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

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