Monthly Archives: April 2020

Self isolation and bird song 2


In February 1950 Thomas Merton again experiences a spiritual awakening through his observation of the birds. At this time he is praying in an attic of a garden house which he used sometimes as a quasi-hermitage. It’s full of shovels with a broken window, and the distant sound of trains coming from the valley. He becomes aware of a great noise of excitement and restlessness amongst the many starlings that roosted and were singing in the nearby trees. This was because an eagle was flying overhead, and it suddenly attacked one of the trees with the starlings in them. Merton writes, ‘before he was near them, the whole cloud of them left the tree and avoided him and he came nowhere near them’. But once calm had been restored and the starlings were moving about on the ground, singing again, like lightening it happened:

‘from behind the house and from over my roof, a hawk came down like a bullet, and shot straight into the middle of the starlings just as they were getting off the ground. They rose into the air and there was a slight scuffle on the ground as the hawk got his talons into the one bird he had nailed. It was a terrible and yet beautiful thing, that lightening flight, straight as an arrow, that killed the slowest starling.’

Merton tries to return to praying, but the hawk enjoying eating the starling in the next field diverts him into thoughts of medieval falconry, Arabian princes, and the way some people love war. ‘But in the end’ writes Merton, ‘I think that hawk is to be studied by saints and contemplatives because he knows his business. I wish I knew my business as well as he does his.’

This for Merton is about single pointed awareness, about focus and he addresses the hawk as a fellow artist, one revelling in his craft:

‘I wonder if my admiration for you gives me an affinity for you, artist! I wonder if there will ever be something connatural between us, between your flight and my heart, stirred in hiding to serve Christ, as you, soldier, serve your nature. And God’s love a thousand times more terrible! I am going back to the attic and the shovels and the broken window and the trains in the valley and the prayer of Jesus.’

Thomas Merton, Entering the Silence, p. 408.

Self isolation and birdsong

As there is less traffic, and so less noise and pollution, bird song seems stronger, more insistent and very appealing. It is as if the birds are reminding us that they too share the planet.

Thomas Merton had a number of spiritual awakenings linked to birdsong. One of the most beautifully written is on June 5 1960, the feast of Pentecost. Merton has been praying in the abandoned tool shed he calls St Ann’s where he delights in his solitude but also writes about his joyful experience of discovering what he calls the ‘full meaning of Lauds’ – this is during the pre-dawn moments of the previous Thursday.

‘At 2.30 – no sounds except sometimes a bullfrog. Some mornings he says Om – some days he is silent. The sounds are not every day the same. The whippoorwill who begins his mysterious whoop about 3 o’clock is not always near…

The first chirp of the waking birds – “le point vierge” [the virgin point]” of the dawn, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in silence opens their eyes and they speak to Him, wondering if it is time to “be”? And He tells them “Yes.” Then they one by one wake and begin to sing. First the catbirds and cardinals and some others I do not recognize. Later, song sparrows, wrens, etc. Last of all doves, crows, …

With my hair almost on end and the eyes of the soul wide open I am present, without knowing it at all, in this unspeakable Paradise, and I behold this secret, this wide open secret which is there for everyone, free, and no one pays any attention …Not even monks, shut up under fluorescent lights and face to face with the big books and the black notes and with one another, perhaps no longer seeing or hearing anything in the course of the festive Lauds.’

Monica Weis spoke about this at an Oakham conference in 2006 noting how Merton articulates the genesis of the day, the moment of creation repeated daily all over our planet, ‘indeed, at every moment as the Creator lovingly keeps each of us in being’. Merton has sketched for us the first glimmer of morning and allowed that physical light to pierce the darkness of his soul. This dawn – and every dawn for Merton – becomes a true experience of contemplation.

Self isolation and resurrection

In a wonderful letter to Czeslaw Milosz Thomas Merton writes about resurrection consciousness – “life is on our side” – where the God whom we seek is not to be found in intellectually satisfying systems of thought, but rather in the muddle and agony of a man being humiliated and executed. Merton’s resurrection consciousness is full of the cross – struggles with despair, violence, dishonesty and betrayal, but a despair that Merton believes can lead to rebirth and the light of Christ, and where the consciousness is awareness that from the darkest times rebirth can take place. In the trauma is the transcendence.

The dividing line between despair and faith can be a mere thread; when the soul is at the very edge of the abyss it can in an instant be snatched into safety. There need not be any long twilight separating darkness from dawn. The sun can suddenly arise – strangely and unexpectedly out of the most unpromising sky. Merton shows us how both faith and despair can be paradoxical and contradictory; to be human is to be many things sometimes consecutively and sometimes almost at the same time: both the shadow and the persona; the false and the true self; wise and foolish; dead and alive – crucified and resurrected.

Merton writes that Easter celebrates the victory of love over everything and in the letter he expresses it in this way:

“… Life is on our side. The silence and the Cross of which we know are forces that cannot be defeated. In silence and suffering, in the heartbreaking effort to be honest in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty), in all these is victory. It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness to a light of which we have no conception and which can only be found by passing through apparent despair. Everything has to be tested. All relationships have to be tried. All loyalties have to pass through fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us. But Victory is certain. The Resurrection is the only light, and with that light there is no error.”

Life this Easter,  taken by Gordon Humphreys March 26th

Self-isolation and meditation

In The Sign of Jonas (p 330-2) Thomas Merton writes about when he sits in silence:

“Different levels of depth

First, there is the slightly troubled surface of the sea. Here there is action, I make plans. They toss in the wake of other traffic: passing liners… Where do they spring from?

Second, there is the darkness that comes when I close my eyes. Here is where the big blue, purple, green, and grey fish swim by. Most beautiful and peaceful darkness: is it the cave of my own inner being? In this water cavern I easily live, whenever I wish. Dull rumours only of the world reach me. Sometimes a drowned barrel floats into the room. Big grey-green fish, with silver under their purple scales … I close my eyes to the sun, and live on the second level, a natural prayer, peace… There is no sound. Soon even the fish are gone. Night, night. Nothing is happening… I half open my eyes to the sun, praising the Lord of glory. Lo, thus I have returned from the blank abyss …Ferns and fish return. Lovely dark green things. In the depth of the waters, peace, peace, peace. Such is the second level of waters under the sun. We pray therein, slightly waving among the fish…

Words, as I think, do not spring from this second level. They are only meant to drown there.

Third level. Here there is positive life swimming in the rich darkness which is no longer thick like water but pure, like air. Starlight, and you do not know where it is coming from. Moonlight is in this prayer, stillness, waiting for the Redeemer. Walls watching horizons in the middle of the night … Everything is charged with intelligence, though all is night. There is no speculation here … Everything is spirit. Here God is adored. His coming is recognized… This is the holy cellar of my mortal existence, which opens into the sky.

It is a strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky, and all is positive night.”