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

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