Being in Lisbon, Reflecting on Thomas Merton in the Woods

Thomas Merton’s essay, “Day of A Stranger”, is among his best. Written for Ludovico Silva’s literary magazine Papeles, “Day of A Stranger” relates a “hermit’s day” in Merton’s living at his concrete bungalow on Mount Olivet at Gethsemani Abbey. Merton’s prose-poem speaks in the unexpurgated voice of the self he was finding to be most true. He speaks of who he has become through his unique monastic journey in three simple, declarative sentences:

What I wear is pants.

What I do is live.

How I pray is breathe.

Merton’s speech, for this one day at least, becomes terse and impoverished. He distills his voice down into its ordinary communion with the chorus of all simple beings inhabiting the world.

“What I wear is pants.” (He puts off his monastic robes and the cowl that implicates his distinction and “specialness” from others. He knows himself only as he is, another ordinary man in blue jeans accomplishing ordinary tasks. He sweeps his porch, he tends his fire.)

“What I do is live.” (His vocation is a call to be simple. He needs no other place to go than where he is now. He has no one else to meet. He quiets his pronouncements. He surrenders, to this one day at least, all his grandiose plans. He considers the next task in front of his nose, even just chopping wood, as a divine will for him right now.)

“How I pray is breathe.” (Being grateful to be alive is prayer. Being awake and watching as day breaks, and staying up all night as the stars dance, is his contemplation. He forgets whatever he has written on prayer and prays. He listens to whatever voices in the trees or in the gardens of his mind call out for his attention. Silence harmonizes him; it renders him receptive to the ‘hidden wholeness’ of each thing with every other thing on which his heart lands. Alone in the woods, he listens to the speech rain makes. He plays his small part in the simple ecologies of another day. He realizes, for this one day at least, the way the wind is blowing through the pine trees. And thus he receives the fruits of a sermon by the birds living near his hermitage: they invite him to share their liberty, to know the ordinary freedom of those who do not know they have names.)

Jonathan Montaldo
in Lisbon on Holy Wednesday

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