Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Thomas Merton 60 years on

On this day forty years ago, Thomas Merton, 53, stepped out of the shower in a hotel bedroom and accidentally touched a short-circuited electric fan — a random end to an extraordinary life. Also on this day, but sixty-seven years ago, Thomas Merton, 26, stepped out off the streets into the guesthouse of a monastery, seeking acceptance into the Cistercian order. His was a life of great stability and order, amidst great randomness.

December 10 is a key date, then. Merton lived a sensitive, wild, intellectual, passionate, reflective, pragmatic, holy, privileged, disordered, centred life. What makes him a man for all seasons is that you can select every second word from that list and construct a simple personality — the redeemed or the rake. To understand Merton, though, you have to stick the list back together again and give every word its due weight. Merton did not collapse the ordered into the sensory aspect of his life, but lived elements of both to the full simultaneously. Merton’s holiness is emergent, not statuesque. And that is where his power and engagement come from.

Merton is a gloriously broad both/and character. His imagination and honesty shine clearly through his stumbling attempts to find God, and be centred in him. I doubt the present management in the Roman Church would be interested in making him a saint, because he hits all the wrong institutional tickle buttons. But it is impossible to think of Merton as one long dead, because very few of us have yet caught up with him; and it is that capacity to gift oneself to the whole Church, the whole world, that constitutes sainthood.

Saints, in this technical sense, hold out to others, freely, sometimes unwittingly, some tangible actualization of holiness. Anglicans don't do the Borders Reward Card thing about sainthood — we just let it emerge and then celebrate it. Therefore I cannot pontificate about exactly where Thomas Merton is, but if you go looking for him in heaven, I bet you’ll find him in the jazz section.

Merton rode white waters of chaos, and the heightened sensitivity that comes with living on adrenaline and late nights never entirely deserted him. He found stillness, supremely in a toolshed just beyond the monastery enclosure. His sacred centre was a dancing point, and that is the great resource he offers us, as we try and drink enough water to stay alive under the incessant shower — the information and media shower, the globalization shower, the goods, services and marketing shower. Showers are dangerous places...

And Merton’s message to us? The thing he learnt that we haven’t caught up with yet? Try this:

Man begins in zoology.
He is the saddest animal.
He drives a big red car called anxiety.
He dreams at night
of riding all the elevators.
Lost in the halls
he never finds the right door.

Man is the saddest animal.
A flake-eater in the morning,
a milk-drinker.
He fills his skin with coffee
and loses patience with the rest of his species.

He draws his sin on the wall,
on all the ads in all the subways.
He draws moustaches on all the women
because he cannot find his joy,
except in zoology.
Whenever he goes to the phone to call Joy,
he gets the wrong number.

Therefore he likes weapons.
He knows all guns by their right name.
He drives a big black Cadillac called death.

Now he is putting anxiety into space.
He flies his worries all around Venus,
but it does him no good.
In space where for a long time there is only emptiness,
he drives a big white globe called death.

Now dear children
who have learned the first lesson about man,
answer your test.


Man is the saddest aimal.
He begins in zoology,

and gets lost
in his own bad news.

1 comment:

Justin Martyr said...

My Lord, might you be able to suggest to the CoE that Merton be Commemorated in our Kalendar?

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