Beginning Again

Icon for International Thomas Merton Society Meeting, June 2015
Artist: Sister Donna Kristoff, Cleveland, Ohio

Saint Anthony of the Desert (so-called “father of hermits,” 4th century) is said to have written, “Every day I begin again.” Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 3, wrote that he was always needing to forget the past and keep stretching forward toward Christ. In his journal for November 29, 1952 (Journals, vol 3:25), Merton penned what has been for my life, especially in the decade of my Sixties and now at 73, an important paragraph. The annual retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani was ending:

“For my own part, I think much has been done to me in the course of this retreat in emptiness and helplessness and humiliation. Aware that I might crack up at any moment, I find, nevertheless, that when I pray, I pray better than ever. I mean by that I have no longer [a desire for] any special degree of prayer. But simple vocal prayer, and especially the office and the psalms, seems to have acquired a depth and simplicity I never knew before in any prayer. I have nothing but faith and the love of God and confidence in the simple means He has given me for reaching Him. Suspended entirely from His mercy, I am content for anything to happen.”

I suppose I have suffered post-traumatic syndrome since navigating out of my mother’s womb. I have always been melancholic. Even in my twenties I spoke of death often and told friends I would die early. But it was not until my sixties that the Black Dog (what Churchill called his depressions) no longer sniffed outside my window, but snuck into my bed and licked my neck, informing me he might visit frequently. I had tracked his scent for so long he finally found me.

When I returned home in February of this year, after my brother died and shortly thereafter his wife was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer (I accompanied her to her death), the Dog visited and informed me he had come to stay awhile. I can use literary images about it now because of my daily reception of blessed Prozac (40 mg) after eight months of the worst siege against my life I had ever experienced. I got out of bed reluctantly and every day in a daze. I ate little. I spent the day hour after hour sitting in one chair conscious of nothing, my eyes closed, only to move to another chair to spend more hours conscious of nothing, waiting for nothing except death. I picked out the belt I could use and tested which banister of the stairs would hold my weight. I frightened my housemates neither of whom would leave me alone. One time they did leave me to shop and I went out into the yard with the belt, thinking hanging from the fence would be less mess. I went back into the house. It stormed that night: what a scene that would have been.

What stopped me? I was not so gone that I could not see how disrespectful of my friends my suicide would be. And given my writing and retreats on Merton, some might be scandalized. I asked the psychiatrist if he agreed with me that those actually killing themselves are either high on a drug or temporarily out of their minds to actually commit the act. He agreed. Even though I put aside alcohol and marijuana, I knew the chance remained, before the Prozac kicked in, to quote Merton, that “I might crack up at any moment.”

There are more ways to commit “suicide” and I have committed facsimiles of the real physical thing. I called producers to cancel up-coming speaking engagements and retreats. I told a publisher that I could not write a book for which I had a contract. This was the second time I had done this to him, the first during a previous depression, and I did not care that he would never take a chance a third time. I deleted nearly all of my blogs for some nine years on I only saved one of my favorite reflections, “The Epiphany of Kindness in Sorrow’s Face” and kept all the blogs/podcasts from my hiking journey in 2012 to Santiago de Compostella with Jim Gravois. I know Gravois often revisits these blogs to relive his pilgrimage. I didn’t want to deprive him of that. I have most recently thought, however, of just taking down forever or of just putting a photo of Merton and refer anyone visiting the site to The Thomas Merton Center’s I have deleted many skype contacts and slashed names from my email address book.

The thing is, however, that at this moment I have been called back from death by Sara Prozak Tonin. The psychiatrist, the first I’ve ever asked help from in my life, said I must engage her for at least a year and possibly marry her (or one of her siblings serially) for the rest of my life. I bow low with gratituee to Prozak’s presence in my body. I realize now how much I’m just an unstable mix of chemicals. Let your potassium become imbalanced, Jonnie boy, and you will become another “person.”

I am also attributing my current mental health to the prayers of my friends and to the Holy Spirit Herself–all those friends and She who keep loving me in spite of myself and in spite of themselves which is, quoting Merton again for me, “mercies within mercies within mercies.” A young friend in Sweden made me a “Jesus Prayer” rosary when I had presented conferences there in 2015. An Egyptian monk had taught him how to make them. At every knot, one prays, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In my sleepless hours of depression, I could only cling to those beads and pray the only prayer I had to hand. All this was Grace.

I had a significant dream in a past depression. It was the night after a day in which I made an important decision against changing my life at a time I so wanted my life to change. I dreamed that I was Lazarus in the tomb bound up tight and began to chant a mantra to which I eventually woke up: “Only Christ can save me now. Only Christ can save me now.” Whether by means of Prozac or the love of my friends, I choose to believe that Christ has saved me now. Of course, like Lazarus, his miracle on our behalf is temporary. The Black Dog remains at large and quite capable of kissing my mouth again.

Why confess all this? Isn’t this just another way of killing your reputation, your most precious delusions that you are well in others eyes? Perhaps. Not that I ever think myself as “famous.” I couldn’t afford fame. It would take five minutes on a computer for some interested soul to find out who I am when I think no one is looking. Whenever I end a retreat I always say, “There is one thing I’ve learned from Thomas Merton. One can write and speak beautifully about a spiritual life without being able to lead a beautiful spiritual life. So as you leave this room, I ask that you pray for me so that someone who dares to speak to you of such important and deep things might not himself be lost.”

This new blog is a signal that I am going to write here again. I have a lot of narrowly published and unpublished reflections on Thomas Merton. I might gather them here for whatever they might be worth. I’ve thought of an e-book but why make anyone pay? But such a project is proof that I have not obeyed the injunction of the Prophet Mohammed, blessed be he, and learned to “die before I die.” If I am to live in Christ, I must die to my “self.”

Resuscitating this blog again is proof I’m not ready to die. I am actually finding myself ready but not willing. Maybe tomorrow “I’ll begin again.” Perhaps continuing a blog and archiving my crap is a weapon to make the Black Dog keep his distance. This too is a delusion. I know he’s thinking of me right outside my window as I type. “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, old man. Spilling your guts transparently could really turn me on.”

And as to “fame”, my entrails know the truth of Marcus Aurelius’ remark in his Meditations: “In the future, you will forget everything. In the future, everyone will have forgotten you.” Marcus was wrong about himself but not about me.

To write about all this without shame could be a Grace. In case it isn’t, I must remain sober and watchful.

Jonathan Montaldo 12/23/2018

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The Epiphany of Kindness in Sorrow’s Face

The Epiphany of Kindness in Sorrow’s Face

© by Jonathan Montaldo

Bougereau, The First Mourning, 1888

Back in 1958, in Louisville, Kentucky on the downtown corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, after visiting his doctor, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton stepped out onto the busy sidewalk and found himself suddenly in deep communion with the procession of human beings he saw there. In that moment of sunlit clarity, the haze of his monastic separation burned off from his eyes, and Merton discovered a kinship with everyone on the street. “Thank God,” he wrote later in his journals about the event, “I’m a member of the human race just like everyone else. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. …I have the immense joy of being a member of the human race: if only everybody could realize this! There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 156-157, modified by JM).

This paragraph from Merton’s journals is famous, but there is another that follows shortly after that is another powerful revelation of a deep truth about us human beings. On that same afternoon trip in Louisville Merton had bought for fifty cents a book of photographs from Life Magazine called The Family of Man. The Family of Man had photographs of ordinary folk at weddings and funerals, in bars and churches, children at play and elders at rest. Merton reacted powerfully to this book:

“All those fabulous pictures. How scandalized some would be if I said that the whole book is to me a picture of God’s face and yet that is the Truth. There, there is God in my own Kind, my own Kind—“Kind” which means “likeness” and which means “love” and which means “child.” Human kind. Like one another, the dear “Kind” of sinners united and embraced in only one heart, in only one Kindness, which is the Heart and Kindness of God. I do not look for sin in you, Humankind. I do not see sin in you anymore today (though we are all sinners). There is something too real to allow sin any longer to seem important, to seem to exist, for it has been swallowed up, sin has been destroyed, and there is only the great secret between us that we are all one kind. God is seen and reveals God’s self as human, that is, in us and there is no other hope of finding wisdom than in God-human-hood: our own humanity transformed in God. [The Search for Solitude, 182-183 inclusive language added.]

My sister Janet died, it seems like yesterday, a very young sixty-seven year old. Two years before she had discovered a small lump on her left breast. The doctors removed it. Doctors treated her with chemotherapy and radium and pronounced her clear of cancer. A year passed and she became sick again. Doctors told her cancer was now everywhere in her lungs, her liver, and bone system. She lived for seven more months and lived more beautifully than I had ever experienced her living before. It was as if she had surrendered to her life’s end every mask she had worn to protect herself and became the person we had seen before only in glimpses. She reconciled enmities, she drew her children to herself, and she healed long-standing open wounds. We were awed by her kindness to us and by her appreciation of every kindness we were moved to show her, she being so kind. I spoke to her every day for seven months and every day she ended our conversation by telling me she loved me, a mantra ensure I would not forget. She lost consciousness only four days before she died. Her body cremated, this beautiful human being whose depths of kindness I had only just begun to appreciate became fire and disappeared.

Without the graces of palliative medicine, my sister would have been unable so strongly to show her true face as she departed from us. But it was more than medicinal herbs that robbed her death of its sting. It was the epiphany of kindness in the face of sorrow, it was her revelation of kindness in the middle of everything that was failing her, that made her death a final act of compassion for the life she had loved living.

Life and Death are identical twins to every human being of us. At the banquet of human existence to which we have been invited the menu is both sour and sweet. We eat our bread together sometimes celebrating, sometimes in tears. Just as weeds flourish with the wheat, evil in our lives nestles close in the heart of what is good. The climate of our lives is always changing. We are hot, then cold. Now we are happy this month, depressed in the next. This year we are famous, next year, disgraced. In the morning we are kissing our children a good day as we leave for work and, by the afternoon, we are incinerated, disappearing like incense into a blue sky. We are all kin as we suffer the curved streets of this life that every one of us travels.

But being kindred, why are we so unkind to one another? Why are we blind to each other’s dilemmas as being identical to our own? Why do we so unrelentingly accept Unkindness as the order of relations among us when it is our Kindness that binds us all together?

To be unkind is to be unnatural. For us to live our lives vis-à-vis one another unkindly is to be sick of soul. Our thoughtless unkindness to one another is a low-grade depression of the spirit that robs us of joy and sanity. Unkindness among us exiles us from the sunlit paradise our lives could more be if the scales of self-interest were to fall from our eyes and we could see everyone bathed in a light revealing them to us as our own precious kind.

How do we relearn kindness in an unkind world? Humility is the mother of Kindness. Humility prevents our taking first places at life’s banquet; humility prevents our hogging resources while sisters on other continents or just down the street cannot feed their children. Humility helps us step down from the pedestal of individual, unkind destinies to share life with the crowd of us. Humility helps us see how easy it is to lose everything we hold dear in an instant: our houses, our status, our families, our very selves lost in the distractions of the ten thousand things that keep us from realizing our kindness with one another.

Even religious faiths do not insure our kindness. Lives of faith, when most authentic, should reveal our fundamental unity with all human beings. Lives of faith should reorder our usual priorities, should move us to attend to the least privileged first, and should let the sick and the lame lead us in procession through life by their slower pace and with rhythms more appreciative that we must all proceed together carefully or suffer soul-death alone.

For the health of our collective souls, we must uncage our kindness from the narrow cells of our immediate family and friends. We must go off the restricted reservations of our corporate interest groups. We must leap over the wall of the gated communities of our minds that divide our world into the precious few who are saved, while the rest of them, not our kind at all, go unwashed in the Lamb’s blood. Who will deliver us from these narrow-minded perspectives every one of us easily adopts that divide our one humankind into the family and the strangers, into the have’s and have-nots, into tribes of Abel and tribes of Cain, into the descendants of Sarah and the offspring of Hagar?

This virus of irresponsibility for other human beings, our own kind, infects our relationship with all of Nature upon which the health of all creation depends. The circumference of our enacting kindness must, therefore, as Albert Einstein wrote, be as large as planet Earth’s. We must repair our kindness to all beings. We should convert ourselves to fostering ecologies of kindness in all our relationships as a daily spiritual practice.

Now has always been the acceptable time to be kin to one another, not next week, not in our next reincarnation, not in heavens that are elsewhere than where we all are now. This great work of our becoming epiphanies of human kindness in our relationships is the personal inner work that we each must take up more deeply.

I love this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye from her book Words Under the Words. She calls the poem “Kindness”.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a heated broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness. …

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I, kindness, you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

[Naomi Shihab Nye, Words Under The Words]

My mothers and fathers, my sisters and brothers, dear cousins, we are all one kind: we must recognize ourselves as kin or not be well. Kindness is our only cure. Kindness is the medicine prescribed to be taken every day until its light burns off cataracts on our eyes and everywhere we look we shall see kin, everyone our own kind everywhere. Even in the middle of all that fails us and in full view of Sorrow’s face, may we finally realize an epiphany of our hidden kindness revealed at last.

© Jonathan Montaldo. <>

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Reading Merton to Friends at His Hermitage, ITMS Meeting 2015


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All Saints Day 2012 in Santiago de Compostela

I walked with my friends into Santiago de Compostela, mind clear and heart content, but without elation. I could not conjure any of the two months of walking as I entered the Square in front of the Cathedral of Saint James. Mindful of “all my relations”, I attended the noon Pilgrims’ Mass. The journey ended on Monday, October 29th and I dutifully picked up my “compostella” at the Pilgrims’ Office, the certificate that certifies my pilgrimage to Santiago from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.

Jon CathedralI end this cycle of podcasts with a poem, “Ithaca”, by the Greek poet Constantine Cafavy. In Homer’s Odyssey “Ithaca” was the island home to which Odysseus struggled to return, through many adventures, after his participation in the Trojan War. Here is Cavafy’s poem followed by a podcast of my reading it, then adding a “riff” of my own on his last stanza.

Grateful for everything in the past, I wait in hope for what is to come. Even though I left home alone for Santiago seven months ago to travel through Portugal, England, Italy, Switzerland and now Spain, many have departed with me “in the spirit” and have been my companions through my travels.

Our destinies are one. I don’t know how this can be true on a macro-level, how my destiny is one with everyone in the world, but I am certain how it is true that I share the same destiny with the entire network of my intimates–with all my personal relations. I know that I am, through the network of us, participating in creating the world with  and for those I know best.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like them on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfumes of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.








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From Camino de Santiago: Jim Gravois Podcast on "The Spirit of the Camino"

A couple of days ago I was thinking about the “Spirit of the Camino,” which probably has as many interpretations as there are pilgrims. I decided to do an audio reflection on this topic on Wednesday in Melide, and then I changed it a bit and recorded an extra treatment, while I was walking along the Camino yesterday (25 Oct.), headed toward Arzua, Spain. Hope you enjoy the sound of my feet slapping their way to Santiago. —Jim Gravois

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From El Camino de Santiago: The Consoling Fragrance of Galician Cow Shit

As we walked out of Villafranca de Bierzo, the river flowing with force past us on our left, we had no notion of the beauty that awaited us, nor did we realize the hard climb up and forward we would have to make into Galicia. Galicia is said to be one of the most economically challenged regions of Spain, but its beauty is incomparable, except perhaps to Ireland. Galicia is a Celtic land made green by constant rain.

Breaking up the climb between Villafranca and O Cebriero, Jim and I stopped over-night in the small village of Portella. It was here that I would encounter the milk cows of Galicia. The cows of Portella were more numerous than its human residents. They daily parade through the narrow streets from milking barns to feeding barns, goaded on by dogs and usually a woman with a stick. Pilgrims encountering the daily ritual passage of Portella’s cows must step aside and let them pass. I have now had this experience of Galician parading cows many times. If I had held out my arms, I could have touched these huge animals. When they looked into my eyes, as many of them did, I wanted to embrace them.

It was in Portella that I remembered my nose’s affinity for cow shit and the smell of the barns where cows are milked or bedded down. My yen for the odors of cow barns is perhaps a legacy of my mother’s grandparents and great-grandparents, who were dairy farmers in New Orleans, who continued the traditional work of the Deffes clan out of Alsace-Lorraine. I have not paid enough attention to my mother’s family, but have always more gravitated toward my Montaldo-Paretti roots. The Parettis were green grocers in New Orleans’ French market. The Montaldos managed gambling houses and my grandfather, Charles, managed a saloon in the French Quarter. I have more thought of myself as Italian rather than as my mother’s blend of French (Deffes), Spanish (Gomez) and German (Schindler). My great-niece, Cali, has traced the Deffes clan back to Jews living in Germany in the 1600s. Being in Galicia and bewitched once again by the aromas of dairy cows, my mother’s family is finally claiming its due in me.

Whatever the source, I have always liked the smell of cows and their shit. I remember visiting Bellefontaine Abbey in France, the motherhouse of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where my cousin is a monk. On the first morning after my arrival at Bellefontaine, I attended Lauds and Eucharist in the twelfth-century abbey church. When Mass had ended, I walked out of the church and got a whiff of cow shit from the monastic barn. I thought back then how wonderful it was that these French monks had built their church so close to the cow barn. Psalmody and a cow barn harmonize with one another—the heights of singing for God linked to one of our souls’ basic elements.

Cistercian abbeys in America no longer have cow barns. No matter how reasonable it is that American Cistercians no longer drink the milk of their own cows, nor enjoy a daily dose of the aroma of their shit, something essential to their monasticism might now have gone missing. Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, once a working farm, no longer has an animal on its property under the care of its monks. No matter how foolish it might seem, given the inexorable decrease of their numbers, perhaps it’s time for Gethsemani to bring back the cow shit. Monks might need to be farmers again.

The fragrance of Galician cows brings me back down-to-earth from flights of fancy I am entertaining as I walk El Camino. Before I open my mouth publicly again, orally or in writing, I’m now vowing to pause a moment and recall the odor of cow barns. Perhaps I should spend a little of my social security money to have a perfumer concoct a fragrance of cow barn odors that I could lightly touch behind my ears before addressing an audience. I could call it Montaldo’s Cologne de Bouse de Vache. If it could be made cheaply enough, in addition to storing it in beautiful bottles for my own use, I could send Vatican City 500 bottles for future use in consistories that raise men to the rank of Cardinal. My gift would designate that each new Cardinal receive a bottle of Bouse de Vache in a crimson-silk lined box, bearing their coats-of-arms, along with a note: “A gift for your wise use as you become a Prince of the Holy Roman Church”.

Holding the sole patent on Cologne deBouse de Vache, I would exercise my prejudice to insure that no woman ever received a bottle, no matter how high the station to which she rose. Women already have a natural facility for smelling bullshit whenever its equivalent in speech reaches their mouths or their ears.

Walking through Galicia, I have meditated on these things. It’s a crazy notion—bottling the essence of cow barn. However, I might do a video for You-Tube in which I explain my idea. It might go viral enough that it would become a meme widely used by anyone finding themselves trapped in an audience with a pompous speaker (someone like me).  In such a situation and without much thought, a person would turn and whisper to another sitting in an adjacent chair, “If only he had remembered to wear Montaldo’s Cologne de Bouse de Vache!”

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From El Camino de Santiago: A New Blog and Podcast from Jim Gravois in O Cebreiro in Galicia

I am writing a few words today in O Cebreiro, one of the highest points along the Camino, and certainly one of the most beautiful. When the weather is clear, as it was yesterday upon our arrival here, the views of the surrounding green hills and mountains are spectacular. The sunset yesterday was something to behold. Today it is windy, foggy, rainy, and chilly. I am reminded of the power of Nature, especially in high places. Will we even see the sun at all today? The Camino contains so many metaphors for life: its challenges, its disappointments, its surprising rewards. As we approach the final stage of this grand adventure, I offer some audio reflections on what the Camino may mean for the rest of my life. —Jim Gravois

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From El Camino de Santiago: Deciding To Travel Your Own "Road To Joy"

When he considered the vastness of the cosmos, the French philosopher Blasé Pascal wrote that its “infinite spaces” terrified him. The stars humbled his existence. In their light he was nothing. Even as a young man I transposed Pascal’s anxiety to describe my own. It wasn’t the infinite spaces but the “infinite faces” that scared me. All those billions of human beings who have come before me, and the billions that exist now, who am I in the light of the infinite variety of their stories and individual existences?

As a corollary to my primal fear, my grammar school self at Sacred Heart of Jesus in New Orleans refused to conceive of heaven as a huge hall with all “the just” surrounding the Lord’s throne and singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” for all eternity. Not only did this not strike me as fun, but I asked myself how all those “Egyptians” [I don’t know why I zeroed in on them] would crowd around the throne. Would there be room for me?

Yet why should the cosmos of seemingly infinite human existences, flowing out from and passing into one another, be a source of sadness and dismay? Why could not I choose to rejoice that I have been bestowed a “gift” to be part of this great parade, this never ending pilgrimage of humanity coming to fruition and dying as fertile seed for more life? Do I have the choice to not view my life as just a road to inevitable sadness and, instead, consider myself fortunate to have been blessed with “one wild and precious life” [Mary Oliver]?

In his journals Merton highlighted his choice in the decision placed before him to choose death or life: “Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything, or you look at your own life and your own part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into the infinite further possibilities for study and contemplation and praise. Beyond all and in all is God. “Perhaps the ‘Book of Life’, in the end, is the book of what one has lived and, if one has lived nothing, he is not in the Book of Life. “I have always wanted to write about everything. That does not mean to write a book that covers everything–which would be impossible. But a book in which everything can go. A book with a little of everything that creates itself out of nothing. That has its own life. A faithful book. I no longer look at it as a “book.” [Journals 3, July 17, 1956]

Over and over in his journals Merton urged himself to realize that his life, just as it was in all its particulars, constituted “God’s will” for him. To accept “God’s will” was to accept the parents who bore him, the monastery he had entered, his adopted country America just as it was, “bomb and all”. Merton’s lived mysticism and theology was to identity God’s love for him as inextricably connected with all his life’s relations: the people whom he loved and in turn loved him, the places where his life’s most significant moments were enacted, the culture of the societies of his time, the art, music and literature that most turned him on.

I turn on my sequentially new bunk beds on El Camino de Santiago, often being awake at 3:00 AM with no where to go without disturbing the thirty people sleeping with me in the dorm, wondering through the night what might be the “final significance” of my life. I admit all the blessings that have come my way. I realize that I have not suffered uniquely. My few accomplishments have been satisfying but limited. I am still the son of Irwin and Florence and no more precious a plant than one of the thousands of strange varieties that New Orleans breeds in abundance. I suspect that my dreams of receiving the Palme D’Or at Cannes for Best Actor in a Supporting role in a Comedy, with everyone tearfully on their feet to award me an unstoppable standing ovation, will probably not materialize. I doubt that there will be a movement for my beatification once I’m dead. I’ll get my fifteen minutes of “Poor Jonathan”, and then everyone will go over to Diana and Wesley’s for beer and pizza. And that will be a wrap.

A certain gospel story has always made me uncomfortable. It’s the moment when Jesus is preaching in a follower’s house. Someone comes to the door, and interrupts him to inform him that his mother and brothers are waiting outside for him. Jesus then responds, “Who is my mother? Who is my brother except those who do my Father’s will?” I have always wondered if and how he could get away with voicing that question. If Mary had an ounce of “New Orleans mother” in her, I imagine that, when Jesus finally came out of the house to greet her, she showed him the back of her hand. “Don’t you ever, young man, ask “Who is my mother?” when I’m standing ten feet away from you outside, waiting patiently for you to finish your honeyed words. I didn’t say my “Yes” to the angel Gabriel, to bear your holy ass into existence, so that I could hear you insult me in front of people who don’t know our family. Are you getting my drift, Jesus bar Joseph? You have a lot of book knowledge, son, but no common sense.”

At that moment Jesus had a choice. He could have bowed his head and accepted an illuminative lesson in humility, but no, he had to think himself extraordinary. He just couldn’t bring himself to abandon his starring role in his latest delusion of grandeur: “Woman,” he responded,” don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?” [Bam! Slap! “I didn’t mean it, mama”. Whomp!]. Jesus had to learn his truth the hard way: you place yourself in spiritual, and even physical, peril when you go around preaching theologies your own mother can’t understand.

Mary Oliver’s poem “Answers” speaks beautifully to the tension between “mere learning” and a “wisdom” that stays close to the ground that bore you into life and will always bear you forward to where you really want to go:


If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.
That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of trees.
My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career.
So to please her I studied—but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooked and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

New and Selected Poems, Volume One: 235

We have spent two days in the mountains before coming down to Ponferrada. The ascents were hard, but the descents were even harder, the paths down were steep, full of jagged slate and large rocks. Descents are always harder, but you need to negotiate them eventually to land where you really need to go.

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From El Camino de Santiago: More Words from Jim Gravois

I asked Jim to write a few words of introduction about himself before posting his third podcast:

“I am not especially schooled in Thomas Merton, though I did read The Seven Story Mountain long ago. Nor am I especially interested in monasticism, though I did spend two years in a Jesuit Novitiate after high-school. I somehow developed an interest in walking the Camino Frances to Santiago about a dozen years ago. My motivations were primarily cultural, physical & spiritual, in that order. And I am a guy who has met certain physical challenges during my life: 1) cross-USA bicycle trip; 2) training for and completing several 26-mile marathons. So just the idea of walking 500 miles to Santiago was a strong draw to my zeal to make retirement “interesting.” Plus I love foreign places, having spent a year or so in Europe (trying to find myself) back in my twenties.

I love and miss my wife, Lucille, and our two sons, Orion and Michael, all of whom are currently in Alabama. I want to go back to them, but not so much to Alabama.

Here is Jim Gravois’ third podcast from El Camino de Santiago:

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From El Camino de Santiago: Christianity Consists of Far More Than Inner Experiences

I was swept away touring the Cathedral at Burgos. I do not remember experiencing so much beauty in one place, a beauty that lifted my spirit to commune again with everything I have really loved since my childhood. How I spend the rest of my “one, wild precious life” (a phrase in Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”), in as much as I shall have a choice in future circumstances that I cannot foresee (personal illness, the needs of others whom I love, etc.), is being determined by events, both interior and exterior, that are forming my experiences on El Camino de Santiago.

Yesterday in León, sitting in front of the remains of St. Isidore of Seville, in the Church that bears his name, I prayed for the courage to allow myself to accept the validity, if only for my own life, of all that I have loved in Christianity and monasticism. El Camino de Santiago is teaching me to speak again  to myself of my love for God that “dares not speak its name”.

This morning, as I participated at the noon Mass at León’s Cathedral, my mind blew more than once.. As the priest appeared from behind the chapel altar, I was shocked at how much he was the image of Patrick Hart. my mentor at Gethsemani. Not only did the priest look exactly like him, but his facial gestures were the same, and his way of being in his body was the same. What does Patrick Hart’s “double” celebrating this Mass mean? [BOOM!]. And then the first reading from Ecclesiasticus: “For everything there is a season, a time to love and a time to hate, a time to be born and a time to die…” What season have I entered perhaps to last until my end? [BOOM!]

I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk
a thousand miles in the desert repenting.
You only have to let your soft body
love what it loves.”

I am experiencing again the force of the symbols that have more moved my “soft body” through my life more than any others. These Spanish cathedrals are reconnecting me to the world of all those who have come before me and who will live after I have departed from my “hard body”.

Stephen Batchelor has explored Buddhist temples and lived in them. An Englishman who became a Buddhist monk, and who later put off his robes to marry a once Buddhist nun, is a writer of great clarity and insight. My favorite books of his include Buddhism Without Beliefs and Living with The Devil: A Meditation on Evil. In the passage below Batchelor reflects upon all those unseen folk who contributed to Buddhism’s culture and civilization. These hidden folk were not the intellectuals, the makers of laws and movers of money that are the subject of historical investigations. These are the nameless ones to us. They their own spirits by transforming rude and raw “things” into beautiful tabernacles of what is best in the world in which we move and have our being. One has only to substitute “Christianity” for “Buddhism” in Batchelor’s reflection to apprehend the same realities mirrored in the beauty unknown artisans have created for and bequeathed to all of us who are their heirs “in Christ”.

“As a culture and a civilization, Buddhism consists of far more than inner experiences. It is known through buildings, gardens, sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, poetry and craftwork. It is present in each mark made by artists and artisans on rocks, clay votive tablets, fragile palm leaves, primed canvases, hand-pressed paper, wooden printing blocks, raked gravel, and paper lanterns. On my visits to monasteries in Tibet, the polished furrows in the rock, worn into the mountain by centuries of passing feet, moved me far more than the shrines to which they led. ….Who were the men and women who made them? ….We don’t know.

“These forgotten people are my fellows. They are the silent ones on whose behalf I want to speak. I know nothing of their religious beliefs or spiritual attainments. Their understanding of the subtleties of Buddhist doctrine is irrelevant. They left behind visible and tangible objects created by their own hands: dumb things that speak to me across the centuries in a language that no text can reproduce. Irrespective of what Buddhist icon a painted scroll may depict, it embodies the intelligence and imagination, the passion and care of its creator. I feel an affinity with the makers of these things. A Zen garden can say as much about what the Buddha taught in the most erudite treatise on emptiness.

“Just as a farmer irrigates his fields,” said Gotama in the Dhammapada, “just as a fletcher fashions an arrow, just as a carpenter shapes a block of wood, so does the sage tame the self.” This is an odd statement. Rather than encouraging the renunciation of self, here, if we follow these metaphors, the Buddha seemed to be encouraging the creation of a self. To “tame” in this context means to pacify the selfish and unruly aspects of oneself in order to begin forging a more caring, focused, and integrated character. The examples he used are of working people: farmers, fletchers, carpenters. Just as he compared practice of mindfulness to the way a skilled woodturner uses his tools, here he admired the work of those who till the soil, make arrows, and carve wood. Their handicrafts served to illustrate how to nurture, fashion, and direct the raw materials—sensations, feelings, emotions, perceptions, intentions—of one’s self.

“Rather than dismiss the self as a fiction, Gotama presented it as a project to be realized. By “self” he referred not to the transcendent Self of the brahmins, which, by definition, cannot be anything other than what it eternally Is, but the functional, moral self that breathes and acts in this world. He compared this self to a field, a potentially fertile ground that, when irrigated and tended, enables plants to flourish. He compared it to an arrow: a wooden shaft, metal head, and feather fletcher which, when assembled, can be projected on an unerring course to its target. And he compared the self to a block of wood, something one can fashion and shape into a utensil or roof beam. In each case, simple things are worked and transformed to achieve human ends.

“Such a model of self is more pertinent to a layman or laywoman living in this world than to a monk or nun intent on renouncing it. It presents a very different sort of challenge. Instead of training oneself to achieve a serene detachment from the turbulent events of this life, it encourages one to grapple with these events in order to imbue them with meaning and purpose. The emphasis is on action rather than inaction, on engagement rather than disengagement. And there are social implications too. If a person is the result of what he or she does, rather than what he or she is, than any notion of a divinely ordained system of social identity breaks down. Gotama said, “By action is one a farmer, by action a craftsman…”

[Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (NY: Spigel & Grau, 2010: 151-152)

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