to need artistic outlets, expressing his insights through prose and poetry.  He viewed his religion through the eyes of an artist.  In contrast, Van Gogh never found a religious base to call home.  Rejected in his ministerial calling, Van Gogh sublimated his essential religious nature into his art.

Thomas Merton embraced the night in “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” praising it as a gift of freedom:  “You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better.”

Vincent van Gogh marveled at the night sky, witnessed a vision of vibrant cosmic creativity that he felt compelled to share, and he painted Starry Night.

Starry Night (1889)
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890),
oil on canvas.
The Museum of Modern Art.

Reference Sources

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

Click here for the entire six-part Fire Watch series.

© 2015 Lee Price

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan Riffing on Isaiah


Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 3 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas




Part One:  Isaiah, Dylan, and Merton

Kingdoms are poised to fall in the Book of Isaiah.  From a besieged city’s highest tower, the watchman will sound the alarm.

Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord,
Continually by day,
And at my post I am stationed whole nights.
And, behold, here come riders, horsemen in pairs!
Isaiah 21:8-9

Watchman, what of the night?
Watchman, what of the night?
Isaiah 21:11

There must be something in these lines that resonates with genius because both Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan responded with some of their strongest work.  In “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” Merton’s epilogue to his book The Sign of Jonas, he opens with the line, “Watchman, what of the night?”  The 13 pages that follow are Merton’s response to Isaiah’s question.  Fifteen years after Merton wrote “Fire Watch,” Bob Dylan re-imagined Isaiah 21:8-9 in his famous song “All Along the Watchtower.”

Isaiah 21 is part of a section where the prophet issues a series of oracles prophesying the fall of cities.  Verses 1 through 10 address the impending fall of Babylon.  Destruction will come like “whirlwinds in the Negeb.”  Dylan takes this and hints at the storm to come: “The wind began to howl.”  The approach of the two riders, along with the wildcat growling and the wind howling, signals apocalypse.  The song ends just as the end of things begins.

The other Isaiah verse quoted above come from a second oracle.  Although it is addressed to Dumah (or Edom), a city located near Jerusalem, the subject still appears to be the fall of Babylon and its repercussions for Judah and Israel.  To the question “What of the night?” the watchman responds:

“Morning has come, and also night.  If you will request, request.  Return and come.”

According to the commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), the watchman’s response refers to the release of the Hebrew captives from Babylon (“morning has come”), a time that will be accompanied by judgment for some (“and also night”).  The exiles are urged to request permission of the conquering Persian army to return to the ancestral home (“If you will request, request.”).  And the passage ends with a call for all to return with appropriate humility and repentance (“Return and come.”).

The Fall of Babylon (1569), engraving by
Philips Galle (Netherlandish, 1537-1612)
after Maarten van Heemskerck.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Employing considerable creative license, Merton assigns his opening Isaiah quote to God rather than Isaiah’s unnamed speaker.  In “Fire Watch,” the first line, “Watchman, what of the night?” is italicized.  Merton doesn’t return to italics until the penultimate three-paragraph section of the essay where “The Voice of God is Heard in Paradise.”  In this construction, God opens the essay with a question and concludes with a strong (if ambiguous) statement.  In between, Merton ventures his own tentative responses to the question, “What of the night?”

Merton differs from both Isaiah and Dylan in his gentle treatment of the wilderness.  In Isaiah, the animals of the countryside will surely kill you:  “And the birds of prey will summer upon them (the people who flee the city)/and all the beasts of the earth will winter upon them.”  (Isaiah 18:6.)  Dylan is similarly ominous, with a wildcat’s growl announcing the impending destruction.  In contrast, Merton finds peace in the sounds of the Kentucky wilderness outside the monastery:

The world of this night resounds from heaven to hell with animal eloquence, with the savage innocence of a million unknown creatures.  While the earth eases and cools off like a huge wet living thing, the enormous vitality of their music pounds and rings and throbs and echoes until it gets into everything, and swamps the whole world in its neutral madness which never becomes an orgy because all things are innocent, all things are pure….  The heat is holy and the animals are the children of God and the night was never made to hide sin, but only to open infinite distances to charity and send our souls to play beyond the stars.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Merton turns from the violent overthrows of Isaiah and Dylan to find a different kind of apocalypse in the night.

Vanitas (1661)
by N. L. Peschier (Netherlandish, active 1659-1661),
oil on canvas.
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Part Two:  The Apocalypse of Thomas Merton

Lord, God, the whole world tonight seems to be made out of paper.  The most substantial things are ready to crumble or tear apart and blow away.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Scratch the surface of the Abbey of Gethsemane and a void opens.  Merton roams the silent halls on his fire watch, where everything is ostensibly quiet and peaceful, but his thoughts keep slipping toward premonitions of destruction and oblivion.

Burning of Old South Church,
Bath, Maine
, detail, c. 1854,
John Hilling (British, 1822-1894),
oil on canvas.
National Gallery of Art.
The monastery is solid as rock by day.  But, in Merton’s essay, everything appears different at night.  The night watchman’s job—keeping everyone safe from danger—is doomed to ultimate failure.  In the essay’s second paragraph, Merton sets out on his rounds “in the house that will one day perish.”  In this context, the word “house” operates poetically.  In Merton’s very Christian understanding, it is not just the monastery but the world as we know it that will perish.

From cellar to tower, Merton’s prescribed route through the monastery is a search for portents of disaster.  He checks a fuse box, fully aware that a single observation per night is insufficient to ensure any real safety.  “I am satisfied that there is no fire in this tower which would flare like a great torch and take the whole abbey up with it in twenty minutes…”

As he ascends the winding stairs of the monastery’s tower, Merton foresees his own non-existence, along with the passing of everything he loves in the material world.  “The beasts sing to you before they pass away.  The solid hills shall vanish like a worn-out garment.  All things change, and die and disappear.  Questions arise, assume their actuality, and also disappear.  In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.”

This is Merton’s mystic apocalypse, blessing the world while acknowledging its ultimate ephemerality.  Creation fades into darkness.

One by one I shall forget the names of individual things.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton's grave at the Abbey of Gethsemane.
Detail of a photo by Erik Eckel.  Wikimedia Commons.

The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Even from the highest tower, all that can be seen is a vast sea of darkness.  This is our future—a night that can be faced with either hope or despair.

Reference Source
The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

Click here for the entire six-part Fire Watch series.

© 2015 Lee Price

Friday, January 30, 2015

Learning to Walk in the Dark with Thomas Merton


Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 2 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas




Part 1:  Valuing the Darkness

The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich,
1808 or 1810, oil on canvas.
Alte Nationalgalerie

The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light:  a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

The world’s evil forms a current that swirls down a vortex into unspeakable horror, presided over by a Mr. Kurtz somewhere on the Congo River.  That’s the standard image of the heart of darkness, courtesy of Joseph Conrad.  In horror novels and movies, the climactic action inevitably seems to move toward either an ascent or a descent into a heart of darkness.  Monsters await there.  Biblical references to darkness tend to be equally negative:  “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness” and “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”

Enjoying the Moon: Landscape in the
Manner of Wang Meng

by Gu Yide (active ca. 1620-1630),
China, dated 1628,
hanging scroll.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nevertheless, the journey described in Thomas Merton’s “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” the epilogue to his book The Sign of Jonas, is one that takes place entirely in the night and is resolutely affirming of the darkness.  Merton’s role as a night watchman, pursuing a solitary nocturnal trek through the monastery of Gethsemane, offers opportunities to him that are unavailable during the day.  He eagerly moves toward the call of the darkness, the silence, and the night.  If you want to follow in Merton’s steps, they lead into the night.

In preparation for writing this series, I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s excellent recent book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  Taylor and Merton are Christians who—despite the myriad Biblical quotes that praise the light and condemn the dark—hear something deeply spiritual beckoning to them in the night.  In their own ways, each of them finds God in the darkness, and each finds the experience radically different than worship in the glare of the sun.

Taylor’s book is engaging and practical.  It’s encouraged me to enjoy the night more—to venture out more fearlessly.  She cites many inspiring examples of spiritual growth via passage through darkness and talks of her own experiences in caves, in a blindness-simulation exhibition, and under the night sky.  By contrast, Merton’s “Fire Watch” essay is a window onto a soul crying for spiritual nourishment.  He breaks off from the pack (his fellow monks) to search for God alone and in the dark.

Although Merton feels the presence of God more strongly at night than during the day, it is a presence that offers few consolations and no personally satisfying answers to his questions.  His spiritual experience of God in the dark renders him simultaneously overwhelmed and frustrated.

“…in the nighttime You have confronted me, scattering thought and reason.”

and

“…You have descended upon me, with great gentleness, with most forbearing silence, in this inexplicable night, dispersing light, defeating all desire.”

Merton uses the silent hours of the night to meditate upon his own calling and God’s intentions for him.  As he silently moves from room to room, from the monastery’s basement to the top of the highest tower, he hungrily petitions God to come closer and to reveal more.

He acknowledges that he asks similar questions in the day but he expects no answers then.  His one hope of clear communication is the night.  Even in a monastery, surrounded by vows of silence, Merton experiences the day as full of the noise of human rationalizations and empty talk.  He turns to the silence of the night for truth.

The Lonely Tower, detail
by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881),
British, 1879, etching in black on laid paper.
National Gallery of Art
With the aid of Taylor’s book, I can identify at least three kinds of exterior darkness.  There are: 
1) Pitch black:  The utter darkness of a cave, where you can’t even see your hand held in front of your face.  In the ocean, it is the darkness at the bottom of the deepest trenches.  In space, it is the unfathomable void between stars.
2)  Night darkness:  Light exists, but it is pale and the shadows are deep.  As our eyes adjust to the night, we become aware of moonlight, starlight, and all sorts of stirring life around us.
3)  The darkness of fog:  Light is deceptively dispersed through a seemingly opaque vapor, with the density of the fog obscuring even close objects from view.

The darkness discussed by Merton in his “Fire Watch” essay falls under categories 2 and 3, the night and the fog.  The darkness he describes is mainly a night darkness, full of life and open to the appreciation of attentive eyes.  But it is also like a fog.  One of Taylor’s key insights is that Moses meets God within a night-like cloud that descends upon Mount Sinai.  Merton directly refers to the same Biblical image as he steps out into the night at the top of Gethsemane’s highest tower:

With you there is no dialogue unless You choose a mountain and circle it with cloud and print Your words in fire upon the mind of Moses.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Like Moses, Merton encounters God within the darkness of fog.

Moses receives the tablets
from God in the cloud.

Illuminated manuscript,
Central Italy (Florence),
last quarter of the 15th century.
British Library
I was introduced to the idea of Summer Christians and Winter Christians through Richard Beck’s great Experimental Theology blog.  Originally proposed by Martin Marty, the suggestion is that most Christians naturally fall into either one or the other type of spirituality: summer or winter.  Summer Christians embrace the positive, anticipating or experiencing happiness in God.  Winter Christians are comfortable with engaging with God through complaint.  In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Taylor speaks of some churches that she says engage in a full solar spirituality:  “Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith…  Who would not like to dwell in God’s light 24/7?”  These are the churches of the Summer Christians.

The two types are complementary, neither better than the other, and the world needs both.  It’s just a matter of temperament.  Winter Christians must arm themselves with flashlights and move through the night in a search for God that they fully realize may be futile.  They do it because they have to.  Thomas Merton, Barbara Brown Taylor, and I don’t have much choice in the matter.

The darkness beckons.


Part Two:  Christmas Eve

Winter Moonlight (also known as Christmas Eve), 1866,
by George Inness (1825-1894),
oil on canvas.
Montclair Art Museum

While passing through the choir novitiate during his rounds as night watchman, Thomas Merton smells the frozen straw and it triggers a memory:

…the freezing tough winter when I first received the habit and always had a cold, the smell of frozen straw in the dormitory under the chapel, and the deep unexpected ecstasy of Christmas—that first Christmas when you have nothing left in the world but God!
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Winter Moonlight, detail,
by George Inness (1825-1894)
Montclair Art Museum
Although this doesn’t sound like any Christmas I’ve ever known (where are the decorations, the presents, and the Christmas cookies?), it’s an enchanting reminiscence.  I might trade the decorations and the presents for a deep unexpected ecstasy.  Maybe not the snickerdoodles, but I’m willing to barter the rest.

Merton’s Christmas memory reminds me of this beautiful early painting by George Inness.  Originally called Winter Moonlight, the painting seems to have picked up the very appropriate name Christmas Eve about a century ago.  It resonates with the power of a silent night.  The clouds break in the middle to frame the resplendent moon, but its light is insufficient to remove the dark shadows that dominate the painting.  The figure in the middle, like a shepherd or king, follows the light even as it leads him toward the shadows.

As Merton wrote near the conclusion of “Fire Watch”:

Lord God of this great night:  do You see the woods?  Do you hear the rumor of their loneliness?  Do You behold their secrecy?  Do You remember their solitudes?
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

These seem appropriate questions to ponder, while silently appreciating this beautiful painting in the collection of the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey.

Reference Source
The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

Click here for the entire six-part Fire Watch series.

© 2015 Lee Price

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thomas Merton and I Share a Fire Watch


Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 1 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas




Part One:  Thomas Merton, Writer

Thomas Merton would have turned 100 this coming Saturday (January 31, 2015).  I’d like to think he would have celebrated it in silence at his beloved monastery Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky.  Maybe he would have ascended Gethsemane’s tower to look out again upon the world, as he described in this passage from the “Fire Watch” epilogue to his book The Sign of Jonas:

And now my whole being breathes the wind which blows through the belfry, and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens.  The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer.  Will it come like this, the moment of my death?  Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars?
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Unexpectedly, the door swung open for Merton just 16 years after he wrote “Fire Watch,” accidentally electrocuted while attending an interfaith conference in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968.

Two decades after his death, I began a slow yet steady exploration of his vast legacy of writings.  Most nights, there’s a Merton book by my bed.  In my better moments, I attempt to model my life on him.

Not that I’ve taken vows or adopted a habit of silence!  Celibacy’s not for me and I generally prefer to rise after the sun, not at 4 a.m. for prayers and hymns.  I don’t wear a robe to work.

Eadmer of Canterbury Writing,
Unknown, Flemish, Belgium,
about 1140-1150, tempera colors
gold paint, and ink on parchment,
7 x 4 1/2 in.,
Ms. Ludwig XI 6, fol. 44v
The J. Paul Getty Museum
But after more than twenty-five years of intermittent immersion in Merton’s often profound writings, I’ve become convinced that his central vocation was not being a monk, but being a writer.  He cultivated a writer’s curiosity, always probing and questioning and looking for deeper levels.  While initial spiritual experiences may have taken place while on his knees in monastic prayer (or on his knees in monastic housekeeping), his insights became clarified in recollection afterward, as he religiously wrote in his journal or pecked away on his typewriter.  He sought for a difficult balance, striving to be simultaneously fully awake to the material world while remaining ever conscious of a spiritual dimension behind the veil.  He valued both.  This is the Merton that I hope, in my better moments, to emulate.

I don’t remember why I picked up a biography of Merton in 1986, eighteen years after his tragic accidental death.  I must have heard something that nudged me in his direction.  In any case, I read the biography and it didn’t impress me much.

I don’t remember why I persevered, moving on to The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s best-selling autobiographical account of his spiritual awakening, but I do remember the jolt I felt when Merton suddenly connected with me.  Despite all the biographies, reminiscences, critical analyses, and blog entries written about him, an understanding of Merton is inseparable from wrestling with his own words.  He probably wasn’t a saint, but he was an extraordinary writer.

This is why Merton’s experience on the fire watch—a solitary walk through his monastery one night in 1952—opens out onto the universal.  Merton the artist consciously and intentionally shaped a short prose masterpiece out of an experience which is ultimately beyond words.  Through his artistry, “Fire Watch” is a spiritual journey that’s not restricted to Trappist monks on vows of poverty, but accessible to people everywhere.

Part Two:  My Fire Watch, January 24, 2015

The Crescent Moon, detail, by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881),
pen and sepia ink and graphite on wove paper,
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

My attempt at a fire watch:

I rise after everyone is asleep.  That’s no easy task as my wife’s a night owl…  It’s much, much later than Merton’s fire watch rounds which began with the monk’s 8 p.m. bedtime.  My wife typically stays up until 2:30 (as, somewhere in Kentucky, the monks are entering their last hour of sleep before their first prayers and hymns of the morning!).

As with Merton’s rounds, a fire watch in my house naturally begins in the basement.  Given our situation, it’s therefore initially more of a water watch than a fire watch.  Opening the basement door, my biggest fear is to see a rising tide of water at the bottom of the stairs (unfortunately, this is an anxiety stemming from experience).  Even with Merton, the term fire watch only captures part of his responsibility.  Fires were frequent in that part of Kentucky so they were the greatest concern, but the watchman is really called to be on alert for signs of all manner of disaster.  If Merton found a flood in the basement, he’d have to raise the alarm.  He’s the watchman, after all.

So I furtively turn on the basement lights and, with relief, see only dust and shadows below.  I descend the stairs, then check the furnace and the outlets.  I check for any signs of water pooling near the walls.  Nothing to report.

Moonlit Landscape
with Bridge
, detail,
by Aert van der Neer
(1603/1604 - 1677),
probably 1648/1650,
oil on panel.
National Gallery
of Art
I return back up the stairs, entering the kitchen.  I check the oven and the coffee maker, then sniff the air for smoke.  Everything’s off.  Everything’s safe.  I cross into the dining room and notice I should change the table cloth.  But that’s not a fire watch job; it can wait.  And so it goes as I move along a sort of oval path through our living room, the foyer, the family room (passing the curious dog), the laundry room, the powder room, and back to the kitchen.  The watchman sees no cause for alarm.

At this point in his duties, Merton enters into the silence and contemplates the deeper call of his work.  The silent nighttime patrol isn’t really about safety at all:

The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light:  a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Alone on the first floor, with my wife and daughter asleep above me on the second, I pause to think.  My outward responsibility as watchman is to protect.  But, according to Merton, my equally important inward task is to embrace this opportunity to be with God in the darkness, “in the house that will one day perish.”  So I settle into the silence.

The furnace rattles on.  The dog looks up.  I feel distracted.

The next stage of the fire watch beckons.  I ascend the stairs to the second floor, flashlight in hand.  Everything looks as it should.  As with Merton, “the flashlight creates a little alert tennis ball upon the walls and floors.”  I shouldn’t wake them.  We watchmen must keep our vows of silence.

I have a wife and a daughter living at home, and a son away at college in Maine.  I feel my job should be to protect them all.  The watchman must be ever vigilant.  But in the silence and darkness, knowing my Merton-assigned task is to simply be with God, it becomes obvious that this house’s watchman is helpless.  My wife is wrapped in a solitary silence.  My daughter is sound asleep.  Six hundred miles away, my son is alone in his dorm room.  And the watchman is alone in the hall, solitary and powerless to keep anyone truly safe.

Moonlight (Mondschein), 1895
by Edvard Munch (1863-1944),
etching and Aquatint.
National Gallery of Art
In our shared helplessness, I share something in common with Thomas Merton, on July 4, 1952, wandering alone through the monastery, enduring an examination of conscience, isolated in the heart of darkness.

Between the silence of God and the silence of my own soul, stands the silence of the souls entrusted to me.  Immersed in these three silences, I realize that the questions I ask myself about them are perhaps no more than a surmise.  And perhaps the most urgent and practical renunciation is the renunciation of all questions.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

There’s little I can do—of practical value anyway—so I head back to bed.  

In Kentucky, in a monastery near Bardstown, Merton’s brothers are waking up as I fall back to sleep.

Reference Source
The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

Click here for the entire six-part Fire Watch series.

© 2015 Lee Price