Art & contemplation

Thoughts while reading Merton & Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice, by James Harford

I feel a tension between my devotional life and my love of writing.  I have recognized this tension also in the writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a modern-day contemplative and a gifted writer. I bought Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton and the Vocation of Writing, a 2007 compilation of Merton’s writings on writing, to see how Merton lived with a calling to both writing and devotion.

I’ve always found Merton’s distinction in New Seeds of Contemplation between a poet and a contemplative both true and tough:

The poet enters into himself in order to create.  The contemplative enters into God in order to be created.

I found language in Echoing Silence (from the 1958 essay “Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal”) that expands on the New Seeds aphorism:

Now it is precisely here [a novice contemplative’s tentative experiences of grace, which reflection threatens to spoil] that the aesthetic instinct changes its colors and, from being a precious gift, becomes a real danger.  If the intuition of the poet naturally leads him into the inner sanctuary of his soul, it is for a special purpose in the natural order: when the poet enters into himself it is in order to reflect upon his inspiration and to clothe it with a special and splendid form and then return to display it to those outside.  And here the radical difference between the artist and the mystic begins to be seen.  The artist enters into himself in order to work.  For him, the “superior” soul is a forge where inspiration kindles a fire of white heat, a crucible for the transformation of natural images into new, created forms.  But the mystic enters into himself, not in order to work but to pass through the center of his own soul and lose himself in the mystery and secrecy and infinite, transcendent reality of God living and working within him.

Consequently, if the mystic happens to be, at the same time, an artist, when prayer calls him within himself to the secrecy of God’s presence, his art will be tempted to start working and producing and studying the “creative” possibilities of this experience. . . . The artist will run the risk of losing a gift of tremendous supernatural worth, in order to perform a work of far less value.  He will let go of the deep, spiritual grace which has been granted him, in order to return to the reflection of that grace within his own soul.

(Merton isn’t always so categorical in seeing a contemplative’s role as higher than a poet’s.  In another selection from Echoing Silence, he advises some to accept their vocations as writers – the grace given to them – and to stop pining for a contemplative vocation that God probably did not intend for them.)

Merton fights this writer-versus-contemplative battle less abstractly and more personally in his letters and journal entries.  In one 1948 letter to a friend, he resolves not “to either renounce or to adopt whole ‘blocks’ of activity – cutting out ‘all’ writing or ‘going into solitude for good’ (as I would like to) . . .”  On the other hand, a 1949 journal entry states, “At the moment the writing is the one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude.”  Later on, however, especially in the 1960’s, he sometimes describes his writing as a distraction and an obsession.

[book]When I bought Echoing Silence, I bought a recent biography of Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice at the same time to get free shipping and to learn more about how Merton got along with his Columbia friends – Lax, Rice, and others – once Merton took his vows a couple of years after leaving Columbia with a master’s degree in 1939.  James Harford’s Merton & Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice introduced me to Lax’s poetry.  If Merton’s life and writing have clarified my struggle with writing and devotion, Lax’s life and writing have helped me see how devotion and writing may come together for me.

With regard to Merton, Lax, and Rice’s relationship after Merton entered Gethsemani, they stayed in close contact with one another through their letters and publishing endeavors.  Rice founded and edited Jubilee, an influential and unprofitable American Catholic magazine published from 1953 through 1967, and he relied heavily on his Columbia buddies to supply articles, photos, artwork, and other writers.  Merton was a frequent writer-contributor.  Lax, who published earlier than his Columbia buddies – a few poems in The New Yorker in the 1940’s – was a more sporadic contributor of both photography and writing to Jubilee.  When Lax was in New York, he’d hang out at Jubilee’s modest, crowded office.  Staff members would often find him meditating on the office’s fire escape to escape the commotion.  But Lax spent many of the Jubilee years in France, North Carolina, Connecticut, Greece, and elsewhere.

Lax, Rice, and Merton, along with fellow-Columbia pal and painter Ad Reinhardt, increasingly influenced one another as their fame grew.  Reinhardt’s paintings were moving to purely black canvases about the time Lax’s already spare palette was frequently cleaned of all but six or seven words per poem, words that were repeated in vertical shapes that invite contemplation more than analysis.  Reinhardt’s paintings and ideas influenced Lax a great deal.

But Lax was a gifted copy editor, and he was known for his concision long before he came under the influence of Reinhardt’s minimalist theories. One photographer at Jubilee said, “If you worked with Lax, you didn’t need Strunk and White.  My eight pages of pictures and his forty words caught the whole story.”

Lax’s concision and his quiet spirit seemed to affect his poetry more as the Jubilee years went on.  During the fifties and sixties, Lax’s poetry reflected a more contemplative bent, employing little religious imagery – in fact, little metaphor at all.  Here’s “The Port Was Longing,” an example of his poetry from the early 1960’s:

The port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this ship

not for

that ship

not for

this ship

not for

that ship

the port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this sea

not for

that sea

not for

this sea

not for

that sea

the port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this &

not for

that

not for

this &

not for

that

the port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this &

not for

that

The increasingly spare and simple words in Lax’s poetry and his experiments with vertical forms got Lax labeled as an abstract minimalist.

Lax’s move to Greece was as seemingly impulsive as his earlier moves, but he settled there. Before Greece, Lax made several moves and career changes by jumping in the backs of friends’ cars as they were leaving town.  The Circus of the Sun, published in 1958 and arguably Lax’s best book of poems, was the result of a year he spent as a circus clown and juggler.  His meditation on a picture of John writing the Apocalypse in a cave at Patmos precipitated his move to the Greek islands in 1963, and he lived there until just before his death in 2000.

Lax didn’t move to sparsely inhabited Greek islands to become a hermit, but to become a better poet.  As he explained in his introduction to A Greek Journal, “I thought I needed [a quiet place] for my work, as a photographer needs a darkroom.”  Lax became fascinated with the Greek fisherman and other characters near his modest, rented home, though, and he enjoyed his island contacts.  Nevertheless, he gained an international reputation for being a hermit, much as he had gained a reputation among his coworkers at Jubilee’s offices years before as being a kind of quiet “clown saint.”

At Patmos and the other Greek islands on which he lived, Lax seems to have found the quiet, contemplative place that Merton had hoped to find at Gethsemani.  Merton did move to a hermitage at Gethsemani, but the move never seemed to fit him.  Unauthorized picnics with friends (including, famously, Joan Baez) and a romantic interlude seemed to make some of his Catholic friends feel that his earlier, regular monastic life was a better fit for him.  But much of the distraction came from the chief demand on Merton’s time – his writing. Merton lived under the pressure of constant writing deadlines.  One visitor to Merton’s hermitage described the atmosphere there as a one-man newsroom.

The difference between Lax’s and Merton’s spirituality had something to do with their temperaments.  Lax once described Merton as a “type A” and himself as a “type Z” personality.  Merton’s temperament reminds me of the Apostle Peter – strong and restless, sometimes at home with himself, but more often picking fights.  Lax reminds me of John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the one who leaned on Jesus’ breast at Passover and whose portrait in Marseilles involves him both writing and praying and caused Lax to pick up his tent for the last time until his health declined in old age.  Lax, like John, was one of the last of his crowd of spiritual explorers to die.

Their temperaments also influenced the way they negotiated their vocations as writers with their callings as contemplatives.  Somehow Lax witnessed a more joyful marriage of contemplation and writing than did Merton.  Lax found and arranged shapes and sounds and expressions that, for me, largely bypass the ego and suggest meditation.

Here are some thoughts from James J. Uebbing’s introduction to Lax’s Love Had a Compass (1995) that I think ring true:

[Lax’s] insistence upon patience, upon attention to trivialities is not an incidental element of design, for simplicity – its centrality as a human virtue and the necessity of its cultivation – is at the heart of Lax’s achievement as a poet and as a man.

º º º

With Lax it is necessary to put aside the very notion of interpretation, the expectation – so basic to us that it is barely recognizable as a strategy – that an author’s art will by its nature be linear and syllogistic.

º º º

The elements of his art are the elements of the created world: the sea and the men and the animals and the light.  Like every artist he makes his use of them, but unlike most he acknowledges that they do not belong to him.  They find their origin elsewhere.  It is in this respect that Lax must be acknowledged as a religious man, insofar as for him artistic creation is not a ransacking of the visible world or an assertion of some unfettered consciousness so much as it is a participation in a process that was already in motion long before he arrived on the stage.

Lax’s poetry often feels like a clear reflection of God creating.  It also seems beyond the inspiration and creation that Merton suggests can keep an artist from losing herself in God.

Unlike Merton, who remains one of my favorite writers, Lax was at peace with his art.


Posted April 4, 2008.

Book group literary theory

I love Faulkner and I love Merton. I learned recently that Merton loved Faulkner and said this about him:

His novels and stories are far more prophetic in the Biblical sense than the writings of any theologian writing today (at least, any that I know!).

Merton was contemplating writing a book on Faulkner’s work, but he died instead.  Merton loved to write about literature, and thirteen years after his death New Directions put a lot of this writing into a five-hundred-plus-page book entitled The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton. In an appendix, this book also contains transcripts of informal talks Merton gave to his brothers at the Abbey of Gethsemani concerning The Sound and the Fury, Go Down, Moses, and The Wild Palms.

[Louise Rosenblatt]Go Down, Moses is my favorite Faulkner novel, and The Sound and the Fury ranks up there, too.  I wanted to read The Wild Palms this summer because Merton had read it and loved it and wrote about it, and I wanted to read what Merton wrote about it but not before I had read the novel myself.

I read The Wild Palms this week like I used to read books during those years when my Great Books book group was hot.  I couldn’t wait to share with Merton my impressions and read about his.  If I ever become Orthodox, I thought, I can talk to Merton because he’s not dead because God is not the God of the dead but of the living, thank you.  If I don’t become Orthodox, I could just scrawl margin notes in the appendix as usual, and that’s pretty satisfying.  Because I know Merton and I know Faulkner, and I’m so happy that they were friends, or at least that Faulkner was Merton’s friend the way Faulkner and Merton are my friends.

{book]Merton says that The Wild Palms is a meditation.  “Yes, a meditation!”  (Merton is animated.  The Literary Essays editor does little editing so as not to detract from the talk’s informality.)  Merton thinks The Wild Palms is a meditation because of the depths of the truths it gets across through a kind of counterpoint (I’ll explain at the end); I think it’s a meditation, too, but I say it’s because of Faulkner’s high-wire prose that unites thought and action through epic similes and movie-director detail and repetition, through non-sequential time and fraying syntax, a union that seems to thin out under a reader’s feet at a vertiginous height above a truth where she fears that she or the character one will fall and die in contact with that truth.  The prose is like a meditation, a spell, a dull spell (no matter how much you like Faulkner); it affects you like a dream, not a vivid dream but like your last, evaporating dream as you wake up: precisely the imprecise mood and the seemingly random images or words that stick with you not because they are the dream’s best moods or images or words but because they are the slowest moods or images or words to head out, the last bats, the ones that fly home in the orange sunrise; truth’s dull, pervasive, dawning impression.

Like this, Tom, this interaction between Wilbourne (lover) and McCord (husband) as McCord sees the couple off:

Wilbourne and McCord shook hands.  “Maybe I’ll write you,” Wilbourne said.  “Charlotte probably will, anyway.  She’s a better gentlemen than I am, too.”  He stepped into the vestibule and turned, the porter behind him, his hand on the door knob, waiting; he and McCord looked at one another, the two speeches unspoken between them, each knowing they would not be spoken: I won’t see you and No.  You won’t see us again.  “Because crows and sparrows get shot out of trees or drowned by floods or killed by hurricanes and fires, but not hawks.  And maybe I can be the consort of a falcon, even if I am a sparrow.”  The train gathered itself, the first, the beginning of motion, departure came back car by car and passed under his feet.  “And something I told myself up there at the lake,” he said.  “That there is something in me she is not mistress to but mother.  Well, I have gone a step further.”  The train moved, he leaned out, McCord moving too to keep pace with him.  “That there is something in me you and she parented between you, that you are father of.  Give me your blessing.”

“Take my curse,” McCord said.

On we go, our little book club, tonight, and when Tom left I thought again about The Wild Palms and about Bill, Tom, and me.

What would Louise Rosenblatt say about us tonight?  Her transactional theory of reading accounts for only two of us.  She puts everyone and everything but me on her stage in the preface to The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work: the writer (that’s Bill), the text, and the reader (Tom).  I’m a reader, too, but I’m also the reader’s reader, the reader of Merton’s secondary writing.  Where would I fit in?

[book]Rosenblatt’s transactional theory, which I like very much, emphasizes the reader’s role in the transaction among writer, text, and reader.  She says that classicism and neoclassicism seek to mirror accepted reality, that Romanticism emphasizes the author, that New Criticism emphasizes the text, and that her transactional theory strikes the best balance by emphasizing the reader and the text (1-3).  I’m never on stage, never part of the big theory, but I do get a shout-out later in the book as the reader of criticism.

So what am I doing reading Tom reading Bill?  As a reader of criticism, am I being shortchanged or enriched?  Is this metacognition or metaestrus?

Valid literary criticism must come from a reader as a reader, Rosenblatt would say, and it must be about “the web of feelings, sensations, images, ideas, that [the reviewer or critic as reader] weaves between himself and the text.”  The text is important, too, but only as “the external pole in the process” (137).  “Objective” literary criticism (i.e., criticism focused only on this external pole) – no matter how good (and she likes the New Criticism’s brand of objective theory) – cuts readers off “from their own aesthetic roots” and so (ironically) drives them from the subject of the criticism: the text (140).

Merton does a good job avoiding that. “Yes, a meditation!” means that he has processed the novel, and his meditation exclamation gives way in his talk to some experiences he had as a reader along with some insightful takes on the text.

But even more than Merton’s personal approach, my perceived friendship with Merton, dead or alive, makes his criticism fruitful.  I know where he’s coming from, and, more importantly, I don’t know where he’s going.  This is also why I like to read book posts on blogs I’m familiar with – well, that and the comment fields, which sometimes amount to interactive marginalia.

I can even enjoy what Rosenblatt calls “objective” criticism if I have some dirt on the critic.  I started to enjoy Cleanth Brooks’s essays more once he got roughed up a bit, once Rosenblatt and Harold Bloom pointed out New Criticism’s shortcomings to me.  A biography on Brooks helped me, too.

For me, the best literary criticism is like a good book discussion group or like a marriage of true minds, impediments and all, in which the author is the celebrant and his text is the covenant we choose to honor or contravene.

[book](Here’s a little about The Wild Palms, which Faulkner originally named If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem before his publisher had its way.  Faulkner wrote it mid-career in 1938.  In it, he examines love, sexual and otherwise, by interweaving two stories, each about a man and a woman.  I never knew that Faulkner had it in him to examine sexual love so well, and Charlotte may be his most interesting and most human female character.  The stories, one about a modern couple who live only for their mutual love and the other about a convict stuck on a skiff with a pregnant woman he rescues during a flood, balance each other out thematically and emotionally (the “counterpoint”). The modern couple story is a psychodrama, probably kind of shrill as a stand-alone, and the flood story is action and comedy, so the stories in The Wild Palms mix a bit like the stories comprising Go Down, Moses.  Noel Polk, the editor of the current Vintage edition of The Wild Palms, says that the original manuscripts demonstrate that Faulkner wrote the novel in the order it appears – in “alternating stints” and not one story at a time.  I knew that if Merton liked the novel then I would like it, too, and I did.)

Posted August 10, 2008.

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That due sense

As a boy in the Episcopal Church, I loved to say the General Thanksgiving. My knees ached against the hinged kneeling pads we had spent the last hour repeatedly pulling down and then retracting back up against the pew in front of us. Mom had torn the gold foil from around her last Certs somewhere around the Jubilate Deo. The minister had knocked off what seemed like a massive number of collects and prayers, and, with what seemed like a long, collective exhale, we all finally joined him in “humble and hearty thanks.” It was the General Thanksgiving; the service was almost over.

I loved the General Thanksgiving also for lesser, half-conscious reasons. I loved the way my lips worked out “inestimable,” whatever it meant. I loved the sound of “not only with our lips, but in our lives.” (The difference between hypocrisy and charity is effectively expressed in the difference between a short and long “i.”) And each week my forehead seemed pressed against the glass of those long sentences. What view were these phrases and commas affording of God? Twenty years later I would be writing airtight contracts, settlements, and releases with the kind of thoroughness and droning that the Book of Common Prayer (“BCP”) had planted deep in my soul. Lawyers can get to heaven.

What comes of repeating a prayer almost every week for an entire childhood? More may come of it than the child would understand. Life forms around prayers like that, making sense of the words, and the words help make sense of life.

The General Thanksgiving was added to the BCP in 1662, possibly as the result of the Puritans’ push to add more prayers of thanksgiving to the book. According to An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, Edward Reynolds (1599-1676), Bishop of Norwich, wrote the prayer and may have based it in part on “a private prayer of Queen Elizabeth that was issued in 1596.” The 1979 BCP artlessly updates the prayer’s language (“inestimable” becomes “immeasurable,” for instance, and “that due sense of all thy mercies” becomes “such an awareness of your mercies”). However, the BCP also retains the original prayer.

The prayer is in two parts: a thanksgiving and a petition. The first part, which includes the first two sentences, summarizes what there is to be thankful for. The first sentence sees God’s gifts to us in terms of his intention: “goodness and loving-kindness.” The second sentence mentions six gifts, but its language focuses on life and redemption.

The prayer’s second half – its final sentence – asks for a greater sense of mercy that would lead to a richer thanksgiving and a religious life.

The prayer’s three sentences may be outlined as follows:

I. We give thee thanks
A. For all thy goodness
B. And loving-kindness
II. We bless thee
A. For this life
1. Creation
2. Preservation
3. All other blessings
B. For the life to come
1. Redemption
2. Means of grace
3. Hope of glory
III. We beseech the, give us that due sense of all thy mercies
A. That our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful
B. That we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives
1. By giving up ourselves to thy service
2. By walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days
C. Through Jesus Christ our Lord

The General Thanksgiving’s big turn is foreshadowed in the appositive that begins the prayer: “Almighty God, Father of all mercies…” At the hinge of the prayer, where the prayer turns from thanksgiving to its only petition, is the prayer’s only other reference to mercy. Wrapped up in the petition’s nine words may be the most profound thing I know.

As we thank God for a litany of his gifts in this life and the next, we experience something of the joy of gratitude. We now want our thanksgiving to be a well within us, something we may drink from anytime. So we ask God for “that due sense of” – that appropriate awareness of – “all thy mercies.” With it, “our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful.”

We teach our children to say “thank you” so they will be polite and get along in the world. We also hope our training will lead our children to a more grateful and satisfying philosophy of life. But the General Thanksgiving understands that a true heart of thanksgiving doesn’t come through training alone. We have to understand the value and the source of the gifts we are thankful for.

Jesus told a story to his judgmental host who was watching an “unfeignedly thankful” woman convulse at Jesus’ feet:

Two men were in debt to a moneylender: one owed him five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. As they did not have the means to pay he cancelled both debts. Now, which will love him more? (Luke 7:41-42, Revised English Bible)

Simon, the host, gave the right answer. Then Jesus implied that Simon was the debtor in the story who was forgiven less. Simon would not be as thankful as the woman and would not love as much as the woman, because he was not forgiven as much as the woman.

What Jesus didn’t tell Simon was that he was just as big a debtor as the woman he judged. Simon would have to discover that for himself.

What does it take to have “that due sense” of all God’s mercies? We must be willing to take the path Jesus invited Simon to take. Simon must walk a path of self-discovery that would lead him to a much narrower view of himself. It would also lead him to accept a greater gift from his heavenly Father.

In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton describes the process to something like “that due sense” this way:

If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!

A heart of unfeigned thanksgiving is more than manners. It comes from more than religious insight or intuition. For most of us, it is the welcome city at the end of a long road.

According to the prayer, “that due sense” leads to more than a heart of thanksgiving. It leads to the life God intended for us. It leads to the charity and the holiness that Isaiah frequently links and that James joins to describe “true religion.”

Giving up ourselves to God’s service is not possible without this due sense. Walking in holiness is not possible without this due sense. All of our religion and all of our life must be a response to God’s mercy. Until it is, our real work is to walk the hard road we asked for when we prayed the General Thanksgiving.

 

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we thine unworthy servants
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
for all thy goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for thine inestimable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost,
be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.