Thomas Merton at 104


It’s Thomas Merton’s birthday. 

This morning I reached for volume seven of his journals, curious about what he might have written on what turned out to be his last birthday: January 31, 1968.  Here’s what I found:

“Clear, thin new moon appearing and disappearing between slow slate clouds—and the living black skeletons of the trees against the evening sky.  More artillery than usual whumping at Knox.  It is my fifty-third birthday.”

And so begins an entry with a cascading collage of zigzagging and spacious thoughts and ordinary experiences – ranging from a crisp denunciation of war (“complete inanity”), to that afternoon’s walk down to the Abbey of Gethsemani’s pond (where the ducks “rose and circled and then headed south into a strong wind”), to a recent excursion into Louisville for a doctor’s appointment that gave him a chance to buy some LPs: “…the new Dylan record (John Wesley Hardin) is his best.  Very encouraging.  He’d had a bad accident, and everybody thought he was finished.  Also got Coltrane’s Ascension which is shattering.  A fantastic and prophetic piece of music.” 

This quick trip into town was rounded out with a visit to his friend Tommie O’Callaghan (who would serve for years on the Merton Literary Trust) and her family, and Dan Walsh, who had played a pivotal role in Merton’s conversion at Columbia University years before and who, now quite fortuitously, was living in the area. 

The entry finishes up by mentioning a stream of new content that had come in for Monk’s Pond (the avant-garde magazine he edited in four quarterly issues throughout his last year) and thoughts about a recent visit from Dennis Goulet and Richard Chi, all about Zen and a painting they had brought him by Tao Chi, a 17th-century Zen monk—“more mysterious, more dreamlike, more detached than Van Gogh.”

One of the things that makes Merton so attractive is his breadth.  While as a Trappist monk he clearly had apophatic tendencies – a spirituality of emptiness in which one comes to God by dismissing everything that is “not God” – he often lived cataphatically: reveling in the presence of God to whom we come, not by negation, but by embracing the fullness of life: from ducks, to medical visits, to Zen painting, to the mystery of close friends, and to the shattering impact of music and of the whumping guns at Fort Knox. 

All in just one journal entry.

Of course, it was his birthday, so maybe there is also a kind of celebration here – a reverie on the kind of life he had been ushered into, that had been both constructed and utterly given, all within the rhythm of the ordinary and extraordinary rush of time and experience, and all fitting into a spiritual path that saw no difference between prophetic denunciation and ruminations on nature and art and the importance of relationships.  All of these, it turned out, were ultimately one.

Even as I was mulling on Merton today, I got the following email out of the blue from Wally Inglis, Pace e Bene’s good friend in Hawai’i:

“Aloha, Ken -- I have to share this with you!  I awoke much earlier than usual this morning.  Reaching in semi-darkness to my bookshelf, I randomly picked out your Nonviolent Lives. Then randomly opening the book, I came upon a reading that began: "Today is Thomas Merton's birthday."  And so it is! …Let us celebrate the great man's birthday in a fitting way … by recommitting ourselves to living nonviolent lives.”

This delightful synchronicity strikes me as a wonderful little shout-out from heaven – and, as Wally says, a reminder to keep on seeking to live the breadth and depth of the nonviolent life.


Ken Butigan