Monthly Archives: March 2018

Thomas Merton’s He is Risen: Living Easter part 1

‘He has risen,

He is not here…

He is going before you to Galilee.’

(Mark 16: 6-7)

The booklet-homily He is Risen is Thomas Merton’s most extensive reflection on the resurrection of Jesus. And fundamental to Merton’s thinking is St Paul’s insistence that the resurrection is not simply an event that happened to Jesus; it is also something that happens to us: Merton believes that we are called to experience it in our own lives. The work of the Easter homily is based on chapter 16 of Mark’s Gospel, when the women come to the tomb seeking for what they can only think of and imagine is a dead Christ. For Merton the danger is that Christianity can become in itself merely a cult of the dead body with implications for our own state of being half dead or half alive. Instead it is the cross that makes the resurrection possible.

‘Christ is the Lord

of a history that moves.

He not only holds

the beginning and the end

in his hands,

but he is in history with us,

walking ahead of us

to where we are going.’

Christ is not static but a reality who moves ‘walking ahead of us to where we are going.’ This invitation, says Merton, is dependent on our willingness ‘to move on, to follow him to where we are not yet, to seek him where he goes before us – to Galilee.’ There are two things required of us: one is that we are called not only to ‘believe that Christ once rose from the dead but we are called to experience the resurrection in our own lives by entering into this dynamic movement … The dynamism is expressed by the power of love and of encounter.’

Merton goes on to say that Christ leads us through a personal and real mutual encounter to a new future which we build together – the kingdom of God which is at the heart of the Christian faith, and so the resurrection rather than merely being seen as historical fact becomes the life and action of Christ in us through his Spirit. Above all else resurrection consciousness has to be personal and real – where ‘true encounter … awakens something in the depth of our being, something we did not know was there.’

‘True encounter with Christ

liberates something in us,

a power

we did not know we had,

a hope,

a capacity for life,

a resilience,

an ability to bounce back

when we thought

we were completely defeated,

a capacity to grow

and change,

a power

of creative transformation.’

Even holy men and women are human

We all have a variety of emotional responses within us, mixed feelings, so then if we try to control and suppress those that seem too ‘negative’ eventually the pressure will become too much.

The Jesuit priest Fr Carlos Valles tells a story from his own experience about a holy old priest who had led a model life holding responsible jobs as rector, superior and provincial. All his life he had been considered a living picture of the rules and regulations to be observed: punctual, active, devout, prayerful, considerate, modest, reliable, fair, generous, persevering, thoughtful – the embodiment of the perfect religious. As such he was honoured and respected by everyone.

As Valles goes on all would have been well if he had died in time, for the tensions he had endured over the years had taxed his patience and loaded resentments all of which he had kept hidden. But one year before his death it seemed as if something snapped: ‘the tongue was loosened, and the resentments of a life-time began to flow in an unholy tide of frightful proportions.’ Grabbing hold of Valles the holy man describes how he knows that everyone wants rid of him and hates him but he too hates everyone and has done for all the stupidities that he had to deal with over the years. ‘You will have to keep looking after me, whether you like it or not. I know that you hate me for all the things you have to do to me now; but I also hated you all my life for the nuisance you all were to me wherever I was. Go and tell them all: I mean to be around still for quite some time, and I will have my vengeance…’

The mixed feelings had of course been there throughout his life and work, the good feelings acknowledged with gratitude and humility but the bad ones suppressed and with much energy … ‘but the heroic scheme broke down in the end and the secret was out… There had been negative feelings in him all along, but by ignoring them and shelving them, he had only prepared the tragic showdown of his last days. Negative feelings can only be ignored at a price.’

The work is really to face the mixed feelings – the angel and the devil. The issue is how to do this, clearly by accepting that such negative emotions exist and then by processing them into feelings which can be voiced at least initially within us and the energy of the negative emotions such as anger and hatred be used constructively rather than repressed only to remerge destructively further down the line.

As Valles concludes he does not want to die cursing but rather to clean the dark corners, sweep under the carpet and to air grievances and confess animosities. There is no point falsely loving our enemies before accepting that we do have them and exploring what it is about them that so upsets and jars within us. Through such a process one can learn a lot about oneself, come to accept it and so en route extend the same benefit to the enemy who usually turns out to  have strong links to the more unattractive parts of oneself.

Being human means having different emotions

Being human means that we all have different impulses, instincts and emotions … they become feelings once we have processed them and put them into words and can acknowledge and recognise them. Strangely in certain circumstances this reality is denied which means that we can only have a number of feelings (e.g. happy, joyful, and perhaps sad) but some of the others seem to be seen as inappropriate (e.g. hatred, anger, envy and depression) so they remain as instincts and emotions rising in us but unable to be acknowledged and so the energy behind them cannot then be constructively used. Unfortunately as both negative and positive emotions are part of being human the negative ones have to go somewhere so they inevitably get repressed and then acted out – but unconsciously.

Here’s an example:

Susan is helping serve the tea and coffee at a church meeting. She gets there at 7 for coffee at 7.15 and the meeting at 7.30. She arrives carrying the milk and biscuits to find Ann already there. Ann has put out a table with some cups and found some old milk somewhere. Ann says to Susan: ‘I’m helping you this evening but I was told to get here for 6.45. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve set it all up?’ Ann is smiling so much it seems as if her face will crack, but she is also anxiously reiterating, ‘I hope you weren’t cross that I set it up; I know that if you’re doing something you might want to have set the table up yourself and laid out the cups…’

Why is Ann anxious and doing so much smiling and placating Susan? Because of course Ann is angry; she is angry because she thinks that Susan is late (although Susan has said that she wasn’t given a time to arrive and thought 7 would be fine). Susan has also said that she doesn’t mind Ann setting it up as Susan is aware that she, Susan, doesn’t really want to do this chore anyway but felt that she ought to. Similarly Ann felt she ought to and hadn’t wanted to leave home so early. The two circle each warily and then after a few skirmishes about who is doing what … Susan is to do the coffee and Ann the tea … Ann turns away and leaves Susan to do it because of course she has had to act out her fury – unconsciously of course, as she dare not be aware of what she feels but whatever it is it’s making her uncomfortable around Susan.

Of course it’s not just at church meetings as it happens in families too, Kahlil Gibran’s story called ‘The Sleepwalkers’ is about this sort of thing:

In the town of my birth there lived a woman and her daughter, and both walked in their sleep. One night, while silence shrouded the earth, the woman and her daughter walked fully asleep, till they met in a garden under the cover of heavy mist.

The mother was the first to speak. ‘At last!’ she said. ‘At last I can tell you what I always wanted to say! Yes, to tell you who destroyed my youth, and are now building your own life on the ruins of mine! I want to kill you!’

Then it was the daughter’s turn to speak and these were her words: ‘Oh hateful woman, selfish and decrepit! You come between my freedom and my self! You would like my life to be but an echo of your own withered life! I wish you were dead!’

At that moment the cock crowed, and both women woke up. ‘Is that you my treasure?’ said the mother tenderly. ‘Yes, it is me, dearest mother,’ answered the daughter with equal tenderness.

Both our actions and sleep reveal the secrets of the mind and so the pressure from the unconscious is temporarily relieved – but in the daylight it is all covered up again.

The birds of appetite and the bird of paradise

The study and practice of Eastern meditation gave both Laing and Merton the potential for the direct experience of being in the here-and-now, and in a place of self-emptying and no-thought. Merton took Zen into his Christian spiritual tradition. He felt that Zen could help the Westerner attain a higher level of religious consciousness within the Christian context. It led Merton to discover that words are but a ‘finger pointing at the moon. To focus on the finger instead of what it points to is to miss the whole reason for seeing’. The birds of appetite that he writes of in his author’s note at the beginning of Zen and the Birds of Appetite represent our desires – for knowledge; for information that we can take and own, and add to our life; for gain; for something. Instead we are being introduced to an alternative:

‘Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the “nothing”, the “no-body” that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.’

Laing’s capacity to be open to another’s distress was augmented by his yoga and meditation practice. He was able to connect, to let down the barriers that most of us swiftly erect to defend ourselves from someone else – especially when they are different to us and appear to be mad. He too understood that words are what we turn to when we are beginning to lose ‘that Alpha and Omega’. He writes of his awareness of saving a bird from a cat. It reads as a moment of Zen consciousness – the awareness of desire (the birds of appetite) providing an awakening (the bird of paradise):

‘Stop. Cat is a cat is a bird is a non-bird of ineffably frail space suddenly spreading in parabolic grace of authority. How foolish to worry, to try to save her, or grasp her. Perhaps the cat was trying to save her. Let be. Cat and bird. Begriff. The truth I am trying to grasp is the grasp that is trying to grasp it.

I have seen the Bird of Paradise, she has spread herself before me, and I shall never be the same again.

There is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing.


The Life I am trying to grasp is the me that is trying to grasp it.

So what is the bird of paradise? Merton writes of the paradise of ‘the lost innocence, the emptiness and purity of heart… which had been shattered by the “knowledge of good and evil”’. Given by divine mercy the bird of paradise is then a state of mind where unity is recovered, where the two becomes one and where we experience our ‘lost likeness to God in pure, undivided simplicity’.


The liminal place

Both R. D. Laing and Thomas Merton were on the edge – on the boundary of the established church for Merton, and on the fringes of the psychiatric and psychoanalytic profession for Laing. Earlier writings by Merton had already caused concern in the Catholic hierarchy, and Laing’s later behaviour eventually led to his agreeing to resign from the General Medical Council.

Merton writes that Zen ‘pushes contradictions to their ultimate limit where one has to choose between madness and innocence’. In other words letting go of the contradictions of human formulations, the logical understanding and the rational thinking takes us beyond those mind patterns and into an unexplored and innocent freedom. For Merton, the trip to the East became the liminal place where he could open himself directly to the influence of others who understood this way.

Laing’s work criticised the medical establishment. Over his career he increasingly attacked the theories and reasoning behind the system of psychiatric diagnoses, and also the treatment on offer. As his popularity grew so did the unease and criticism about his stance and practice. In his work with people Laing moved beyond the labels of madness. He went beyond the formal classification system, the earnest discussions about the use of ECT and physical restraint (I think he would have understood the now extensive use of drug treatments as another form of restraint) into a place of innocence and experience where he met the distressed person and saw and heard the abused child, or neglected baby, or over-protected infant subjected to confused parenting. He was often accused of glorifying mental illness – a claim he rejected.

However in The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise he does explore transcendental experiences that ‘sometimes break through in psychosis’, and writes that the ‘madman’ who in his confusion ‘muddles ego and self, inner with outer, natural and supernatural… can often be to us, even through his profound wretchedness and disintegration, the hierophant of the sacred.’ He writes of the mad person as an exile from the scene of being as we know it, but who nonetheless signals to us from a void peopled with presences and spirits that we are blind to.

He writes:

One enters the other world by breaking a shell: or through a door: through a partition: the curtains part or rise: a veil is lifted. Seven veils: seven seals, seven heavens…nowhere in the Bible is there any argument about the existence of gods, demons, angels. People did not first “believe in” God: they experienced his Presence.

And here is Merton:

The real way to study Zen is to penetrate the outer shell and taste the inner kernel which cannot be defined. Then one realises in oneself the reality which is being talked about. As Eckhart says:

“…the farther you get in the nearer you come to its essence. When you come to the One who gathers all things up into itself, there you must stay.”