Monday, February 16, 2015

Thomas Merton, William Blake, and I Contemplate Eternity

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

My son Terry overlooking the Grand Canyon.

The things of Time are in connivance with eternity.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

I turn a corner on the path and suddenly the Grand Canyon is before me.  In that moment, the bottom drops out of my experience of time.  Personal insignificance and timeless significance coincide.  People on the rim are just grains of sand arbitrarily blowing across the uppermost layer of strata.  A glance over the edge is a plunge into eternity.

While it sounds right and looks awesome, I don’t think this is what Thomas Merton is referring to in the sentence highlighted above—which happens to be my personal favorite sentence in “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” Merton’s sublime epilogue to his book The Sign of Jonas.  The Grand Canyon experience is powerful, a true contender for supreme iconic image of eternity colliding with time.  But I think Merton was referencing something on an altogether different scale, available to everyone on a daily basis without the investment in a Southwest vacation.

Merton prefaces this sentence with a paragraph that resonates with the poetry of William Blake:

But there is a greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.  Eternity is in the present.  Eternity is in the palm of the hand.  Eternity is a seed of fire, whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss.

The things of Time are in connivance with eternity…
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

The Grand Canyon.
Having written his Master’s thesis at Columbia University on William Blake (“Nature and Art in William Blake; A Essay in Interpretation”), Merton very intentionally echoes the famous first four lines of Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence”:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour…
“Auguries of Innocence”
by William Blake

Merton knows that God must be met in the present moment, which he has learned from Blake is a doorway opening to eternity.  But what sounds simple is difficult because the awareness of passing time is a barrier to the experience of the moment of time.  It is a problem unique to mankind.  As Merton writes, “Only man makes himself illuminations he conceives to be solid and eternal.”  The things of time tease us with intimations of eternity, while leading us away from an experience of the spirit.

Merton steps through the door of the tower, onto the monastery’s roof, open to an experience of God in the night and in the moment.  The “things of time” sentence opens a paragraph that relegates the created world to shadows.

The things of Time are in connivance with eternity.  The shadows serve You.  The beasts sing to You before they pass away.  The solid hills shall vanish like a worn-out garment.  All things change, and die and disappear.  Questions arrive, assume their actuality, and also disappear.  In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.  The world that Your love created, that the heat has distorted, and that my mind is always misinterpreting, shall cease to interfere with our voices.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

So while my view of the Grand Canyon is profoundly felt on one level, its very majesty connives to hide its ephemerality.  It, too, will “vanish like a worn-out garment,” a faith belief entirely in line with geological understanding.  Like the beasts in Merton, the view sings of eternity.  It blindsides us.  And then the mind pitches in and begins misinterpreting it.

Detail, Children's Games (1559-1560)
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)
oil on wood.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
My most profound experience of eternity was not at the Grand Canyon or any of the National Parks, much as I love them.  It took place nearly thirty years ago when I was playing on a swing set.  At the time, I was working as an assistant at a home for five women with severe mental retardation.  One afternoon, I remember sitting on a two-person swing set in the home’s backyard.  I was on one swing and Carol, a young woman with Down syndrome, was on the swing next to me.  And we were simply swaying in the fall breeze, both of us content for the moment.  She had a beautiful smile and I was happy that she was happy.  Then the particulars vanished in the knowledge that everything was good, that there was no need to worry, that there was endless love emanating from anywhere and everywhere in the world and we were both loved.

You’re sitting on a swing and the bottom unexpectedly drops out of your normal experience of time ticking by.  The second hand on the watch stops.  A moment expands into eternity.

And then it contracts, as the second hand inevitably starts circling again.  The things of time fall back into place.  I recall the impossible-to-capture experience but not how it ended.  Perhaps it was like this:

There are drops of dew that show like sapphires in the grass as soon as the great sun appears, and leaves stir behind the hushed flight of an escaping dove.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Those are the concluding words of “Fire Watch,” coming after God speaks in Paradise, conveying a message that everything is blessed. (“No more lay hold on time, Jonas, My son, lest the rivers bear you away.”)  In Merton’s case, his job on the Fire Watch ends as the sun rises.  He returns to the mundane tasks of being a monk while the Holy Spirit departs like a dove.

The Grand Canyon.

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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