Saturday, July 20, 2019

holiness and enlightenment

July 18, 2019

(Remembering Br. Gabriel on the first anniversary of his rising to glory)

Go out alone into the wilderness,
to the place where there’s nobody there to perform for
and the ego has nothing to do and it crumbles.
And only then are you capable of being loved.
                                                                                                David Brooks

I am ending up my time up here on the mesa. I certainly hope that this will be the first of other times I will be able to spend time here. It is hard to express just how ideal the time in this place has been. There was been plenty of time and space for prayer and meditation, obviously, but also exercise, including hikes out into the wilderness, and a bit of music. I have just left my guitar lying around and picked it up at random when the urge hit. Another thing I have benefitted from greatly is the luxury to be able to do some good lectio. Besides scripture itself I have my travel copy of Prabhavananda’s version of the Upanishads with me, which I am quite fond of. (I say “version” rather than “translation,” with all due respect. In comparing his with scholarly editions––not that he is changing the essential teachings at all––you understand that he is making the text accessible. Even if it is not pure translation, it is certainly pure Vedanta from a respected teacher.) I also for some reason had the urge to read Evagrius again during this time, and asked Br. Evan to secure me a copy from the library, promising both to return it and not make any little marks in the margins. They have here the Cistercian Studies edition that I am familiar with by John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, with is excellent introductory essay. Perhaps it was the week at Tassajara that got me thinking of him again.

Three things have stayed with me in my reading of Evagrius this week, in the line of Universal Wisdom. First of all, I have been thinking of the difference between holiness and enlightenment. As I wrote to a friend of mine recently, I think of holiness as the sweetness of love for God and neighbor as self, which usually looks like devotion and service. Enlightenment on the other hand is seeing into the true nature of reality, even of Absolute Reality. I think it is similar to the Buddhists always putting together wisdom and compassion (hence the song “Compassionate and Wise”). Seeing into the true nature of reality ought to make us compassionate. At some point they are not two: holy and enlightened, wisdom and compassion, like prayer and meditation.

Well, Evagrius begins his “sutra” (his century of aphorisms does remind me of the Yoga Sutras) at the end:

1.     Christianity … is composed of praktike, contemplation of the physical world and contemplation of God.
2.     The Kingdom of Heaven is apatheia of the soul along with true knowledge of existing things.
3.     The Kingdom of God is knowledge of the Trinity …

Another important thing that Evagrius asserts which I go back to all the time, as a reminder to us contemplatives in danger of being walled in and cut off in our spiritual quest, is that if apatheia is the flower of our praxis, agape is the progeny of apatheia. But it is even stronger than that, and even gives us a little bit of a hierarchy in regards holiness and enlightenment. The way John-Eudes Bamberger describes it, apatheia isn’t the door to contemplation; it’s only the threshold. “For charity [agape-divine love] is the door to contemplation.” So there is a hierarchy: ascesis-practice will lead us to psychological health. That is a good way to understand apatheia––not emotionless, for the passions are disordered passions. The state of apatheia is when we are psychologically emotionally healthy. And the will give us, Evagrius says, “contemplation of the physical world.” Seeing the reality as it really is, not from trapped behind the wallpaper of our narrative. Is this a good way of describing enlightenment? And further, at least a glimpse, understanding, Absolute Reality. (It’s interesting that he distinguishes between the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God!)

But that knowledge is only a first step. It’s like a double scopos! The proof and the offspring of all this seeing into the true nature of reality is love, divine love, which as Jesus teaches means loving God with all the heart, the soul and the mind and loving the neighbor as one’s very self. It’s that then that leads to theoria, beatitude––union with God, the real telos.

However, speaking of the telos, if I had read this before, I’d forgotten it… Bomberger lays out Evagrius’ cosmology, which is indebted to but different from the Greek tradition in which he has been formed. And as I was reading it, before I got to Bamberger’s conclusion I was thinking to myself, this is weird, very reminiscent of Origen but also with some of the flavor of Gnosticism bordering on dualism. Remember Evagrius was condemned as a heretic, which is why for much of history he has been unknown in Christian, monastic, contemplative spirituality. And Fr. Bamberger says “the charges brought against him are correct”! I was actually kind of relived to hear that though surprise at how strange it all was. But he also adds something that I think would have made Bruno smile: that the charges against Evagrius “were made with undue harshness and without the restraint which was due to his personal sanctity and good faith.”

That got me back to the telos and scopos again, and how it applies not only inter-religiously (as I say often, even though we disagree about the telos, or at least or articulation of it, we agree on the scopos), the same thing applies intra-religiously. Evagrius’ understanding and articulation of the telos, his cosmology, doesn’t accord with orthodox Christianity (and Fr. Bamberger adds even with Christian scripture); even a broad-minded guy like me, though not a theologian, can see that. And yet, his articulation of the scopos as contained in the Praktikos and the Chapters on Prayer are inarguably as good as it gets, as well as, following on that, his program of praxis, which finds its way into Western monasticism via Cassian and Benedict, if there could be any better testimony to its validity.

The word ‘heresy’ is so strong and sulfuric, and has been used as a cudgel so often just to shut off all––and I mean all––conversation, even to the point of (shame!) putting those who were thought of as heretics to death, in the name of Christ, “with undue harshness and without the restraint which is due” at times to personal sanctity and often also at least good faith.

Last point: one of the proofs that Evagrius is right about the scopos is how universal his teaching is. I guess that’s why the week at Tassajara got me thinking of him again. Fr. Bamberger notes in two places Evagrius’ similarities to Hinduism: his idea of the “true gnosis (knowledge) of created things corresponds to the tattva of Hinduism; and when Evagrius writes that one of the proofs of apatheia is that the soul “begins to see its own light (#64)”, he points to Mircea Eliade’s teaching concerning the light of the heart in the Yoga tradition. And the famous Benedictine scholar Jean Leclerq, who wrote a preface of this edition, cites several others when he says it was “possible to say that ‘the mysticism of Evagrius was closer to that of Buddhism than that of Christianity.”

Now I shall begin my trek through the desert, stopping to see some beloved friends along the way, eventually making my way to my folks in Arizona.

listen to the silence

July 16, 2019

The state in which I am at peace with myself is the first and only possible step toward bringing peace around me––a harmony that gushes forth and envelops all creatures, thereby transforming our whole being.

There was a gathering in nearby Aspen this past weekend in honor of Fr. Thomas Keating. I had heard a little about it but nothing that really grabbed my attention. I found out later that it was quite a wonderful multifaceted interspiritual gathering. (I have never grown used to that word “interspiritual” but apparently Fr. Thomas grew to use it as well.) The event included several people I know. Cynthia Bourgeault was the organizer of the event, and our friend Rory McIntee was part of it. He is one of the authors along with Adam Bucko of the book The New Monasticism and who also lived with us for six months a few years ago. Eric Keeley, the young monk who drove me up to this hermitage in 2017, with whom I sat on the porch and talked for a long time, was also there. Eric was very close to Fr. Thomas, acting as his secretary the last years and even going to Spencer with him for his final convalescence. He disrobed the day after Thomas died.

I am sort of glad I had not heard more about the gathering earlier; I would have been sorely tempted away from the solitary mountaintop to take part in it. Ah, the lure of shiny distractions, even if they be spiritual ones.

At any rate, the gathering occasioned me having four visitors up here. Yesterday I was taking a morning walk down the mesa on the long dirt road when about a third of the way down I saw a man coming toward me with sun hat and a backpack, looking obviously as if he was intentionally out for a hike. When I got close I said hello and he told me he was going up to see the hermitage. Apparently Eric had told him about it, not knowing I was staying up here, and he wanted to see it because of its connection to Fr. Thomas. It winds up this gentleman was Ted Jones, Fr. Thomas’ nephew from Massachusetts, who was also here for the event. (It was his brother Peter who did the fine film about Thomas.) It was from Ted that I learned the full scope of the event. I accompanied him the rest of the way up to see the place, brought him inside and had a nice conversation, and then walked with him all the way back down the hill. He had some marvelous anecdotes, having been with Fr. Thomas round the clock the last weeks of his life.

Ted and I just touched on one aspect of which I was glad to be reminded. It was one of the things that I spoke with Fr. Thomas about when I came to see him in 2010, and again when I had the long visit with him two years ago––how he was fascinated with theories about the self, the disappearance of the self, the experience of no-self. At the time, besides Wilber’s book, he had also recommended to me Reza’s (I forget his last name) book on ibn al-Arabi, Shankara, Meister Eckhart concerning that topic. I felt a little pang of guilt that I have not gotten to that yet, or actually I tried to start it and it didn’t grab me. Maybe now.

Later that afternoon I heard a car and then a woman’s voice calling out, “Excuse me!?” I came out to the front door––it was a hot day and I was wearing only my blue running shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt––and she yelled, “Are you one of the monks?” My outfit did not give any evidence of that, apparently. I gave her a short version of the story, and she told me that one of the monks had told her that she could come and hike around, and she was sorry to disturb me. I said, no problem. She came to the front gate and called again about a half an hour later. There are a lot of cows roaming all over this mesa from all the way down on the road to just about right outside of my window. And apparently the cows were blocking the path that she wanted to take. She told me that she had been singing to them and that she had asked their permission to share this sacred space with them, but apparently they weren’t having it. She said they looked a little hostile to her. I am not sure why she felt the need to tell me all that, but she then asked my pardon again for disturbing my peace. I gave her absolution, blessed and bid her farewell, saying, “You did not disturb my peace.”

Then today I headed down in the big old GMC Yukon that the monks loaned me for my stay to get some produce for an evening salad, which I have been craving, and as I drove back up there was a Toyota Prius parked halfway up the dirt road, just where it starts to get the roughest. I had to drive around it off-road, which was kind of fun. (Actually given the size of this truck compared to the little Prius I had a vision of driving right over the top of it, like a monster truck.) As I got a little farther up the road I spied two guys walking, again rather intentionally, and I recognized Rory immediately. Ted had just told them that I was up here, and Rory wanted to come and say hi (and also see the hermitage) and he brought a man named Justin with him. Justin had been a monk of this monastery some years back but had never seen the new version of this hermitage. He confirmed that originally there was just a hunter’ shack here with plexi-glass porch and an outhouse. I invited them in for tea. This even more did not disturb my peace––in the least.

Rory is now working on his doctorate out east, writing his dissertation on the new monasticism. He was a long time devotee of Wayne Teasdale as well as of Fr. Thomas. He had also organized the interspiritual Snowmass Gatherings here, also under the blanket of the new monasticism. He is very well read and knows almost everybody I know and then some. Justin is also a fascinating well-read guy and a great conversationalist. Now married and an Episcopalian priest serving as a pastor in Vermont, when he left the monastery, at Abbot Joe’s recommendation he first went to Japan to study Rinzai Zen in a Buddhist monastery for three seasons. He too knew several people that I know, including the monks of Incarnation from his years studying at the GTU. He also knew Fr. Thomas for many years and does a spot-on imitation of his voice. He told us several anecdotes as well, in Thomas’ voice, which had us laughing hysterically. We talked for well over an hour.

At one point a huge rainstorm hit, and it made me think of Scholastica and Benedict, but it did not last long. They too apologized for disturbing my retreat, but I told them that I learned about these things from Catherine de Houeck Doherty’s book Poustinia years ago. The authentic poustiniki is a hermit with the door open. And it was a good time for me to reflect on lo these many things with a couple of kindred spirits. Guests come to us bringing gifts.

In my slow read of Panikkar (Volume I.I of his Opera Omnia) I just finished a section on Silence. He elucidates the importance of listening, and even calls the art of listening “obedience” (ob-audire).

Obedience means not only to hear, attentively and precisely, the words of others, but to listen to the silence that is in their words, which becomes a revelation only for the loving listener.
I hear the words while receiving the word, and this receiving is incarnation.

It reminded me of one of the things that Fr. Thomas said to me when we met last, concerning meditation and the manta. “At some point,” he said, “you just listen to the silence.”

an embarrassment of riches

July 15, 2019

Seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine;
in the longing of will, not in understanding;
in the sighs of prayer, not in research;
seek the Bridegroom, not the Teacher; …
darkness, not daylight;
and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire
that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love.
                                         St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis

I’m staying at the McCartney Hermitage in Snowmass, Colorado, about four miles from St. Benedict’s Trappist Monastery, elevation 8,700 feet surrounded by 13 to 14,000 foot peaks, still snow covered. There are storm clouds passing to the west sending a cooling breeze through the windows as I gaze out at Sobres Peak.

I got here last Thursday, having just come from three nights and two wonderful days with my sister and her family in Grand Junction, Colorado, about two hours east of here. I had driven there directly from San Juan Bautista, well, actually staying one night in beautiful Barstow, California. I kept saying that I was longing for solitude and the desert. And I got it in spades as soon as I drove away from St. Francis Retreat House where I had spend the weekend with our oblates and friends for our annual retreat. Driving through the Mojave Desert and into Nevada was about as I had expected, having made that trip once before. But then you leave Nevada, cross through a little corner of Arizona and into Utah, and at that point, driving northeast toward Colorado there is a hole lot of nothing for well over two hundred miles. I kept passing sign after sign that announced the name of some village or town, none of which I could ever see, that also announced “No Services.” The mighty Prius was doing fine but it was untested on the long climbs that one had to make and there was also no phone signal. I was relieved to finally come upon one big service area about halfway across. I stopped for gas and a bathroom break and said to the man behind the counter, “I’ve just driven through hours of nothing!” And he responded dryly, “And you got another 100 miles of nothing ahead of you. That’s why we let you drive 80 miles an hour.” I must say, I drank in the stark beauty of the landscape. Having well shaken off prioral responsibilities the week at Tassajara, by the time I left the oblate retreat I was starting to feel pulled into the vortex of leadership and administration again, but the long drive through the desert relieved me of that.

I arrived here on the feast of St. Benedict, symbolically and not completely unplanned. The Abbot General Fr. Seamus, an Irishman, and his secretary, Fr. Simeon from Spencer had also arrived from Rome that morning, as well as the abbot of Tarrawara in Australia. They are all here for a meeting of English speaking abbots. (Fr. Simeon, by the way, is an old friend of our Fr. Isaiah who quotes him often in homilies, Simeon being quite a scripture scholar as well as a linguist––hence his job for the Abbot General. He came and introduced himself to me by his birth name, Erasmo, and reminded me that we had met before at the Hermitage.) I arrived just in time for a festal lunch––salmon, and dessert, wine and beer, ice cream and chocolate cake––with the tables arranged in a triangle and silence lifted for the event.

It was nice to see all the brothers again, though I did not get one single name right outside of the new and soon-to-be-consecrated abbot Charlie. They have had equivalent loss to us here just the past two years. Fr. Thomas Keating was here until being moved back to the infirmary at Spencer shortly before his death. But the Abbot Joe who succumbed to a recurrence of a swift moving cancer preceded him in death by only a week or so. Also three of their younger monks have left, one in solemn vows, one in simple vows and a novice. This is actually my sixth visit here, stretching back to about 1985 when the place was in its glory years. My host then and for my next two visits (1990 and 1999) was the infamous Fr. Theophane Boyd, of Tales of the Magic Monastery fame. I distinctly remember Theophane telling me about his encounters with Ken Wilber and an image that stuck in mind (whether it was completely true or not). He said that Ken lived on top of a tower in a big room that was divided in three parts––a library, a gym, and a zendo. There it was––the very embodiment of integral spirituality! As a matter of fact Ken’s relationship to this place does go back decades. It began with his first wife who was a Catholic, and continued through many encounters, events and podcasts with Fr. Thomas. Last time I was here Fr. Thomas recommended Ken’s latest book to me, The Religion of Tomorrow.

That last time I was here, in 2017, I had been invited to offer the community their retreat. It was during that visit that one of the novices, Eric, who has since left the community, drove me up here for the first time to show this place to me. Even then the idea of coming here to use this hermitage planted itself in my mind and I mentioned the possibility to Abbot Joe who was very open to it. So as soon as I started planning this sabbatical I wrote to the monks here and requested the same.

It’s funny; the monks are a little embarrassed about this place. Apparently at one time it was little more than a hunter’s cabin and when it came time to renovate it a bit whoever was in charge got carried away. It’s an approximately 30 by 20 foot square brick one-room house on a solid foundation, with a 15-foot pitched ceiling, totally fitted as any domestic dwelling would be, including water, propane and tons of solar energy. One the monks said it was more like an Aspen ski chalet than a hermitage, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It is all carpeted, however, and there is a full kitchen and bathroom, as well as a spacious covered front porch. The main feature is its incredible view of mountains that surround it.

I am not embarrassed at all by the riches and am deeply grateful and drinking it all in with joy. There are certainly remnants of others having used the place––bits of food stuff and old jigsaw puzzles!––but I am told it is not used very much at all anymore. I know Abbot Joe used to come here, and I believe Fr. Thomas did as well. It didn’t take me long to turn the house into a home. I spent the first afternoon rearranging the furniture and adjusting the curtains and blinds just so. One of the nice surprises is a framed giclèe of Emmaus’ popular painting of Romuald in ecstasy. There was an old zabutan in the closet and I have placed that right under the holy father. There is also an old stereo up here (I am starting to get the impression from the microwave popcorn and light reading material that this has actually been used more for a getaway then a hermitage…) and I was of two minds as to whether or not I should make use of it, but I succumbed and plugged my iPhone, which holds so much of my favorite music, into the speaker and often play it softly in the background. It’s an odd thing that I actually rarely if ever hear any of this music on anything but the small portable speaker that I keep in my cell at home, so it’s a pleasure that I get to hear it on real full sized speakers in real stereo! One little concession to luxury... I can almost hear our Ignatius say, “Is there no end to the decadence?”

Though this is bigger and much better equipped than my poustinia in Corralitos, I have felt the same kind of lightness and freedom here that I used to feel there for the first time in seven years. Of course there is the luxury of not answering to anyone else’s summons––including no Internet or phone––and to be able to use that to find my own rhythm of prayer and meditation, yoga and exercise, with only a few books, my computer and my guitar, none of which are any distraction. It feels as if both of my lungs are open.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

hidden manna

Here is an adaptation the text of my presentation "Dialogue With the World––Through Poetry and Music"  for the International Thomas Merton Society at Santa Clara, CA June 27.

I began with settings of two poems––one rather ancient, one modern. The first was a short poem of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet and mystic, in Daniel Ladinsky’s rendition––“startled By God”; and the second a poem of the essayist, naturalist, poet and novelist Wendell Berry, who is also, incidentally, a fellow Kentuckian to the monks of Gethsemani, entitled “The Circle of Our Lives.”

* * *

I entitled the presentation “Hidden Manna.” I got that idea and image from an acquaintance of mine who used to talk about the gems of spiritual wisdom that can sometimes be found in secular music, even in popular song. He called these gems the “hidden manna.” The phrase comes from the Book of Revelation 2:17:

‘To everyone who conquers,
I will give some of the hidden manna,
and I will give a white stone,
and on the white stone is written a new name
that no one knows except the one who receives it.

Such evocative images!––both the hidden manna and that white stone, which of course has resonance with the “true self,” a theme that was so important to our present subject, but we don’t have time for a detour into that right now…

I added onto that the subtitle: “Dialogue With the World.” There is that famous phrase from Saint Justin Martyr to which I return often[1]–– semina verbi, “seeds of the Word.” Justin had converted to Christianity as a philosopher, but he still saw all the other wisdom as seeds of the Logos that came to full bloom in Christ. That phrase gets picked up in the 20th century as a rationale for interreligious dialogue––hence Vatican II’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” teaches that the “Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in” other religions; and that she regards their precepts and teachings as well as their conduct with reverence “because they often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people.”

Having immersed myself in the writings of Benedictine Fr. Bede Griffiths, who ended his monastic life as a member of my own monastic congregation, I easily turned doing lectio on sacred texts of other traditions into writing songs based on those same texts. Let me give you an example of that, one of my earliest and favorites–“Lead Me From Death Into Life.”

This song is based on a famous mantra from the Bridharanyaka Upanishad that a Jain monk named Satish Kumar adapted as a poem and called it the World Peace Prayer. An organization known as the Fellowship of Reconciliation circulated it widely, asking that it be prayed daily at noon. The verses instead are taken from the Bhagavad Gita. Speaking of “seeds of the Word,” though this is a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna, when I hear the words “I am the taste of living water, / and the light of the sun and the moon. / I am OM, the sacred word, / the sound in the silence,” I just as easily hear them on the lips of Jesus.

This song is based on a famous mantra from the Bridharanyaka Upanishad that a Jain monk named Satish Kumar adapted as a poem and called it the World Peace Prayer. An organization known as the Fellowship of Reconciliation circulated it widely, asking that it be prayed daily at noon. (Side note: my friend John Dear, who served for a time as the executive director of that same organization, reminded me that Merton, the Berrigans, Thich Nhat Hahn and Dr. King were all a part it.) The verses instead are taken from the Bhagavad Gita. Speaking of “seeds of the Word,” though this is a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna, when I hear the words “I am the taste of living water, / and the light of the sun and the moon. / I am OM, the sacred word, / the sound in the silence,” I just as easily hear them on the lips of Jesus.

* * *

In addition to setting texts from other traditions to music, at some point––having decided I had nothing left to say about God or Absolute Reality––I also started singing poetry. My late confrere and mentor, Fr. Bruno Barnhart, who was a unique monastic writer himself, had almost raised Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams to the level of canonical scripture, so I was in good company and a noble lineage. So, both singing sacred texts from other traditions and singing poems that dealt with sacred themes then became for me this “hidden manna.” Since these two themes abide in the life and work of Thomas Merton––both interreligious dialogue and poetry––I thought this would be an appropriate presentation for our gathering.

For many years now I have been playing around with what I call “chanting poetry.” If you think about it, that is what we monks do when we chant the psalms, flinging the poems and songs of Scripture across the choir to each other three, four, up to seven times a day. In some way I just applied the same technique to poetry, walking around with a text, singing it to myself until a melody emerged out of it, or actually chanting it instead of reciting it.

These are two pieces that were born from that exercise.

The first is a setting of the late poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017), called “Sirens.” In his memorial of Wilbur, Christian Wiman wrote that he “left behind a body of work that rivals that of the great modernists,” and said he thought that Wilbur’s closest kin was Robert Frost. In a “time that prizes innovation,” Wilbur was a classicist, one of those artists who perfected a style rather than inventing one.

And the second song is a setting of a poem by Jessica Powers (1905-1988), the secular pen name of Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, who was also a cloistered Carmelite nun. I often say that if someone after living for years as a cloistered nun could still write with such sensual, even erotic imagery as is found in this poem, then something was obviously working right in her religious life. The original title of the poem is “The Kingdom of God,” which makes it even more interesting, but I chose to call the song after the evocative image in the first line: “Beautiful Naked Runner.” I’ve added onto to, as a refrain, the haunting words from Saint Augustine’s Confessions.

* * *

In The Sign of Jonas Merton wrote, “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead.” Rowan Williams commented about this that truth can only be spoken by someone that nobody knows, because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality; only in the unknown person is the ego of self-oriented desire––that wants to dominate and organize the world––absent. It’s even more than that though, a great truth found across the spiritual traditions.

The founder of my monastic congregation, the Camaldolese, Saint Romuald of Ravenna, left behind very little of his own words, only a paragraph about which we can be reasonably sure, what’s referred to as his Brief Rule for Hermits. And it ends with the words “Empty yourself completely, and sit waiting.” But the Latin is stronger––destrue, which is more like ‘destroy yourself,’ or probably better, ‘deconstruct yourself.’ One of my friends is a Sufi singer, and this is a theme well known to Sufis, called fanā, sometimes translated as “annihilation of the self.” She made a song of St. Romuald’s rule: “Empty yourself of yourself…” That’s it. Or as Rumi says, “Wash yourself of yourself. Be like melting snow.” In the kabbalah tradition this is known as bitul hayesh––the nullification of one’s something-ness. Or as Angelus Silesius[2] wrote: “God whose love and joy are present everywhere cannot come to visit you unless you are not there.” Or again, back to Rumi: “There is no room for two ‘I’s in this house.”

Merton wrote about this Sufi concept of fanā in comparison to his own prayer, saying that his prayer was…

… a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present “myself,” this I recognize as an obstacle about which I can do nothing unless He Himself removes the obstacle. If He wills He can then make the Nothingness into a total clarity. If He does not will, then the Nothingness seems itself to be an object and remains an obstacle.[3]

And his own translation of the fourteenth-century Islamic mystic Ibn Abbah:

To belong to Allah
Is to see your own existence
And all that pertains to it
Something that is neither yours
Nor from yourself,
Something you have on loan;
To see your being in His Being,
Your substance in His substance,
Your strength in His strength:
Then you will recognize in yourself 
His title to possession of you
As Lord,
And your own title as servant:
Which is Nothingness.

That led me to two songs from the Islamic tradition: the first of Hafiz again, called “Journey Into Nothing.” And the second is from the fascinating 15th century north Indian poet and mystic Kabir, “Moon in My Body.”

* * *

In a letter to Czeslov Milosz Merton wrote:

We should all feel near to despair in some sense because this semi-despair is the normal form taken by hope in times like ours. Hope without any tangible evidence on which to rest. Hope in spite of the sickness that fills us. Hope married to a firm refusal to accept any palliatives or anything that cheats hope by pretending to relieve apparent despair.[4]

These next two poems seemed to go together for their own wrestling with despair. There is something almost casual in their approach to very dire subjects, and it’s probably not without import that these are two women poets.

The first is Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012). She was already well known in her native Poland, when she started to receive international recognition after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. The Academy said that her poetry “with ironic precision… allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Her work is characterized not only by wit and irony, but, perhaps not unlike Mary Oliver, a deceptive simplicity. She projects domestic details and mundane occasions onto the larger scrim of history. “After every war,” she wrote, “someone’s got to tidy up.”[5]

The next song was a poem of the late Maya Angelou (1928-2014), who was almost an exact contemporary of Szymborska. As her daughter wrote about her, Maya Angelou’s…

… principal message was one of inclusiveness; that despite our ethnic, religious and cultural differences, we are more alike than unalike. She saw all our differences in language, orientation and perspective as an indication of the richness of our imagination and creativity, and as elements of our nature that we should celebrate. She believed that we are all images of God, no matter how we look or what name we use to call upon the Divine and Sacred Being.[6]

This rather ironic poem again is set against the background of the looming threat of nuclear war.

* * *

On the one hand, there is a resonance between the asceticism of the artist, even the poverty of devotion to one’s craft, and religious, saintly, monastic asceticism.

On the other hand there is something different about the asceticism of art and the interiority of the artist, as compared to the asceticism and interiority of the mystic, not that they can’t be compatible.[7] In the essay on “Poetry and the Contemplative Life” that Merton wrote for The Commonweal in 1947 he said that “poetry can, indeed help to bring us rapidly through that part of the journey to contemplation… but when entering the realm of true contemplation, where eternal happiness begins,” poetry may actually “turn around and bar our way.”[8] I suppose we could say the same thing about art in general, with its self-mediating demands. Why is that? Well, that’s the dark secret of the contemplative way. It’s because (this is from Seeds of Contemplation) …

The ordinary way to contemplation lies through a desert without trees and without beauty and without water. The spirit enters a wilderness and travels blindly in directions that seem to lead away from vision, away from God, away from all fulfillment and joy. It may become almost impossible to believe that this road goes anywhere at all except to a desolation full of dry bones…[9]

That’s why contemplative prayer, like the monastic calling itself, has a preference for the desert, because prayer and contemplation involve ‘a kind of descent into our own nothingness.’ “There is an absolute need for the solitary bare, dark, beyond concept, beyond-feeling type of prayer.” In other words, it is only in the darkness––the via negativa, the apophatic mystical tradition, the desert––that God can be perceived as the One who is All-in-All.[10]

And that leads me to this next piece, the next poet, Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), and the poem “Los Laberintos.” I’ve left this in the original Spanish; the English translation is:

The labyrinths / that time creates / vanish.
(Only the desert / remains.)
The heart / fountain of desire / vanishes.
(Only the desert / remains.)
The illusion of dawn / and kisses / vanish.
Only the desert / remains.
Undulating / desert.

And I tagged onto it another short poem of Lorca called “The Silence,” that uses the same word––ondolado–undulating:

Listen, my child, to the silence.
An undulating silence,
a silence / that turns valleys and echoes slippery,
and makes foreheads / bow to the ground.[11]

* * *

Antonio Machado was a Spanish poet born in Seville in 1875. He is considered one of the most emblematic figures of turn of the century Spain. He grew up in the cosmopolitan environment of Madrid and was able to rub shoulders from a very early age with some of the central figures of the Spanish intellectual establishment; and he also spent large portions of time in Paris, working as a translator for a major publishing house. But at the end of the 19th century, Spain was in a state of near despondency after having lived for decades in chaos, following the revolution that had ousted the monarchy of Queen Isabella in 1868. And it was during this time that Machado’s poems became deeply personal and lyrical, tapping into the popular roots of Spanish tradition and Andalucían folklore; and he became known as “the people’s poet.” The poem I have set to music is from this period, his “Last Night As I Lay Sleeping.” Machado died of ill health in 1939 in the final days of the civil war that established the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, and even though he was not a direct casualty of the war, like García-Lorca, for instance, he is still considered to be one of the most high profile victims of that war.

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) on the other hand wrote in the transcendental tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, though he is sometimes also compared to Walt Whitman, particularly for his length of line. He had a powerful identification with nature from having spent much of his childhood exploring the vast greenhouses owned by his father and uncle in Saginaw, Michigan, twenty-five acres filled with roses and orchids. A whole series of awards culminated in the Pulitzer Prize for his 1953 collection The Waking. “The Waking” itself, which I set to music, is one of his most celebrated poems.

What is particularly entrancing about this poem, and what makes it so attractive to me as a songwriter, is its circling form with all its repetitions. It’s in a nineteen-line French verse form[12] that originated in 16th century rustic Napolitano song from called a villanella.

Roethke’s belief in inner vision really comes out in this poem: sleep is the state in which we are truly awakened; wisdom isn’t found in conscious knowledge, but in instinct––we “think by feeling” and can hear his being “dance from ear to ear.”

* * *

I didn’t want to neglect to include this song in this presentation, in honor of Fr. Merton’s “consorting with a Chinese recluse who [shared] the climate and peace of [his] own kind of solitude,” and who was his “own kind of person.” “One may dispute the thesis that all monasticism … is essentially one.” Nevertheless, as he wrote in his introduction to The Way of Chuang Tzu,

… there is a monastic outlook which is common to all those who have elected to question the value of a life submitted entirely to arbitrary secular presuppositions, dictated by social convention, and dedicated to the pursuit of temporal satisfactions which are perhaps only a mirage.[13]

My own sympathy with the Taoist tradition grew in earnest at the very beginning of my own 10-year period living outside of my community as a hermit, preacher, and wanderer, and one morning ran into Chapter 20 of Tao Te Ching which ends with the words: “Everyone else has got something to do. I alone am aimless and sad. I am different: I’m  nourished by the Great Mother.”

This song is derived from both Chapters 10 and 20 of Tao Te Ching, entitled simply “The Great Mother.”

* * *

Earlier this year Alan Jacobs wrote an article in the New Yorker in which he said of Thomas Merton that he “sought the peace of pure and silent contemplation, but came to believe that the value of that experience is to send us back into the world that killed us.” And for that reason he is perhaps the

… patron saint of our information-saturated age, of we who live and move and have our being in social media, and then, desperate for peace and rest, withdraw into privacy and silence, only to return. As we always will.[14]

In the end, there can’t be any separation between the discovery of one’s true self and the discovery of all humankind in God. Anything less is an illusion, an escape into consolation. “The more we are alone with [God], the more we are with one another.”[15] Silence and solitude, even the necessary practice of withdrawal of the monastic life, are never ends in and of themselves. Especially for the Christian, in the end there has to be a sense of identification and solidarity with others, a compassion for others, and an acceptance of responsibility for our world, and that means also sharing in the “universal anguish and the inescapable condition’ of humanity.”[16]

Thomas Merton’s connection to Buddhism, of course, is well known and in some way set the stage for all of us who followed who would be involved in dialogue between religions. So I thought it would be fitting to sing this setting of the Metta Sutta–the dedication of merit from the Buddhist tradition. It’s my own arrangement of a setting by my friend the Rev. Heng Sure of the Chinese Cha’an tradition, introduced by the Sanskrit Maha-mrytymjaya mantra.

As the famous quote from The Asian Journal, has it, it’s…

Not that we discover a new unity, but we discover an old unity. … we are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be, is what we are.

* * *

And that led to one last piece, in honor of the “Hidden Manna” and the “Hidden Ground of Love,” a song I call “Hidden Wisdom.”

It’s actually a sonnet entitled “O Sapientia” by a fascinating contemporary man named Ayodeji Malcolm Guite. He is a Nigerian-born English poet, priest, singer-songwriter. (He also heads up a blues and rock band called “Mystery Train” in Cambridge––a man after my own heart.) This is from his book Sounding the Seasons, which is a collection of sonnets all on scriptural liturgical themes, in which he states his aim is to “be profound without ceasing to be beautiful.” What draws me to this text is that––whether intentionally or not––he avoids typically religious language. Not only does he write about Christmas (really, about the Incarnation) without ever mentioning the babe in the manger or snow; you gotta love someone who can write a text about God without ever mentioning “God.” He focuses instead on the Word, even the apophatic aspect of the Word as “hidden wisdom” and the “ground of being.”

I’ve disrupted his form a bit and used the last two lines of his sonnet as a refrain, a prayer which I love and I invited the audience sing with me as our closing prayer.

I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken;
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Or break the bread except as I am broken.

Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.

O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
I Light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak
O founding unfound Wisdom, finding me.

O sounding song whose depth is sounding me,
O Memory of time, reminding me,
My Ground of Being, always grounding me,
My Maker’s bounding line, defining me.

[1] 100-165.
[2] 17th century German mystic and poet.
[3] Hidden Ground of Love, 63-64
[4]Ibid, p. 263
[5] From the poem “The End and the Beginning.”
[7] Bede Griffiths would say the same thing about mystical intuition as compared to artistic intuition.
[8] “Poetry and the Contemplative Life,” The Commonweal 46, (July 4, 1947): 284.
[9] And “––the ruin of all our hopes and good intentions.” Seeds of Contemplation, 146-147.
[10] Divine Discontent, 90. The first is from a letter to Daniel Berrigan.
[11] There is also an early Merton poem, entitled ‘St. John the Baptist.’

I went into the desert to receive
The keys to my deliverance
From image and from concept and from desire.
I learned not wrath but love,
Waiting in darkness for the secret stranger
Who, like an inward fire,
Would try me in the crucible of His unconquerable Law. Divine Discontent, 93, quoting The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, 1978, 122-126.
[12] Five tercets and a quatrain in which the first and third lines of the opening tercet recur alternately at the end of the other tercets…
[13] The Way of Chuang Tzu, 10.
[14] “The Modern Monkhood of Thomas Merton,” Alan Jacobs, New Yorker, Jan. 16, 2019.
[15] Seeds, 25.
[16] Raids on the Unspeakable, 16; Divine Discontent, 105.