I am writing from Assisi, Italy, after being in England from May 10 – May 16th to attend the bi-annual Conference and General Meeting of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland to which I had been invited to address a plenary session. The Conference was held in Oakham, England, where Merton went to “secondary school” before he entered Cambridge.
The podcast describes my encounters with an urban “desert father” throughout the conference, Cornelius:
“God’s Angel Cornelius Slaying Montaldo’s Dragons”
In addition to the podcast I have included a link to the talk I gave in England, “To Uncage His Voice: Thomas Merton’s Inner Journey Toward Parrhesia [Free & Fearless Speech]”.
I came down from the mountain
after many years of study
and rigorous practice.
I left my robes hanging on a peg
in the old cabin
where I had sat so long
and slept so little.
I finally understood
I had no gift
for Spiritual Matters.
‘Thank You, Beloved’
I heard a heart cry out
as I entered the stream of cars
on the Santa Monica Freeway,
westbound for L.A.
A number of people
(some of them practitioners)
have begun to ask me angry questions
about The Ultimate Reality.
I suppose it’s because
they don’t like to see
old Jikan smiling.
On the CD, in which Philip Glass composes music to poems in Cohen’s “Book of Longing”, the last line in “Leaving Mt. Baldy”, where Cohen was a practitioner and ordained Rinzi priest, is changed to “they don’t like to see old Jikan smoking”. “Old Jikan” is Cohen himself. I like the idea of outrage at old Jikan “smoking”. Could be just cigarettes but I prefer to think Old Jikan teaches while toking a bong: just so! Hmmmmm. Ahhhhhhhh. Ohhhhhhhhh.
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.)
On Thursday, March 29th, I am departing from Newark to Lisbon, Portugal. After ten days in Lisbon, I’ll fly to Oakham, England to deliver an address. On April 16th I’ll cross into Italy, taking the train from Rome to Assisi, where I’ll spend three weeks studying Italian. I’ll be commencing a four months sojourn in Italy that will include Venice, Milan and Rome. After camping in the Douro Valley of Portugal, on August 16th I’ll take the train to southern France and meet up with Jim Gravois. He and I will walk the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela from the French side of the Pyrenees. We will be on the pilgrimage road for seven weeks, walking ten miles a day and mostly staying in hostels. My time after walking the Camino is open-ended. Suspended by a little help from my friends, I’m ready for anything to happen.