Saturday, 24 November 2007
Celebrating 100 postings
Today I am told that this is my 100th posting on my blog. To celebrate I would like to be true to the sub-title on my blog: wayfarer
IN DOING SO I WOULD LIKE TO DEDICATE THIS TO TWO MEN WHO ARE BEGINNING TO HAVE AN INCREASING INFLUENCE ON MY THINKING, OWEN AND THOMAS MERTON.
The painting displayed above is by Owen Merton,(near Motueka) the father of Thomas Merton. Owen was a great artist, born in Christchurch New Zealand and married Ruth Calvert Jenkins, an American art student in London in 1914. His son, Thomas was born in Prades in the Pyrenees-Orientales France. Thomas Merton wrote more than 50 books, 2000 poems, and a countless number of essays, reviews, and lectures that have been recorded and published.
Man instinctively regards himself as a wanderer and wayfarer, and it is sesond nature for him to go on pilgrimage in search of a privileged and holy place, a source and centre of in dedefectible life. This hope is built into his psychology, and whether he acts it out or simply dreams it, his heart seeks to return to a mythical source, a place of "origin," the "home" where the ancestors came from, the mountain where the ancient fathers were in direct communication with heaven, the place of the creation of the world, paradise itself, with its sacred tree of life, thus wrote Thomas Merton.
So who was Thomas Merton ? (January 31, 1915- December 10, 1968) Often described as an American Trappist monk and author, born in Prades in the Pyrenees-Orientales departement of France.
Merton was educated in the United States and France before attending Oakham School in England. As mentioned earlier, his father was an artist from New Zealand and his mother, a Quaker, was from the United States. His mother died when he was six and his father when he was sixteen. After a disastrous first year at Cambridge University, during which time he fathered an illegitimate child, Merton moved to the United States to live with his grandparents. He proceeded to take his bachelor's and master's degrees at Columbia, where he made the acquaintance of a group of artists and writers who would remain his friends for life.
Merton converted to Catholicism in his early twenties during the period he was writing his master's thesis on William Blake. His desire to enter the Franciscans being thwarted, he taught at St. Bonaventure's College, in Olean, New York and, following a retreat at the Trappist (Cistercian of the Strict Observance) Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky during Easter 1941, he came to a crisis with call up looming and was finally accepted as a choir novice (with the intention of becoming a priest) at Gethsemani on December 10th, 1941.
During his long years at Gethsemani (where he was encouraged to write) Merton changed from the passionately inward-looking young monk of his most famous book, the autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, to a contemplative writer and poet who became well known for his dialogue with other faiths and his stand on non-violence during the race riots and Vietnam War of the 1960s, and finally achieved the solitude he had long desired in a hermitage in 1965. During these years he had many battles with his abbot about not being allowed out of the monastery, balanced by his international reputation and huge correspondence with many well-known figures of the day.
A new abbot allowed him the freedom to undertake a tour of Asia at the end of 1968, during which he memorably met the Dalai Lama in India. He also made a visit to Polonnaruwa (in what was then Ceylon), where he had a religious experience while viewing enormous statues of the Buddha. There is speculation that Merton wished to remain in Asia as a hermit. However, he died in Bangkok on 10th December 1968, having touched a badly-grounded electric fan while stepping out of his bath. His body was flown back to Gethsemani where he is buried. Since his death, his influence has continued to grow and he is considered by many to be a twentieth century American mystic.
Merton put a ban on publishing much of his work until 25 years after his death. After that time his diaries were published
But why has this man influenced me ? First his father was born in Christchurch, New Zealand where I have my family home and his paintings ptovide me with a sense of belonging, the place where I started my pilgrimage in 1968. His son, Thomas has helped me understand the spiritual journey many of us are still on, and he has helped me understand the lives of the great mystics.
Merton’s spiritual journey within became the subject of tens of tracts and books on meditation and contemplation, social justice and ecumenism that have guided believers ever since. His books still sell, and commentators who write on his writings continue to sell, as well. For example, James Finley’s Merton’s Palace of Nowhere deals with Merton’s understanding of spiritual self-identity. Merton’s whole spirituality, Finley says, pivots in the question of human identity, his message is that “we are one with God.”
Toward the end of his life Merton grew increasingly interested in bringing people together, both in the communal sense, and in bridging obvious differences, such as race and religion. He studied Eastern religions and became enamored of the philosophies of Buddhism. On a trip to the Far East he met several times with the Dalai Lama as he prepared to give a presentation geared for bringing together East and West in a major world conference. A few hours before he was to speak, Merton died by being accidentally electrocuted in his bathtub in the hotel in Bangkok where he was staying. He was 53 years old.
Another Merton associate at the monastery at Gethsemane, writes that whatever Merton was doing, whether talking or writing on prayer, monastic life, liturgy, the psalms or on civil rights, peace and war, nuclear disarmament or ancient cultures, “he was expressing the fullness of the nature of contemplation. For contemplation for Merton was not simply one aspect of life, still less some esoteric phenomenon attainable by only a few in life. For him, contemplation was the fundamental reality in life. It was what made life real and alive. It was what makes us to be truly human.”
I hope this might inspire some of you to read Thomas Merton and to enjoy the art of his father, Owen.