Friday, February 13, 2015

Thomas Merton and a Hedgehog on the Hero's Journey

Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 5 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas

Part One:  Fear of the Dark
In Yuri Norstein's enchanting animated short
Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), our hero ventures
into the fog drawn by a beautiful vision.  It is
a classic hero story, where the hero embarks
on a quest that leads to deeper self-knowledge.
Hedgehog in the Fog shares much in common
with Thomas Merton's "Fire Watch," where
Merton's solitary trek through the monastery
 leads to revelation.

Defying traditional expectations, Thomas Merton depicts the dark as spiritually good.  This is in the nature of a paradigm shift—and it’s not easy to cause a shift in anything as hidebound as a 2,000- year-old religion anchored to a set of ancient sacred texts.

In the very first paragraph of “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” Merton writes:

“You (God) have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better.”

Merton’s God blesses the darkness.  This is a concept that would seem to fly in the face of much scripture:

The hero's journey continues.
Top frame: The hedgehog sees a beautiful
vision of a white horse in the fog.  Middle
frame:  Unseen by the hedgehog, the horse
sniffs a leaf that that the hedgehog has
dropped.  Bottom frame:  Safely home, the
hedgehog is haunted by the vision of
the horse.  In "Fire Watch," Merton
pursues an unattainable intimacy,
yearning to receive answers from God
to his existential questions.
“And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
Genesis 1:3-4

“So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days… but all the people of Israel had light where they dwelt.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
Exodus 10:22-23

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
Isaiah 9:2

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
John 1:5

“Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  (Note:  Light good, dark bad.)
Romans 13:12

While positive passages about darkness exist in the Bible, they are few and far between.  Negative views of darkness overwhelmingly predominate.

The hero's journey continues.
Wandering lost in the fog, hoping to see the
horse again, the hedgehog is frightened by
mysterious beasts of the night:  an owl, a
bat, and an elephant, dimly seen.  As he
wanders through the monastery at night,
Merton evokes a haunted house:  "Shadows
move everywhere... There are faint sounds
in the darkness, the empty choirstalls creak
and hidden boards mysteriously sigh."
But Merton saw through this darkness surrounding darkness to realize that the light-dark dichotomy was always intended as metaphor, and that sometimes metaphors must change with the times.  Darkness served as a favorite image in ancient times because it was universally known and feared.  Our contemporary fears of darkness are much milder by comparison.  If fear begins to seize us, we can simply flick on a light switch, performing our own, “Let there be light.”

When the books of the Bible were written, intense anxieties about the night, the darkness, and the wilderness were very real and reasonable. Communities banded close together to protect themselves from the dangers that lurked outside.  Assurances of safety dissolved when the sun sank below the horizon. The civilized space contracted.  People gathered together within known, familiar spaces... and they barred the doors.  The wilderness outside the city walls, home to dangerous animals and bandits, advanced closer in the darkness.  Any venture out into the dark carried considerable risk.  Better to wait inside for the night to pass and a new day to dawn.

A twentieth century man living in the first full century of electric illumination, Thomas Merton was open to finding new metaphors to express the old truths.  For him, the night was simply an unexplored space—like the terra incognita at the edge of an old map.  With less to fear, he was more aware that God was fully present in the dark, blessing the night just as he blessed the day.

At the close of “Fire Watch,” Merton prophetically speaks for God:

The Voice of God is heard in Paradise:
“What was vile has become precious.  What is now precious was never vile.  I have always known the vile as precious for what is vile I know not at all.”
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

In the new metaphor, there’s nothing to fear in the dark.  The night assumes a new dignity, now recognized as precious before God.

The hero's journey continues.
Despite his fears, the hedgehog ultimately finds only kindness and
compassion in the fog.  Left: A dog (with very scary jaws) returns the
hedgehog's lost bag to him.  Right: When the hedgehog falls into a
stream, a fish offers him a ride back to safety.  In "Fire Watch,"
Merton writes that the animals in the wilderness outside the monastery
are misunderstood.  "That is why some people act as if the night and the
forest and the heat and the animals had in them something of contagion,
whereas the heat is holy and the animals are the children of God..."

The hero's journey at its most sublime.
Perhaps the most beautiful of all the images in Hedgehog in the Fog,
the hedgehog uses a firefly to light his way as he moves forward
through a cathedral of trees.  The world appears sacred.  In "Fire Watch,"
Thomas Merton writes:  "Now the huge chorus of living beings rises up
out of the world beneath my feet:  life singing in the watercourses,
throbbing in the creeks and the fields and the trees, choirs of millions
and millions of jumping and flying and creeping things.  And far above
me the cool sky opens upon the frozen distance of the stars."

Watch Hedgehog in the Fog...
Purchase the The Complete Works of Yuri Norstein DVD at Amazon or other vendor.
Purchase Masters of Russian Animation 2 DVD at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Masters of Russian Animation 2 at Netflix or other rental service.

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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