Life is on our side

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Resurrection

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Resurrection

Life is on our side. The silence and the Cross of which we know are forces that cannot be defeated. In silence and suffering, in the heartbreaking effort to be honest in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty), in all these is victory. It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness to a light of which we have no conception and which can only be found by passing through apparent despair. Everything has to be tested. All relationships have to be tried. All loyalties have to pass through the fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us. But Victory is certain. The Resurrection is the only light, and with that light there is no error.

Thomas Merton in a letter to Czeslaw Miłosz, as quoted in The Merton Journal 22.1 (2015)

My silence is my salvation

I enjoyed reading a fascinating article on silence in the poetry of Thomas Merton and T. S. Eliot (in The Merton Journal 22.1 [2015]). The author, Sonia Petisco, quotes Merton as follows:

My life is a listening, His is a speaking. My salvation is to hear and respond. For this my life has to be silent. Hence my silence is my salvation.

Also, these lines from Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ spoke to me:

… pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.

Petisco herself offers some interesting insights into Merton and Eliot’s work, noting, for instance, that ‘with their poetry they were implicitly hinting at the dethronement of man as the owner of Logos, so that things around us can recover their own speech and engage in a (sic!) honest dialogue beyond the objective/subjective dichotomy. … awakening in us a new sacramental awareness of the mystery of Life’.

And some brilliant lines from Eliot’s ‘East Coker’:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And from Merton’s Cables to the Ace:

Waste. Emptiness. Total poverty of the Creator: yet from this poverty springs everything. The waste is inexhaustible.

Eliot again, this time some well-known words from ‘Burnt Norton’. For, addressing the limitations of language, he is all too aware that his words:

… strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
will not stay still.

‘History’, Merton suggests in The Tower of Babel, is ‘going inevitably forward / by the misuse of words’. The current public discourse around refugees and asylum seekers comes to mind. What both, Merton and Eliot, are aiming for, Petisco suggests, is ‘a theology based on the regenerative Word of God as the only antidote to the word of fear ruling the contemporary world’. However, that word can’t be heard because there isn’t enough silence in the world. Again, what is needed is ‘a Word which decentralizes man as the owner of Reason, restoring the lost dialogue between “I” and the otherness’. And, with silence being the key, Merton prays:

Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all’.

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It needs no power to kill

The following poem was written by Thomas Merton to commemorate the beautiful act of Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl, who, when she was dying as a consequence of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, spent her final days making hundreds of paper cranes, symbols of healing and peace.

Paper Cranes

Sadako (Paper Cranes)

How can we tell a paper bird
Is stronger than a hawk
When it has no metal for talons?
It needs no power to kill
Because it is not hungry.

Wilder and wiser than eagles
It ranges around the world
Without enemies
And free of cravings.

The child’s hand
Folding these wings
Wins no wars and ends them all.

Thoughts of a child’s heart
Without care, without weapons!
So the child’s eye
Gives life to what it loves
Kind as the innocent sun
And lovelier than all dragons!

From: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton

Democracy ceases to be an objective fact: Thomas Merton read post-Brexit

merton-photoWriting sometime in the 1950s or 60s (hence the non-gender-inclusive language), Thomas Merton had this to say about democracy:

… democracy assumes that the citizen knows what is going on, understands the difficulties of the situation, and has worked out for himself an answer that can help him to contribute, intelligently and constructively, to the common work (or ‘liturgy’) of running his society.

[…] Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them.

Indeed, he worried that, if the above is not realised, ‘democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word’.

These thoughts by Merton, published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, illustrate why it is profoundly problematic to assert that democracy has been served in the recent referendum leading to a narrow majority in favour of Brexit.

When politicians and a certain sector of the media do everything they possibly can to spread fabricated ideas, thus making it extremely difficult for citizens to know what is going on or to understand the difficulties of the situation, then democracy has NOT been served; indeed, as Merton rightly saw, it ‘ceases to be objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word’, which is exactly what we are witnessing at present.

For a society to move forward in healthy and life-giving ways, it is essential that this is acknowledged and that properly democratic steps are now taken as it seeks to negotiate its future.

Perhaps it is only a monk who can think of this in terms of ‘liturgy’, alluding to the original meaning of the term, but a coming together, a common work, is precisely what we now need.

Being very careful not to say what he does not mean

No matter where in the world he may be, no matter what may be his power of protest, or his means of expression, the poet finds himself ultimately where I am. Alone, silent, with the obligation of being very careful not to say what he does not mean, not to let himself be persuaded to say merely what another wants him to say, not to say what his own past work has led others to expect him to say.

Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage