There was a certain symmetry to Thomas Merton’s life. He was nearly twenty-seven when he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. It was twenty-seven years later to that day, 10 December 1941, that he died in Thailand.
This quote of the week from the Merton Foundation web site:
“The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen. …
But the Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Savior and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer. The Advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies nonexistent.”
Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1950: 88-89
The Jewish prophets, especially in the readings of Advent, seem to have a fix on this. Tragedy is not suppressed. The joy of the passage through the Red Sea would have been just a showstopping miracle had it not been preceded by generations of slavery. Savagery followed by rescue at the hand of God: that is sublime.
And yet I find it difficult to let go of the infinitely smaller hurts I’ve nurtured over the years. The point is, I suppose, not to erase the memories, but to walk through them.
Sometimes, even words and thinking fail us. Merton’s act of faith was joining a monastery, not a monastery in which his talents as a writer and poet might blossom–like mainstream Benedictines, or an order that would appeal to a demanding intellect, like the Jesuits, or even the Frnaciscans with their romantic notion of total gift and total service. I was always intrigued that Merton went to the Trappists.