Friday, October 8, 2010
Thomas Merton - mid-20th-century Catholic convert, Trappist-leaning-toward-Buddhist monk, autobiographer, poet and essayist - such a friend to read, feels familiar. Devout, irreverent, obedient, rebellious. Reclusion in Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky wasn't enough solitude, so he built his own hermitage on the grounds. He found intermittent peace but compulsively tossed out scores of essays to the world speaking on politics, spirituality, liturgy, the monastic life. He kept a journal. He had an affair with a young woman in his fifties. He welcomed visitors sitting on his porch in secular dress drinking Kentucky bourbon. He wrestled desires for communion with people and complete attention an earthy imminent immanent Vatican II God. I can really relate with this persistent tangle, this tension. He's so nicely flawed.
I read this week about his death in a hotel in Bangkok in 1968: he slipped getting out of the shower, grabbed an electric fan, was electrocuted. Vaguely knew he had died young and strangely, but this picture makes me sad. He seemed to be beginning a new phase of his life, a new rite of passage, a new religious identification - I mourn not being able to read his thoughts on all that, continue to follow his testimony. But maybe he had arrived where he needed to go, had said just enough.
This is Thomas Merton spending the last weeks of his life not in reclusion but on a long tour of Asia:
"He was left on his own to wander among the statuary and the fallen stones...the ruins of Polonnaruwa were giant and magnificent renderings of the human person.. [Merton:] 'the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing...Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly jerked clean of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious...the thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no 'mystery.' All is clear. The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya - everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.'"
from "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" by Paul Elie
It may be that being a monk - or any identity or attachment - is in the end better understood as a rite of passage than a promise. When is it time to be jerked clean?