Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Thomas Merton and a snapshot

I love reading Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and writer extraordinaire. (You don't have to be Catholic or even Christian to love reading Thomas Merton.) In his journals, he is unguarded, funny, impatient, and introspective, always open to the possibility of discovery as he thinks aloud on the page. Here's Merton at the age of fifty, looking at an old photograph:

A distant relative sent an old snapshot taken when he and his wife visited Douglaston thirty years ago. It shows them with Bonnemaman [Merton's grandmother] and myself — and the back porch of the house, and the birch tree. There is Bonnemaman as I remember her — within two years of dying. And there am I: it shakes me! I am the young rugby player, the lad from Cambridge, vigorous, light, vain, alive, obviously making a joke of some sort. The thing that shakes me: I can see that that was a different body from the one I have now — one entirely young and healthy, one that did not know sickness, weakness, anguish, tension, fatigue — a body totally assured of itself and without care, perfectly relaxed, ready for enjoyment. What a change since that day! If I were wiser, I would not mind but I am not so sure I am wiser: I have been through more, I have endured a lot of things, perhaps fruitlessly. I do not entirely think that — but it is possible. What shakes me is that — I wish I were that rugby player, vain, glorious, etc. and could start over again!! And yet how absurd. What would I ever do? The other thing is that those were, no matter how you look at it, better times! There were things we had not heard of — Auschwitz, the Bomb, etc. (Yet it was all beginning, nevertheless.)

And now what kind of a body! An arthritic hip, a case of chronic dermatitis on my hands for a year and a half (so that I have to wear gloves); sinusitis, chronic ever since I came to Kentucky; lungs always showing up some funny shadow or other on x-rays (though not lately); perpetual diarrhea and a bleeding anus; most of my teeth gone; most of my hair gone; a chewed-up vertebra in my neck which causes my hands to go numb and my shoulder to ache — and for which I sometimes need traction; when you write it down it looks like something, and it is true, there is no moment any more when I am not aware that I have something wrong with me and have to be careful! What an existence! But I have grown used to it — something which thirty years ago would have been simply incredible. [December 21, 1965]

From The Journals of Thomas Merton: Volume Five, 1963-1965, ed. Robert E. Daggy (NY: HarperCollins, 1998) 325-26

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comments: 5

thalkowski said...

Strange coincidence -- I just started re-reading that same volume of Merton's journals a few nights ago.

I especially enjoyed his account of flying to NYC to meet with D.T. Suzuki. Merton seemed quietly thrilled to be going back to NYC (albeit briefly). His description of the flight, especially his anticipation as he sees old neighborhood landmarks from the air, speaks to anyone who has ever (briefly) 'returned home.'

A lot of 'near misses' of history as well in that same volume. Merton gets an invitation to go to Cuernavaca to meet with (Monsignor) Ivan Illich. Alas he could not go - one can only imagine the conversation that could have been.

Michael Leddy said...

For a while I was trying to find the passage in which Merton is in an apartment in NYC, listening to the sounds from the street. I wasn't even sure which volume to look in. And there it is, when he goes to visit Suzuki. More coincidence! Thanks, Timothy.

Chaser said...

It took me the longest time to read his journals because I was a fan of his contemplative writings--I couldn't reconcile the careful thinker and writer with the bounce and confusion of the mind you see in the journals. Then when I began writing myself, it made all the sense in the world, and I better understood and respected the care with which Merton crafted his public work.

Michael Leddy said...

Lisa, have you looked at Merton's correspondence with his friend Robert Lax? Two wild and crazy guys!

Chaser said...

I'll have to look up the correspondence.