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Fire Watch

Thomas Merton’s epilogue to The Sign of Jonas is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and profound texts he has ever written:

The voice of God is heard in Paradise: “What was vile has become precious. What is now precious was never vile. I have always known the vile as precious: for what is vile I know not at all. What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with my mercy and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas, My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy. I have forgiven the universe without end, because I have never known sin. What was poor has become infinite. What is infinite was never poor. I have always known poverty as infinite: riches I love not at all. Prisons within prisons within prisons. Do not lay up for yourselves ecstasies upon earth, where time and space corrupt, where the minutes break in and steal. No more lay hold on time, Jonas, My son, lest the rivers bear you away. What was fragile has become powerful. I loved what was most frail. I looked upon what was nothing. I touched what was without substance and within what was not I AM."

Jonas, the reluctant prophet with whom Merton identifies himself, is an image of death and resurrection. The text eloquently describes the radical intensity of both terms. What is dead is truly dead; what is alive is truly alive.

These lines were written on July 4, 1952, when Merton was on the fire watch at Gethsemani Abbey, relative early in his monastic life. He would evolve in many ways over the subsequent years, ceasing to demonize the world and becoming involved in the civil-rights movement and Christian pacifism. He would also discover Eastern Christian spirituality as well as non-Christian Asiatic traditions. He would fight with his abbot, fall in love with a nurse and become a sort of lightening rod both inside and outside his monastery. Yet God would not let go of Jonas. In October 1968—a few months before his death, Merton gave a talk in Calcutta:

The only ultimate reality is God. God lives and dwells in us. We are not justified by any action of our own, but we are called by the voice of God…to pierce through the irrelevance of our own life, while accepting that our life is totally irrelevant in order to find relevance in Him. And this relevance in Him is something that can only be received, not something we grasp or possess. It is something that can only be received as a gift. Consequently, the kind of life that I represent is a life that is openness to gift; a gift from God and a gift from others.

Many years ago I assisted at a class of Abbé Journet where he commented upon the Miserere. There had recently been a corrective retranslation of the Vulgate and in the opening verse of this psalm the original text was “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your great Mercy." The revised version dropped the adjective “great” and Abbé Journet was indignant. He needed God’s great mercy, not his little mercy and thought we all did!

What Merton expresses on a very personal level also holds true, I believe, on an ecclesial level as well—as a basic attitude of great humility and great hope. The gifts of God are such that they can wipe the slate, make nonexistent all that is impure and unworthy in us and make us pleasing unto God—almost in spite of ourselves. This would not be too different from the message of mercy that is becoming one of the trademarks of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

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Thank you for this, Jerry. Your quotations from Merton remind of Isaac of Syria's invitation to respond to God's great mercy by turning our own hearts toward mercy, according to God's grace:

 

"What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God."

It's in calling for a heart on fire for the demons, the enemies of truth, and for those who do me harm that Isaac's words catch in my throat. I can't do this, certainly not alone. In this invitation to fill my own heart with mercy, I discover once again how utterly dependent I am on the great mercy  of God.  

How different the Fire Watch passage is from Merton's description of one of his early experiences had while standing on a street corner in Louisville, and how different the Fire Watch description is from his experience near the end of his life in Polunnawara.  In Louisville he experienced God's being present within the quite ordinary people walking around him, and a beautiful, joyous experience it was.  In Polunnawara he experienced absolute Compassion being present in some great outdoor statures of the Buddha.  In neither case does God scorn this world of space and time and matter. 

So how to account for this Fire Watch experience in which Merton seems to turn himself -- and God --totally away from this world.  I suspect that he might have been trying to make headway with the problem of evil and found a highly inventive way to dispose of it:   he claims that somehow in the future (not in the past) evil  will never have really existed, its very reality in the past having somehow been wiped out by mercy in some meta-world beyond space and time. 

But Merton doesn't say this is an *experience* of Mercy wiping out pain outside of time. In other words he's not describing a religious experience.   I think this passage is just an attempt at a philosophical solution --  a meta-metaphysical one (if one may coin such a monstrous term) in which outside of time and space the painful contents of time and space are said to be destroyed.  History is destroyed.  It does not seem to be an experiential one, and Merton doesn't say that it is, does he?

So I don't think that Merton has really grounded pure Mercy by wiping out cruelty.  There is no mercy without pain. 

Ann:

I agree that in this passage, Merton no doubt was trying to reconcile a philosophical problem; he was an intellecutual afterall. At the same time, this passage from Merton does move me psychologically and spiritually and somehow helps to understand the reality of who God is and help me move out of a certain negative self-deprecating space. I think the same can be true for others as well. There is a redemptive quality, a renewal, and a resurrection of sorts that is being described here. Of course, this is not a permanent state but perhaps it does point to an eternal destinty.

Here's a visual to complement your reflection and discussion:

http://epoc2.cs.uow.edu.au/brooklyn_r_1000_ws/similarity/index.php?o=2084

Brian --

Thanks for the St. Isaac.  Yes, if we're truly Christian we should pray even for the snakes (both actual and figurative) :-)

"We are not justified by any action of our own, but we are called by the voice of God…to pierce through the irrelevance of our own life, while accepting that our life is totally irrelevant in order to find relevance in Him."

His attitude doesn't value the world or our lives in it, and that doesn't seem very Christian. Jesus came here "that they may have life, and have it to the full".  Merton sounds like a Gnostic.

Hmmm - maybe that's why Buddhism so appealed to him:  the Four Noble Truths are about life being suffering and how to avoid it.

Crystal --

I'm not sure that Merton was a Gnostic.  I see him as a very complex, even contradictory personality who was both drawn to the world and repulsed by it, with, simultaneously, a quite healthy, balanced appreciation of it, though sometimes drawn too intensely to things of he flesh.  What I particularly appreciate about him is that his loves were not abstract (though he was, I suspect, a better theologian than he's generally noted for), but very concrete, very particular.  I think that most of all he loved God  -- why else would he have stayed a monk all those years?  All in all he was intensely human.  

He also had a great ability look beyond his own interests and little world and suffer with the poor and otherwise dispossed.  It was his interest in the outside world that won him so many public plaudits.  I wish that he were better known these days for the man he was -- a struggler who never gave up and never made himself the center of the universe. 

How do the rest of you all read him?

Hi Ann.  I haven't read any of his works, so I probably should do that before I draw too many conclusions about him  :)

Crystal --

Merton's "New Seeds of Contemplation" is one of his most popular books.  Obviously, it's about contemplative prayer, but it isn't about methods, e.g., centering prayer.  It does give some good advice, however, for instance about recognizing our "false self" which turns us from God and about finding our true self which is oriented towards Him.  You can get a copy from Bookfinder for uner $4.

Then there's his classic autobiography, "The Seven Story Mountain".  Your public library should have it.  I think it's a good idea when reading his other works to know where he's coming from.

Thanks, Ann.  I'll look for The Seven Story Mountain first.  I'm really bad at centering prayer - it's kind of the opposite of Ignatian prayer, I think  :)

I have read many of Merton's works including New Seeds of Contemplation and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander where he recounts the famous epiphany he had after visiting the dentist. It was then, that he saw clearly the image of God in every person and how each was loved by God and how he in turn was able to love them. This moved him to engagement with humanity as a means of moving close to God as well. 

I have always enjoyed Merton's prose and I find his sprituality at once simple, deep, and sublime.

I never really was much drawn into the details around his falling in love with the nurse. I think that is interesting but it is a personal matter for him. But, it does make him very human and I think he addressed this with fidelity to his vows and senstivity. I do think that this was a significant relationship but he was, by vocation, a solitary and an intense interpersonal relationship was not something he could navigate.

Still, he was clearly a passionate man and required the monastic discipline to focus his creative and expansive mind. You can see the intensity in his eyes in some photographs. At the same time, in his writings there is such gentleness and calm.

As one particularly interested in the variety of mystical experiences, I find Merton particularly interesting because his experience of the people in Louisville as children of God is, so far as I can see, a very *Protestant* experience.  I've read a variety of mystical works and have been struck by this:  Cradle Catholics who are mystics do not seem to have mystical experiences of the presence of God in the material world.  All the cradle Catholics I've read have had experieces focusing within themselves and on presense of God within themselves.  This inclination, it seems to me, explains why centering prayer is so popular among cradle Catholics -- it is focused entirely away from the world and on God.

But Merton was Anglican in background, and he talks of at least two experiences of the presense of God in physical things:  the first was the Louisville experience and the second was his experience just weeks before his death at Polunnawara where he became aware of the presence of Compassion/God in some great statures of Buddha.  (Sadly, Merton was shy of writing about his own particular mystical  experiences, so he described few of them.)

I haven't come across many such Protestant experiences of God in the world (an experience of  the great Johnathan Edwards is a memorable one).  I suppose it's because the Protestant faiths abandoned contemplation in reaction against the corruption of the monks and monasteries.  There is, however, now a renewed interest in contemplation among some Protestants.  They have a lot of catching up to do.  

On the other hand, I think that Catholics might profit from Merton, Edwards et al by being open to such  outward-oriented mystical experiences.  Catholicism teaches that God is present in all creatures, including the material ones, so why not?  Further, given the interest in Nature  of so many seekers these days, such a spiritual practice -- of becoming aware of God in Nature -- might be very appealing ot them.  True, genuine religious mystical experiences are a gift of God, but He is generous, and different spiritualities appeal to different persons. 

I think Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena had mystical experiences that were not of the 'centering prayer' kind but were pretty material - experiences of Jesus and angels being in the room with them, etc.?

I don't know about St. Catherine, but St. Teresa had some of the most extraordinary, non-visionary mystical experiences of all, as did her friend St. John of the Cross.  While for a few people centering prayer does eventually lead to extraordinary mystical experiences, for most it doesn't.  Do read Fr. Keating's "Open Mind, OPen Heart" if you haven't already.      

There are many different sorts of mystical experiences.  Some are called "mystical" that don't even claim to be  meetings with God, but they too are ecstatic and overwhelming.  See R. C. Zaehner's Mysticism:  Sacred and Profane about this.  

Bernard McGinn's monumental 'The Presence of God" (now at Vol. V) is a history of Christian mysticism which is quite readable, but now at Volume V.  Given my meager  understanding of what the Christian contemplatives are talking about, there really isn't just one sort of experience, even though all of them are somehow awarenesses of the presence of Go.  But God is infinite and what each mystic seems to grasp seems to differ somewhat from mystic ot mystic.  The problem seems to be that God is so different from things in the world that we don't have words that can accurately describe HIm.  It's all analogical talk.

Thanks for the book recommendations.  The interesting difference between centering prayer (and eastern forms of meditation) and Ignatian prayer is the whole experience thing.  Centering prayer seems to be about silence, emptying oneself, waiting, experiencing the indwelling spirit.  But Ignatian prayer is about using everyting, including the imagination, to give form to a Jesus/God who is other enough that you can have a personal relationship with him.  Centering prayer seems self-denying, but without a healthy self, you can't have a relationship with anyone else, even God.   Or at least that's how I have come to understand the difference between the prayer styles  :)

I'd say that centering prayer is not self-denying, the contemplative just turns away from the usual perambulations of consciousness to focus on accepting God's presence and will.  So the self is emptied but only momentarily.  (Most people don't achieve that state for very long at a time and go back to ordinary experience.)  

I'd also say that it is quite possible for an mentally unhealthy self to have a fine relationship with God. Sometimes the unhealthyness even contributes to the relationship.  (A mystery there.)  See Therese of Lisieux, who was far from a well-balanced person.  I'd call her extremely neurotic --- at the end she was miserable and despairing because she was sure that she was damned!  But her love of God and other people was most extraordinary.  And consider some of those medieval saints -- see Bernard of Clairvaux -- who obviously had psychiatric difficulties.   There's also Simone Weil who loved God and the poor so much she starved herself to death.  Young Merton's guardian, bythe way, was the doctor who diagnosed her illness as anorexia and signed her death certificate.  (Small world?)  Then there was Saul. Now there's a mystery:-(   Closer to today, think of Nijinsky who was stark raving mad but who loved the poor and God anyway. (Oops == he mostly wasn't raving mad -- he was catatonic and rarely spoke from the age of 29 till his death 30 years later. But before that he was pitifully schizophrenic.)  But in spite of all their terrible judgments about themselves and their crazy behaviors, these were holy people!  

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About the Author

Jerry Ryan joined the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1959. He lived and worked with them for more than two decades in Europe and South America. He and his family now live in Massachusetts.