Friday, January 30, 2015

Learning to Walk in the Dark with Thomas Merton

Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 2 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas

Part 1:  Valuing the Darkness

The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich,
1808 or 1810, oil on canvas.
Alte Nationalgalerie

The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light:  a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

The world’s evil forms a current that swirls down a vortex into unspeakable horror, presided over by a Mr. Kurtz somewhere on the Congo River.  That’s the standard image of the heart of darkness, courtesy of Joseph Conrad.  In horror novels and movies, the climactic action inevitably seems to move toward either an ascent or a descent into a heart of darkness.  Monsters await there.  Biblical references to darkness tend to be equally negative:  “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness” and “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”

Enjoying the Moon: Landscape in the
Manner of Wang Meng

by Gu Yide (active ca. 1620-1630),
China, dated 1628,
hanging scroll.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nevertheless, the journey described in Thomas Merton’s “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” the epilogue to his book The Sign of Jonas, is one that takes place entirely in the night and is resolutely affirming of the darkness.  Merton’s role as a night watchman, pursuing a solitary nocturnal trek through the monastery of Gethsemane, offers opportunities to him that are unavailable during the day.  He eagerly moves toward the call of the darkness, the silence, and the night.  If you want to follow in Merton’s steps, they lead into the night.

In preparation for writing this series, I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s excellent recent book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  Taylor and Merton are Christians who—despite the myriad Biblical quotes that praise the light and condemn the dark—hear something deeply spiritual beckoning to them in the night.  In their own ways, each of them finds God in the darkness, and each finds the experience radically different than worship in the glare of the sun.

Taylor’s book is engaging and practical.  It’s encouraged me to enjoy the night more—to venture out more fearlessly.  She cites many inspiring examples of spiritual growth via passage through darkness and talks of her own experiences in caves, in a blindness-simulation exhibition, and under the night sky.  By contrast, Merton’s “Fire Watch” essay is a window onto a soul crying for spiritual nourishment.  He breaks off from the pack (his fellow monks) to search for God alone and in the dark.

Although Merton feels the presence of God more strongly at night than during the day, it is a presence that offers few consolations and no personally satisfying answers to his questions.  His spiritual experience of God in the dark renders him simultaneously overwhelmed and frustrated.

“…in the nighttime You have confronted me, scattering thought and reason.”


“…You have descended upon me, with great gentleness, with most forbearing silence, in this inexplicable night, dispersing light, defeating all desire.”

Merton uses the silent hours of the night to meditate upon his own calling and God’s intentions for him.  As he silently moves from room to room, from the monastery’s basement to the top of the highest tower, he hungrily petitions God to come closer and to reveal more.

He acknowledges that he asks similar questions in the day but he expects no answers then.  His one hope of clear communication is the night.  Even in a monastery, surrounded by vows of silence, Merton experiences the day as full of the noise of human rationalizations and empty talk.  He turns to the silence of the night for truth.

The Lonely Tower, detail
by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881),
British, 1879, etching in black on laid paper.
National Gallery of Art
With the aid of Taylor’s book, I can identify at least three kinds of exterior darkness.  There are: 
1) Pitch black:  The utter darkness of a cave, where you can’t even see your hand held in front of your face.  In the ocean, it is the darkness at the bottom of the deepest trenches.  In space, it is the unfathomable void between stars.
2)  Night darkness:  Light exists, but it is pale and the shadows are deep.  As our eyes adjust to the night, we become aware of moonlight, starlight, and all sorts of stirring life around us.
3)  The darkness of fog:  Light is deceptively dispersed through a seemingly opaque vapor, with the density of the fog obscuring even close objects from view.

The darkness discussed by Merton in his “Fire Watch” essay falls under categories 2 and 3, the night and the fog.  The darkness he describes is mainly a night darkness, full of life and open to the appreciation of attentive eyes.  But it is also like a fog.  One of Taylor’s key insights is that Moses meets God within a night-like cloud that descends upon Mount Sinai.  Merton directly refers to the same Biblical image as he steps out into the night at the top of Gethsemane’s highest tower:

With you there is no dialogue unless You choose a mountain and circle it with cloud and print Your words in fire upon the mind of Moses.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Like Moses, Merton encounters God within the darkness of fog.

Moses receives the tablets
from God in the cloud.

Illuminated manuscript,
Central Italy (Florence),
last quarter of the 15th century.
British Library
I was introduced to the idea of Summer Christians and Winter Christians through Richard Beck’s great Experimental Theology blog.  Originally proposed by Martin Marty, the suggestion is that most Christians naturally fall into either one or the other type of spirituality: summer or winter.  Summer Christians embrace the positive, anticipating or experiencing happiness in God.  Winter Christians are comfortable with engaging with God through complaint.  In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Taylor speaks of some churches that she says engage in a full solar spirituality:  “Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith…  Who would not like to dwell in God’s light 24/7?”  These are the churches of the Summer Christians.

The two types are complementary, neither better than the other, and the world needs both.  It’s just a matter of temperament.  Winter Christians must arm themselves with flashlights and move through the night in a search for God that they fully realize may be futile.  They do it because they have to.  Thomas Merton, Barbara Brown Taylor, and I don’t have much choice in the matter.

The darkness beckons.

Part Two:  Christmas Eve

Winter Moonlight (also known as Christmas Eve), 1866,
by George Inness (1825-1894),
oil on canvas.
Montclair Art Museum

While passing through the choir novitiate during his rounds as night watchman, Thomas Merton smells the frozen straw and it triggers a memory:

…the freezing tough winter when I first received the habit and always had a cold, the smell of frozen straw in the dormitory under the chapel, and the deep unexpected ecstasy of Christmas—that first Christmas when you have nothing left in the world but God!
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Winter Moonlight, detail,
by George Inness (1825-1894)
Montclair Art Museum
Although this doesn’t sound like any Christmas I’ve ever known (where are the decorations, the presents, and the Christmas cookies?), it’s an enchanting reminiscence.  I might trade the decorations and the presents for a deep unexpected ecstasy.  Maybe not the snickerdoodles, but I’m willing to barter the rest.

Merton’s Christmas memory reminds me of this beautiful early painting by George Inness.  Originally called Winter Moonlight, the painting seems to have picked up the very appropriate name Christmas Eve about a century ago.  It resonates with the power of a silent night.  The clouds break in the middle to frame the resplendent moon, but its light is insufficient to remove the dark shadows that dominate the painting.  The figure in the middle, like a shepherd or king, follows the light even as it leads him toward the shadows.

As Merton wrote near the conclusion of “Fire Watch”:

Lord God of this great night:  do You see the woods?  Do you hear the rumor of their loneliness?  Do You behold their secrecy?  Do You remember their solitudes?
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

These seem appropriate questions to ponder, while silently appreciating this beautiful painting in the collection of the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey.

Reference Source
The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

Click here for the entire six-part Fire Watch series.

© 2015 Lee Price

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thomas Merton and I Share a Fire Watch

Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 1 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas

Part One:  Thomas Merton, Writer

Thomas Merton would have turned 100 this coming Saturday (January 31, 2015).  I’d like to think he would have celebrated it in silence at his beloved monastery Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky.  Maybe he would have ascended Gethsemane’s tower to look out again upon the world, as he described in this passage from the “Fire Watch” epilogue to his book The Sign of Jonas:

And now my whole being breathes the wind which blows through the belfry, and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens.  The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer.  Will it come like this, the moment of my death?  Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars?
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Unexpectedly, the door swung open for Merton just 16 years after he wrote “Fire Watch,” accidentally electrocuted while attending an interfaith conference in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968.

Two decades after his death, I began a slow yet steady exploration of his vast legacy of writings.  Most nights, there’s a Merton book by my bed.  In my better moments, I attempt to model my life on him.

Not that I’ve taken vows or adopted a habit of silence!  Celibacy’s not for me and I generally prefer to rise after the sun, not at 4 a.m. for prayers and hymns.  I don’t wear a robe to work.

Eadmer of Canterbury Writing,
Unknown, Flemish, Belgium,
about 1140-1150, tempera colors
gold paint, and ink on parchment,
7 x 4 1/2 in.,
Ms. Ludwig XI 6, fol. 44v
The J. Paul Getty Museum
But after more than twenty-five years of intermittent immersion in Merton’s often profound writings, I’ve become convinced that his central vocation was not being a monk, but being a writer.  He cultivated a writer’s curiosity, always probing and questioning and looking for deeper levels.  While initial spiritual experiences may have taken place while on his knees in monastic prayer (or on his knees in monastic housekeeping), his insights became clarified in recollection afterward, as he religiously wrote in his journal or pecked away on his typewriter.  He sought for a difficult balance, striving to be simultaneously fully awake to the material world while remaining ever conscious of a spiritual dimension behind the veil.  He valued both.  This is the Merton that I hope, in my better moments, to emulate.

I don’t remember why I picked up a biography of Merton in 1986, eighteen years after his tragic accidental death.  I must have heard something that nudged me in his direction.  In any case, I read the biography and it didn’t impress me much.

I don’t remember why I persevered, moving on to The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s best-selling autobiographical account of his spiritual awakening, but I do remember the jolt I felt when Merton suddenly connected with me.  Despite all the biographies, reminiscences, critical analyses, and blog entries written about him, an understanding of Merton is inseparable from wrestling with his own words.  He probably wasn’t a saint, but he was an extraordinary writer.

This is why Merton’s experience on the fire watch—a solitary walk through his monastery one night in 1952—opens out onto the universal.  Merton the artist consciously and intentionally shaped a short prose masterpiece out of an experience which is ultimately beyond words.  Through his artistry, “Fire Watch” is a spiritual journey that’s not restricted to Trappist monks on vows of poverty, but accessible to people everywhere.

Part Two:  My Fire Watch, January 24, 2015

The Crescent Moon, detail, by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881),
pen and sepia ink and graphite on wove paper,
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

My attempt at a fire watch:

I rise after everyone is asleep.  That’s no easy task as my wife’s a night owl…  It’s much, much later than Merton’s fire watch rounds which began with the monk’s 8 p.m. bedtime.  My wife typically stays up until 2:30 (as, somewhere in Kentucky, the monks are entering their last hour of sleep before their first prayers and hymns of the morning!).

As with Merton’s rounds, a fire watch in my house naturally begins in the basement.  Given our situation, it’s therefore initially more of a water watch than a fire watch.  Opening the basement door, my biggest fear is to see a rising tide of water at the bottom of the stairs (unfortunately, this is an anxiety stemming from experience).  Even with Merton, the term fire watch only captures part of his responsibility.  Fires were frequent in that part of Kentucky so they were the greatest concern, but the watchman is really called to be on alert for signs of all manner of disaster.  If Merton found a flood in the basement, he’d have to raise the alarm.  He’s the watchman, after all.

So I furtively turn on the basement lights and, with relief, see only dust and shadows below.  I descend the stairs, then check the furnace and the outlets.  I check for any signs of water pooling near the walls.  Nothing to report.

Moonlit Landscape
with Bridge
, detail,
by Aert van der Neer
(1603/1604 - 1677),
probably 1648/1650,
oil on panel.
National Gallery
of Art
I return back up the stairs, entering the kitchen.  I check the oven and the coffee maker, then sniff the air for smoke.  Everything’s off.  Everything’s safe.  I cross into the dining room and notice I should change the table cloth.  But that’s not a fire watch job; it can wait.  And so it goes as I move along a sort of oval path through our living room, the foyer, the family room (passing the curious dog), the laundry room, the powder room, and back to the kitchen.  The watchman sees no cause for alarm.

At this point in his duties, Merton enters into the silence and contemplates the deeper call of his work.  The silent nighttime patrol isn’t really about safety at all:

The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light:  a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Alone on the first floor, with my wife and daughter asleep above me on the second, I pause to think.  My outward responsibility as watchman is to protect.  But, according to Merton, my equally important inward task is to embrace this opportunity to be with God in the darkness, “in the house that will one day perish.”  So I settle into the silence.

The furnace rattles on.  The dog looks up.  I feel distracted.

The next stage of the fire watch beckons.  I ascend the stairs to the second floor, flashlight in hand.  Everything looks as it should.  As with Merton, “the flashlight creates a little alert tennis ball upon the walls and floors.”  I shouldn’t wake them.  We watchmen must keep our vows of silence.

I have a wife and a daughter living at home, and a son away at college in Maine.  I feel my job should be to protect them all.  The watchman must be ever vigilant.  But in the silence and darkness, knowing my Merton-assigned task is to simply be with God, it becomes obvious that this house’s watchman is helpless.  My wife is wrapped in a solitary silence.  My daughter is sound asleep.  Six hundred miles away, my son is alone in his dorm room.  And the watchman is alone in the hall, solitary and powerless to keep anyone truly safe.

Moonlight (Mondschein), 1895
by Edvard Munch (1863-1944),
etching and Aquatint.
National Gallery of Art
In our shared helplessness, I share something in common with Thomas Merton, on July 4, 1952, wandering alone through the monastery, enduring an examination of conscience, isolated in the heart of darkness.

Between the silence of God and the silence of my own soul, stands the silence of the souls entrusted to me.  Immersed in these three silences, I realize that the questions I ask myself about them are perhaps no more than a surmise.  And perhaps the most urgent and practical renunciation is the renunciation of all questions.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

There’s little I can do—of practical value anyway—so I head back to bed.  

In Kentucky, in a monastery near Bardstown, Merton’s brothers are waking up as I fall back to sleep.

Reference Source
The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

Click here for the entire six-part Fire Watch series.

© 2015 Lee Price

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Menotti's Epiphany: Amahl's Roots in Hieronymus Bosch

Epiphany Blogging:
Hieronymus Bosch’s
The Adoration of the Magi
and Gian Carl Menotti’s
Amahl and the Night Visitors

The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch,
ca. 1470-75, oil and gold on wood, 28 x 22 1/4 in.,
John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On Christmas Eve at 9:30 in 1951, an estimated five million Americans tuned in to watch an opera on television as NBC broadcast the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors.  To introduce the opera, Menotti himself directly addressed the audience, explaining how he was inspired by the above painting by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

Gian Carlo Menotti introducing
the 1951 NBC broadcast of
Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Menotti’s epiphany before the painting didn’t occur at an academic level—he says nothing about the artist’s technical use of form, color, or line.  Instead, he describes a two-way interchange, where Bosch offers a unique, original vision and Menotti responds with memory and imagination, allowing the painting to direct his thoughts back to his youth.  The magic of art occurs within this exchange between two people who lived five centuries apart.

This is how Menotti described the moment of inspiration he experienced when encountering Bosch’s The Adoration of the Magi during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Details, The Adoration
of the Magi
by Hieronymus Bosch,
Metropolitan Museum
of Art
“This opera comes out of my own childhood because, you see, when I was a child I lived in Italy and in Italy we have no Santa Claus.  I imagine that Santa Claus is much too busy with American children to be able to handle all the Italian children.  Our gifts were brought to us by the three kings.  I actually never met the three kings…  How hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of these three kings!  We would always fall asleep just before they arrived.  But I do remember hearing them.  I remember the weird song in the distance.  I remember the sound of the camel’s hoofs.  And I remember the tinkling of the silver bridles.

“And I remember that my favorite king was King Melchior because he had a nice long white beard.  My brother’s favorite was King Caspar whom we insisted was a little crazy and quite deaf.  I don’t know why he was so sure that he was deaf.  I suspect it was because he never brought him all the gifts he asked for.  Anyway, our people brought us the gifts and I should have been very grateful to them.  Instead I came to America and I soon forgot all about them.  Here we have so many Santa Clauses all over town and there is the big Christmas tree on Rockefeller Plaza, all the windows on Fifth Avenue, the choir in Grand Central Station, all the Christmas carols on the radio.  All these things made me forget the three dear old kings of my own childhood. 

“Well, this year I got into real trouble.  I was supposed to finish an opera for NBC and I just didn’t have an idea in my head.  So I was walking one afternoon, rather gloomy, through the Metropolitan Museum and I chanced to stop in front of this painting by Hieronymus Bosch.  And as I was looking at it suddenly I heard again the weird song of those three kings and I suddenly realized they had come back to me and they’d brought me a gift.  The opera you will hear tonight is the gift of these three kings and I hand it to you and hope you like it.  Thank you.”

Detail, The Adoration of the Magi
by Hieronymus Bosch
It’s fascinating to conjecture the extent to which Menotti genuinely drew upon this picture in composing the opera.  Just substitute Amahl for Joseph (lame and leaning upon his walking stick) and the story practically writes itself!

For a full description of the original 1951 broadcast, visit the TV Party website.

And to view that original broadcast, once the talk of the nation, here it is on YouTube!

© 2014 Lee Price

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Nativity Essays: William Blake and a Gnostic-Style Manger Scene

Nativity Blogging
for the Season of Christmastide 2014-15:
William Blake’s
The Nativity

The Nativity by William Blake,
1799 or 1800, tempera on copper, 10 3/4 x 15 1/16 in.,
gift of Mrs. William Thomas Tonner, 1964,
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The most memorable Christmas Eve sermon I’ve ever heard was delivered by Pastor Brian Rhea (now pastor at Newcombtown United Methodist Church in Millville, New Jersey) shortly after the birth of his second child.  Fresh from experience, Brian vividly shared just how gross childbirth really is, with all its blood, tears, and other leaking fluids.  And he didn’t imagine the manger was all tidy and neat either!  It was truly a great sermon.

Today’s featured painting by William Blake (1757-1827) is the polar opposite.  Blake’s The Nativity has to be the most antiseptic of all childbirth paintings.  The baby literally flies out of the womb, spotless and glowing, into the hands of the waiting midwife, in this case Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.

Detail, The Nativity by William Blake,
Philadelphia Museum of Art

While it would be impossible to realistically reconcile Brian’s sermon with Blake’s painting, I’d like to think that both descriptions fall within a broad Christian tradition that’s always been open to embracing paradoxes.  Blake’s painting is the real boundary-tester.  As expressed in his poetry and artwork, Blake’s mysterious, complex, and intensely personal beliefs evince strong Gnostic tendencies, and Gnosticism has been labeled heretical by the mainstream church for nearly two thousand years.  But given a choice between celebrating visionary genius or the cold judgments of Inquisition-style church tribunals, I’ll go with genius any day.  Blake’s okay by me.

"The Tyger" by William Blake,
Songs of Innocence and
of Experience
Wikimedia Commons
William Blake dedicated his life to expressing his radical and mystical ideas through poetry, painting and etching, and the art of printing.  He’s probably best known for his poetry book Songs of Innocence and of Experience which contains the famous poem “The Tyger”:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forest of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The Nativity is one of fifty small Bible-based paintings that Blake made for Thomas Butts, an English War Office clerk, in 1899 and 1890.  For this project, Blake enjoyed considerable artistic freedom in choosing his subjects and approach.  While many of the paintings have been lost, there is enough of a record to attempt a reasonable guess at the scope of the ambitious project.  In Blake as an Artist, art historian David Bindman suggests that “the series probably consisted of approximately fifteen Old Testament subjects and thirty-five from the Life of Christ.”

Detail, The Nativity
by William Blake,
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Nativity would have been the second of the Life of Christ paintings, following The Angel Gabriel appearing to Zacharias, which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and preceding The Adoration of the Magi in the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.  In The Nativity, Joseph supports the unconscious Mary as she gives birth.  The child, his arms outstretched in a cruciform position, flies toward the outstretched hands of Elizabeth.  An infant John the Baptist sits in the lap of Elizabeth.  Behind Elizabeth, oxen contentedly feed from a trough.  The star of Bethlehem—cruciform, like the baby—shines through the window.

Throughout the ages, most Gnostic sects have professed a belief that the material world we live in is flawed beyond redemption and that secret knowledge is needed to unite the soul with the perfection of God’s spiritual realm.  This type of belief can become very dualistic, with earthly and human life viewed as untouchable.  A belief of this sort tends to rule out an understanding of Jesus as wholly Man as well as wholly God (a basic paradox of mainstream Christianity).  In most Gnostic sects, the earthy childbirth described in Pastor Rhea’s sermon would be altogether too yucky to apply to the spiritual being of Jesus.  Therefore, Blake paints a pristine, miraculous, and apparently pain-free birth.

Blake painted The Nativity in tempera, laying the paint over a mixture of whiting and carpenter’s glue adhered to a copper surface.  While he adopted this technique in the hope of preserving the original colors, his method failed, resulting in two centuries of darkening and surface cracking.  It’s not what Blake wanted, but I love the effect.  It brings out an other-worldly, archaic beauty in Blake’s vision that can’t be easily dismissed.  It’s hauntingly weird.

Detail, The Nativity
by William Blake,
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Reference Sources

Blake as an Artist by David Bindman
William Blake:  The Seer and His Visions by Milton Klonsky
Genius by Harold Bloom
Philadelphia Museum of Art Collections

© 2014 Lee Price