Chicago was one of the many cities across the world where people gathered this weekend to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century, Thomas Merton.
The Chicago Chapter of the Thomas Merton Society held its celebration at the retreat center sponsored by the Cenacle sisters in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. I had spoken to the chapter in the past about Merton’s poetry. This time, I was asked to offer a reflection on the importance silence to Merton’s vocation a writer. Though I’m far from being a Merton scholar, I’ve been assiduously making my way through his vast body of work since my college days. I hope my enthusiasm for Merton as a spiritual teacher and as a fellow writer makes up for what I might lack in scholarship. Here are my thoughts on “Merton as Writer: Echoing Silence:”
Those of us prone to multi-tasking know the effort it requires to hold several tasks at once in balance. Some of this same tension exists in Thomas Merton over his twin vocations as monk and writer. Merton the writer denigrated, even denounced some of his earlier work, saying at one point in The Sign of Jonas, “The man who began this journal is dead, just as the man who finished The Seven Story Mountain was dead over and over.”
Still, unlike the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who requested his entire body of work be burned upon his death (happily it never was), Merton the monk safeguarded his literary progeny in hundreds of rectangular, ruled accounting ledgers where he daily recorded his thoughts and observations in delicate, miniscule handwriting. His personal journals alone, spanning 26 years, were published in seven volumes. His poems number 1,500 pages.
Like the iconic statue of blind justice, Merton seemed capable of keeping the scales of his two vocations, writer and monk, in balance. Despite his worries upon entering the monastery, one way of life never overtook the other. He writes in The Sign of Jonas, “If I am to be a saint—and there is nothing else that I can think of desiring to be—it seems that I must get there by writing books in a Trappist monastery. If I am to be a saint, I have not only to be a monk, which is what all monks must do, but I must also put down on paper what I have become It may sound simple, but it is not an easy vocation.”
Merton often speaks interchangeably of monks and writers. He saw them both as people foraging at the margins of society. St. Benedict said monks must live as strangers to the world. Merton uses that same word, stranger, to describe writers. He also calls the writer variously a bystander, outsider and pilgrim who must be a ‘witness to life.’ In other words, a person whose vantage point at the edges of society allows him or her to see reality more clearly.
“Let us be proud we are not witch doctors, only ordinary men,” he writes in the essay “Message to Poets.” “Let us be proud that we are not experts in anything. Let us be proud of the words that are given to us for nothing, not to teach anyone, not to confute anyone, not to prove anything absurd, but to point beyond all objects into the silence.”
And here is that other great tension in Merton, another he also managed to hold in balance: the tension between words and silence. “The world doesn’t want to hear any more words,” he writes at one point in his journal. And in one of the most beautiful pieces of writing , the preface he wrote for the Japanese editon of Thoughts In Solitude, he says, “No writing on the solitary meditative life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” For Merton, in the silence, everything begins to connect.
Merton frequently seems as interested in the silences between words, and the silences to which words lead us, as he is in the writing itself. In Thoughts in Solitude, he says, “The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smokescreen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things. In solitude, we remain face to face with the naked being of things.”
I often think what finally won Merton over to Trappist way of life was its silence. He saw it as the balm to what he called “the wild carnival we carry in our hearts.” In his writing, it’s almost as though Merton is a swimmer, who dives into a deep pool of silence, then breathes out words to us as he surfaces for air, only to descend once again into the quiet. It’s a continuous cycle of call and return, of resurrection.
For me, some of his most beautiful writing evokes the silence of nature. That silence inevitably gives birth to words, but the words always lead him back to silence.
Here are two of my favorite passages.
From Raids on the Unspeakable:
The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous, virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, or rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the woods with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges.
Watching that scene unfold, he ends by saying simply. “I am going to listen.”
This passage is from Day of a Stranger:
It is necessary for me to see the first point of light which begins to be dawn. It is necessary to be present alone at the resurrection of Day, in the blank silence when the sun appears. In this completely neutral instant, I receive from the Eastern woods, the tall oaks, the one word "DAY," which is never the same. It is never spoken in any known language.
It is Merton reminding us that the sacred is often beyond words.
The Trappist silence came to reflect for Merton a fundamental truth and paradox: that there is nothing in everything, and everything in nothing. What does that mean? On Merton’s 40th death anniversary in 2008, I was assigned by PBS-TV to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani. There I met Brother Paul Quenon who as a novice had Merton as his spiritual director. I asked Brother Paul to recall the most significant bit of wisdom he had received from Merton.
“We were talking about prayer,” Brother Paul told me. “That prayer is a struggle, like Jacob struggling with the angel at night. And he said, when you’re really encountering God, God is not a thing. God is more like nothing. So when you enter into the depth of prayer, it’s like encountering nothingness.”
Later Merton would famously write in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark that belongs entirely to God.”
I believe that point of nothingness is silence. It is like Elijah seeking to hear the voice of God first in the wind, then in the fire, and finally listening to it in the quiet. It is Merton entering that “blank silence” at the resurrection of the day when even the song birds go silent.
Merton often railed against the tyranny of technology. I sometimes wonder, indefatigable letter-writer that he was, what he would make of email. Would he Skype, have his own Facebook page? Can you picture him, a man who barely had an unpublished thought, with Twitter at his fingertips?
I imagine Merton, a “social” hermit, a monk who turned toward the world, a wordsmith who esteemed silence, likely would find ways to use of all these forms of communication. Then, at the end of the day, with Compline prayed, he would sit alone on the porch of his cinderblock hermitage, under the bulb of a full moon, listening to the crows and crickets, relieved once again of words.