Thomas Merton’s ‘big dream’

Thomas Merton’s ‘big dream’ of Proverb

On February 28 1958, Thomas Merton had a dream:

‘On the porch at Douglaston I am embraced with determined and virginal passion by a young Jewish girl. She clings to me and will not let me go, and I get to like the idea. I see that she is a nice kid in a plain, sincere sort of way. I reflect “She belongs to the same race as St. Anne.” I ask her name and she says her name is Proverb. I tell her that is a beautiful and significant name, but she does not appear to like it – perhaps the others have mocked her for it.’

Some days later Merton writes a love letter to Proverb explaining that while there is a great difference in their ages he is ‘grateful … to you for loving in me something which I thought I had entirely lost, and someone who, I thought, had long ago ceased to be.’ The gratitude and love is for ‘your lovely spontaneity, your simplicity, the generosity of your love’ for ‘the revelation of your virginal solitude.’ He explains at the end, ‘Dearest Proverb, I love your name, its mystery, its simplicity, and its secret, which even you yourself seem not to appreciate.’ Merton pledges his love to her writing ‘I will give you everything’.

This dream links to Merton’s famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut where he sees himself no longer separate from the rest of the human race. And where he is struck by “the secret beauty” and “womanness” of the women he sees in the street. Right after this he writes to Proverb again in his journal:

‘I have kept one promise and I have refrained from speaking of you until seeing you again. I knew that when I saw you again it would be very different, in a different place, in a different form, in the most unexpected circumstances. I shall never forget our meeting yesterday. The touch of your hand makes me a different person. To be with you is rest and Truth. Only with you are these things found, dear child, sent to me by God.’

The spiritual associations are with the Annunciation and the Incarnation, of Sophia and linked to Merton’s work Hagia Sophia, yet from a psychological perspective the setting in the dream on Merton’s maternal grandparents’ porch links to the lost child part too. Is this the feminine part of Merton’s psyche – his anima? In his vision at Fourth and Walnut he writes that he felt ‘he was married to what is most true in all the women of the world’. Is there some balancing here with the ascetic, the intellectual, the ordered, celibate monastic life? Is there then an acceptance of the spontaneity of feeling and emotional side of himself for which he indeed might have been mocked for certainly during his schooling. Proverb is part of the hidden true self re- emerging again through the dream to touch him and affect his relationship with God.