Merton, Thomas

Unknown Country

Four cars or trucks were parked by the old dead tree
at Needle Rock … two other cars met us on the road …
that’s too many …

He searched for a more solitary place, a hermitage.

I dream every night of the west …

An interior landscape

All blue is precious … there is very much of it here.
A fortune in clear sky and the air …

and the utter poverty of God.

The monastery is thirteen miles by dirt road from the nearest highway.
In that distance, only one other house is passed—Skull Ranch …

Vast, moving clouds; the monastery diminuitive in the canyon.

… around the monastery, nothing. The whole canyon replete
with emptiness.

High cliff walls worn through, resisting the river’s work, then giving way.

Boulder broken by a tuft of grass growing toward the light.

A bleached skull skillfully hung against O’Keeffe’s adobe wall.

There is nothing to achieve but the original mind, movement of breath
through us, unobstructed, unresisted.

Everyone comes from unknown country.

Pamela Porter lives in Sidney, British Columbia. Her most recent collection of poetry is The Intelligence of Animals.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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Out Where the Psalms Are Sung

'His grave is out past the cedar tree," says the woman in the abbey gift shop. It is an icy Monday morning on the back roads of Kentucky's bluegrass country. We've come out past the Jim Beam bottling plant on Route 248 in Clermont. Out past Stephen Foster's "old Kentucky home" in Bardstown. Out past the tiny sign on Route 31 that says simply "Trappist." Past Monk's Creek and Monk's Pond. And past a gate that says "God Alone." Now, near a snow-laden cedar tree, there is a white metal cross. On it is written: Fr. Louis Merton, died December 10, 1968.

I've been here once before, to the Abbey of Gethsemani-home of America's most famous monk, known to the world through his writing as Thomas Merton. I've stood in front of this cross. The time before had been a vacation with my family. I think it was in July 1975. I was not quite a teenager. I remember it was hot, muggy, and we got to swim in Monk's Pond. After visiting the abbey we stopped at the Shaker village in Pleasant Hill. Beneath an image of Mother Ann Lee's blazing Tree of Life, I ate corn pudding for the first time.

WHY HAD I come back? What is it in me, or us, that loves a circle, sometimes to our detriment? Even though my memory is sketchy from the visit to Gethsemani in the '70s, it had a profound impact on my soul. It shifted the banks of my spiritual river.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2004
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'Christ-Haunted' Journeys

"A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the report and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness.... Pilgrims often make the journey in company, but each must be changed individually; they must see for themselves, each with his or her own eyes. And as they return to ordinary life the pilgrims must tell others what they saw, recasting the story in their own terms."

In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, first-time author Paul Elie traces the lives and pilgrimages of four prolific Catholic writers of the last century. The journeys of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy paralleled one another in many ways, yet all four related accounts of their travels—both internal and in the world—with narratives utterly their own.

In this exhaustive, nearly 600-page account, Elie does an impressive job of weaving together and wandering between their life stories, especially considering that interactions between the four were uneven and infrequent, if marked by revealing details. Day and Merton carried on a lengthy correspondence, but never met. Percy and Merton drank bourbon together on the porch at Merton's hermitage in Kentucky, and found they had little to say to one another. In 1961, O'Connor congratulated Percy with a short note: "Dear Mr. Percy, I'm glad we lost the War and you won the Nat'l Book Award." (O'Connor's comment came in response to Percy's declaration that the South produced fine literature because defeat had joined Southerners together and given them something to defend.)

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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Corresponding with Crisis

Evelyn Waugh once suggested to Thomas Merton that, fine though he was as an author, his gift as a correspondent was so profound that he ought to give up every other form of writing in order to devote himself to letters. Merton's 50 publications demonstrate that Waugh's advice wasn't taken, but still Merton found time for a great many

letters and most have now been published, though it has taken nearly 10 years of editing work and five big volumes to do so.

Freedom to Witness is subtitled Letters in Time of Crisis. True, each era has felt for those then living to be a time of crisis, but rarely has crisis been more teeth-rattling than in the century that is about to end. Merton's life filled barely half of this blood-stained era. Born in France as World War I was getting under way, he died 54 years later at a conference center in Thailand, just one border removed from the Indochina War. His body was flown back home in a U.S. Air Force plane bringing back soldiers killed in Vietnam-just the right company for Merton.

Merton as monk had the right address not to notice that the world was in crisis. His thoughts on entering the Abbey of Gethsemani (just three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor) suggest he had no intention of keeping up with events beyond the monastic enclosure. No one ever walked out on the world with a louder slam of the door. Merton intended to leave his name at the monastery gate and all his literary ambitions with it.

The abbot, the son of a book-binder, turned out to be a book-loving man. In time he noticed Merton's gifts. As a matter of obedience, Merton was sent back to the typewriter.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1996
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