Monthly Archives: December 2019

December with Thomas Merton – week 5

Merton writes about the year ahead – it’s 1968.

The year struggles with its own blackness.

Dark, wet mush of snow under frozen rain for two days. Everything is curtained in purple greyness and ice. Fog gets in the throat. A desolation of wetness and waste, turning to mud.

Only New Year’s Day was bright. Very cold. Everything hard and sparkling, trees heavy with snow. I went for a walk up the side of Vineyard Knob, on the road to the fire tower, in secret hope of ‘raising the sparks’ (as the Hasidim say) and they rose a little. It was quiet, but too bright, as if this celebration belonged not to the new year or to any year.

More germane to this new year is darkness, wetness, ice and cold, the scent of illness.

But maybe that is good. Who can tell?’

Kentucky Knobs in Winter

The next day in the evening the snow has become very hard and Merton writes of the dark pines over the hermitage. He looks at the graceful black fans and branches of the tall oaks between his field and the monastery. As he says Compline looking out of the cold valley he tastes the peace. ‘Who is entitled to such peace? I don’t know. But I would be foolish to leave it for no reason.’



December with Thomas Merton – week 4

In December 1965 Thomas Merton writes about going down to midnight mass from the hermitage where he was living.

‘I found it storming with rain and huge winds in the dark woods. The walk down was exciting. Coming back the rain had stopped. I came up through the field was glad to get into the silence of the hermitage which made more sense than ever. I made my Thanksgiving quietly said Lauds and had a snack and some wine (the last of what Brother Clement gave me a couple of months ago) and so went back to bed for a couple of hours. Got up again, said Prime and read… It is the kind of day I like, and like Christmas to be too: dark, cloudy, windy, cold with light rain blowing now and then. I have had wonderful Christmases (Christmas weeks) here with this kind of winter weather, unforgettable. Days not too bad for walking out on the wooded knobs, cold and lonelier than ever and full of apparent meaning. They talked me of my vocation.’

Merton goes on to describe the midnight mass feeling that the community was fully involved, although, for him, the celebration was still spoilt by what he saw as a sense of a certain falsity and wilfulness which some infected into it – ‘They always overdo a good thing.’ ‘Yet at the same time, I was moved by the simplicity and sincerity of Brother Cuthbert kneeling before the crib.’

He writes that he didn’t get the awful depression that he had had a couple of times at Christmas in recent years. And he thanks God for that wondering whether this comes from his thoughts about death that were opening out with the last days of Advent:

‘seeing death is built into my life and accepting it in and with life (not trying to push it out of life, keep it away from contaminating a life supposedly completely other than it. Death is flowering in my life as a part and fulfilment of it – its term, its final chord).’

December with Thomas Merton – week 3

By December 1958 Merton was noting his 17th anniversary in the monastery. By now Merton is much more questioning and at times restless with his vocation. He ends up going into town – ironically he notes this is a kind of ‘retreat’. Seeing what life looks like outside the monastery walls, Merton qualifies his earlier entries about being in the monastery for ‘nothing’ by stating: ‘really I am here for everything. Being out “in the world” would really be nothing and an awful waste. The “waste” of one’s life in a monastery is the fruitful thing; or at least it is for me.’

Looking around him Merton is appalled:

‘The overwhelming welter of meaningless objects, goods, activities – the indiscriminate chaotic nest of ‘things’ good, bad and indifferent, that pour over you at every moment – books, magazines, food, drink, women, cigarettes, clothes, toys, cars, drugs. Add to this the anonymous, characterless,”decoration” of the town for Christmas and the people running around buying things for no reason except that now is a time which everybody buys things.’

[FG: incidentally not of course happy about Merton’s reference to ‘women’ as ‘things‘]

And Merton too buys ‘things’ – a pile of paperback books and two or three magazines; the rest of the time he goes to the library where he is trying to sort out pictures for his book that incidentally never got published, on Art and Worship. Merton, and George, who was driving him, stopped here and there all of the way back and got home so late that Merton had supper in Bardstown he writes,

‘Walking up and down in Bardstown outside Krogers, in the cold, saluted by man, woman, and child. I thought that never, never could I make sense of life outside the monastery. I am a solitary and that is that. I love people o.k., but I belong in solitude. It was so good to get back and smell the sweet air of the woods and listen to the silence.’

Bardstown in the 1950s

December with Thomas Merton – week 2

In the second week of December 1948 Merton writes in his Journal that he is beginning the eighth year in the community at Gethsemani.

‘One of the things that makes me happiest is that, by some miracle, I have been able to get out into the woods a few times this month to the common work. The work has never, as far as I remember, been so far away: more than two miles out, and on the other side of the knobs.’

Merton wonders about the last seven years:

‘I think – where did the time go? I caught myself thinking: have I changed? Not that it matters. I have and I haven’t. I’m balder. Somehow I have more of an interior life, but I’d have a hard time trying to say how.’

Thomas Merton lists some of the things that have led to his changes: taking solemn profession, theology and the trials he has had with people here and there to do with writing, singing, and contemplation. He sees these little crosses as always the very best thing about the life in the monastery. There’s an irony as they seem so small – but they do their work.

‘How God works on your soul by these obscure and unremarkable sufferings that cleanse and drain your wounds. I am glad of every cross I have had and thank God in advance for all those that are to come.’

There are other graces too: the minor orders, the writing work and he includes in this the books and hours of prayer and through these Merton feels that God has taught him to find himself more in God, and, to lose himself more which, he says, comes to the same thing.

‘I am richer, now that I am poor, than I ever was when I was a bourgeois with a well-to-do grandfather … And the most precious thing I had today was an hour of silence behind the church. It has been warm and damp and the knobs are hidden in mist… I escaped to my

silence and stood out there all alone, drugged and    happy, with a book under my arm.’