A 40 Year "Retrospective Journey"

“Be good, keep your feet dry,
your eyes open, your heart at peace
and your soul in the joy of Christ.”
Thomas Merton

December 10, 2008

A Journey Complete

This marks, for me, the end of a significant journey with Thomas Merton. It has definitely been a pilgrimage of discovery and delight! Though this particular stage is over I look forward to Thomas being an ongoing mentor and companion on my own spiritual journey. Indeed, as Merton says of his pilgrimage a few days ago... "the journey is only begun".

Over the next little while I'll be editting this site, adding an index and tags for better navigation, and generally cleaning it up a bit. Then it will remain as a "cyber-memorial" both to Merton's incredible Asian journey and to the tumultuous historical context of his day.

Thanks to all who have visited over the past 8 weeks. It is always nice to have company on a journey! Special thanks to Donald Grayston, who has been a valued guide and companion on this e-pilgrimage (not to mention a great editor!).

Deepest blessings... Rob

"A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No one can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire." Thomas Merton

Merton and Barth

December 10, 1968
Thomas Merton and Karl Barth both died on December 10, 1968. I'm not sure what personal connection this monk and theologian had in life. Merton was obviously very familiar with Barth's work and certainly devotes considerable ink to writing about Barth, the opening chapter of "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" is titled "Barth's Dream", but I don't know if he ever wrote to Barth.

In any event they share a significant date of passage and are featured together in an article in the December 20, 1968 edition of TIME.

The Death of Two Extraordinary Christians
"One was a Protestant theologian who labored quietly in university towns of Switzerland and Germany for half a century. The other was a Roman Catholic monk who worked hermitlike on his writings in the hills of central Kentucky. But while Karl Barth gave his life to scholarship and Thomas Merton to contemplation, both men were Christian activists who found in the Word a command to do. Barth stood courageously against Nazi totalitarianism. Merton drove himself endlessly in championing the cause of the poor and oppressed. On their journey toward their deaths last week, each brought to his age, and to his fellow man, a message of love that was ardently Christian." TIME read more...

TTFN... Rob

"Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation." Thomas Merton CGB p.12

The Death of Thomas Merton

January 31, 1915 - December 10, 2008
On December 10, 1968 Thomas Merton died of an accidental electric shock from a faulty electric fan in his cottage at the Red Cross Conference Center in Samut Prakan, Thailand. Merton had presented a paper at a conference of monastics that morning.

Merton's Death and Journey Home
For an excellent summary of the circumstances around Merton's death in Thailand and his journey home to Gethsemani I invite you to visit Beth at "Louie, Louie". She posted on this a couple of years ago and it is still a worthwhile read. Read more...

Grayston Reflects
International Thomas Merton Society President Donald Grayston provides the following reflection on Merton's death...

Merton dies at Suwanganiwas, the Red Cross Centre at Samut Prakan, 30 km outside Bangkok, accidentally electrocuted. It is 27 years to the day since he entered Gethsemani, and a mere eight days after his deep experience at Polonnaruwa.

Red Cross Center (Grayston Photo)

His Christian identity was expressed and symbolized for us by the fact that he said mass in Bangkok on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic calendar, two days before his death. I mention this because some commentators have said that towards the end of his life he abandoned Christian faith and became a Buddhist. On the contrary, he opened himself fully to Buddhist experience and understanding, which he much valued, as a fully-formed Catholic Christian.

Death of the Master
Both east and west share four kinds of death—natural causes, accident, murder, suicide. But in the east there is a fifth category, the death of the master. This involves the master gathering his disciples around him, giving them his last words, doing or saying something absurd, and then dying.

So I Will Disappear
The example of this with which we are most familiar is that of Jesus at the last supper, the “absurd” element being his strange words about the bread and wine of the meal being his body and blood. At the conference Merton was attending, all the Catholic participants had read Merton’s books, and were eagerly awaiting his words (pp. 326-43), at the end of which he said “So I will disappear”—this much in the AJTM (p. 343), and followed this with a classically Mertonian comment—“and we can all get a Coke or something” (not included in the AJTM, but clearly audible in the film of his talk).

The Great Compassion
The other monks and nuns who held a vigil after his death said that “In death Father Louis’ [his monastic name] face was set in a great and deep peace ….” (p. 346). He had fulfilled the intention with which he set out on his Asian pilgrimage. He had settled the Great Affair, and had found also the Great Compassion, mahakaruna (see p. 4).

With thanks again to Don Grayston

Peace and blessing... Rob

"Death is someone you see very clearly with eyes in the center of your heart: eyes that see not by reacting to light, but by reacting to a kind of a chill from within the marrow of your own life." Thomas Merton

December 9, 2008

Prelude to a Pilgrimage

I've been reading through some of Merton's 1968 journal entries and correspondence to get a sense of "where he is at" in the period before his pilgrimage. Throughout 1968 Merton expresses a clear yearning for "silence", "real solitude", "deepening", and "transformation". He often says that he is tired of "talking and writing". He also seems worn down by the violence and turmoil in the world. In the wake of Kings assassination he notes that "1968 is a beast of a year". And it was only early April!

I note the following passages from Mertons journals, from "The Intimate Merton" (IM).

March 14, 1968
"Every week now I refuse two or three invitations to meetings and conferences - important ones - but I do not think I can get mixed up in them or that there is any point in so doing... Still a question about Bangkok. This I should go to... But will Bangkok be a place one can get to in Decemeber? Or will the whole place be up in flames?" IM p.321

March 16, 1968
"Almost every day I have to write a letter to someone refusing an invitation to attend a conference or workshop or to give talks on the contemplative life, or poetry, etc. I can see more and more clearly how for me this would be a sheer waste, a Pascalian diversion, participation in a common delusion. (For others, no: they have the grace and mission to go around talking.) For me what matters is silence, meditation, and writing: but writing is tertiary." IM p.322

April 6, 1968
"The murder of Martin Luther King lay on top of the travelling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse. It finally confirmed all the apprehensions- the feeling that 1968 is a beast of a year, that things are finally and inexorably spelling themselves out." IM p322-23

April 18, 1968
"The problem of real solitude: I don't have it here. I am not really living as a hermit. I see too many people, have too much active work to do, the place is too noisy, too accessible. People are always coming up here... All I have is a certain privacy, but real solitude is less and less possible here. Everyone knows where the hermitage is, and in May I am going to the convent of the Redwoods in California. Once I start travelling around, what hope will there be?" IM p.323

May 14, 1968
Our Lady of the Redwoods, California: "How many incarnations hast thou devoted to the actions of body, mind and speech? They have brought thee nothing but pain. Why not cease from them" (Astravakra Gita). Reincarnation or not, I am as tired of talking and writing as if I had done it for centuries. Now is the time to listen at length to this Asian ocean. Over there, Asia." IM p.327

May 21, 1968
Gethsemani: "I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate leisure -otium sanctum! There is a need of effort, deepening, change and transformation... But I do have a past to break with, an accumulation of inertia, waste, wrong, foolishness, rot, junk, a great need of clarification of mindfulness, or rather of "no mind" - to return to genuine practice, right effort, need to push on to the great doubt. Need for the spirit. Hang on to the clear light!" IM p.331

September 9, 1968
"I go with a completely open mind. I hope without special illusions. My hope is simply to enjoy the long journey, profit by it, learn, change, perhaps find something or someone who will help me advance in my own spiritual quest. I am not starting out with a firm plan never to return or with an absolute determination to return at all costs. I do feel there is not much for me here at the moment and that I need to be open to lots of new possibilities. I hope I shall be! But I remain a monk of Gethsemani. Whether or not I will end my days here, I don't know. Perhaps it is not so important. The great thing is to respond perfectly to God's Will in this providential opportunity, whatever it may bring." IM p.337

Until tomorrow... Rob

"The great thing is to respond perfectly to God's Will in this providential opportunity, whatever it may bring." Thomas Merton

December 8, 2008

The Last Posts

December 8, 1968
Journal Entry

Thomas Merton posts the last entry to his journal on December 8, 1968 from the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. For the most part it is a matter-of-fact post, summarizing some the days meetings, events, and preparation for the conference. Ordinary stuff in the duties and labours of a pilgrim!

He says a little more about his "excess baggage" on the fight from Singapore... "They made me weigh my hand luggage, which put me overweight for the economy class allowance, so instead of just paying more for nothing I paid the difference for a first-class ticket, thus covering it with a bigger baggage allowance. And had a very comfortable ride, overeating, drinking two free, and strong, Bloody Marys, and talking to a diplomatic courier for the State Department..." AJTM p.253

Thomas Merton's last journal words... "Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a little while I leave the hotel. I'm going to say Mass at St. Louis Church, have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, and then on to the Red Cross place this afternoon." AJTM p.254

December 8, 1968
Letter Home

Patrick Hart and Thomas Merton

Brother Patrick Hart notes in the Postscript that Thomas Merton also wrote to him on December 8th. In the conclusion of what was to be his last letter Merton writes... "I think of you all on this feast day and with Christmas approaching I feel homesick for Gethsemani. But I hope to be at least in a monastery - Rawa Seneg (in Indonesia). I also look forward to being at our monastery at Hong Kong, and may be seeing our three volunteers there (or is it two?). No more for the moment. Best love to all. Louie." AJTM p.257

Peace and blessings... Rob

“It is in the ordinary duties and labors of life that the Christian can and should develop his spiritual union with God.”
Thomas Merton

John Lennon

October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980

December 7, 2008

Singapore - Bangkok

December 7, 1968
Merton has traveled from Singapore to Bangkok. His last remarks on December 6th reflect his mood and hopes at this stage of his journey. Merton writes... "My next stop will be the Bangkok meeting to which I do not especially look forward. Then Indonesia, a whole new journey begins there. And I am not sure where it will take me or what I can or should plan on. Certainly I am sick of hotels and planes. But the journey is only begun. Some of the places I really wanted to see from the beginning have not yet been touched." AJTM p.238

Excess Baggage
In Bangkok Merton confesses to being "secretly enraged and humiliated by the fact of having overweight baggage yesterday." He engages in a ruthless purging of his belongings and eliminating of everything he won't be needing in the next stage of his journey... (if only he knew!!) "Stupid books I bought can be discarded here or somewhere. I make a desperate plan to finish several books here in Bangkok." AJTM p.248

Herman Hesse - Steppenwolf
Merton appears to be reading "Steppenwolf" by Herman Hesse. It is probably one of the books he is desperately trying to finish!! He quotes from it in his journal on both the 6th and 7th of December. He was reading "Siddhartha" by Hesse at the start of his Asian journey.
He quotes from "Steppenwolf"...
  • "Most men will not swim before they are able to." Novalis, quoted with approval by Hesse's "Steppenwolf".
  • "The human merry-go-round sees many changes: the illusion that cost India the efforts of thousands of years to unmask is the same illusion that the West has laboured just as hard to maintain and strengthen." Herman Hesse: "Steppenwolf"

Bye for now... Rob

“Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Hermann Hesse

Steppenwolf - Trilogy

Steppenwolf - "Born to be Wild"
And finally to complete the "Steppenwolf Trilogy"... here's "Steppenwolf" with the classic 1968 Hit "Born to be Wild" as made famous in the 1969 film "Easy Rider". Note that at the time of recording this song the band "Steppenwolf" had really no idea of what the book "Steppenwolf" was about! (See Below) Enjoy Anyway!

About the Name
John Kay of "Steppenwolf" notes... ''Steppenwolf" was originally a book written by Herman Hesse (a German author), and it was a book I was totally unfamiliar with when the band that became Steppenwolf was in its infancy. The young man who lived next door to where Steppenwolf started to rehearse... had read the book. When it came time to put a name on the demo box that was going to go to the first label, he said... 'Well look, how about Steppenwolf? I think it's a word that looks good in print, and it denotes a certain degree of mystery and power and you guys are kind of rough and ready types." Everybody said that sounds pretty interesting and if we don't get a deal we can always scrawl another name on the box and send it to somebody else, so let's go with that for now. Well, that's what it's been now for many years and, to be honest, it's been a very good name." Steppenwolf Website

Pretty superficial inspiration! "Born to be Wild" seems to resonate with the theme though... coincidently or not!
TTFN... Rob
PLEASE NOTE: There is no truth to the rumour that Donald Grayston is leading a Harley Davidson pilgrimage from Vancouver, BC to Gethsemani, Kentucky in 2010!

December 6, 2008

Another Snapshot in TIME

December 6, 1968

TIME Magazine's December 6, 1968 edition provides a snapshot of the world in this week preceding Merton's visit to Bangkok.

Poised for the Leap
"This month, fulfilling the yearnings and predictions of untold generations, man will attempt to propel himself across 230,000 miles of emptiness in a bold voyage toward a shining and beckoning target: the moon." TIME

Chicago Examined:
Anatomy of a "Police Riot"

"In Chicago, during the Democratic National Convention last August, two American rights collided headon: the acknowledged right to dissent within certain limits, and the equally valid right of a city to protect its citizens and its property... Months after the event, the conflict remains significant and symbolic of the deep divisions, the warring judgments in American society." TIME

Normalization, Almost
"The Russian invaders have almost succeeded in "normalizing" Czechoslovakia to their satisfaction. Last week one of the few remaining and most popular of Alexander Duběek's reforms vanished when the government announced sweeping new controls on foreign travel. From now on, Czechoslovaks are prohibited from taking trips to the West "not conforming with state interests." TIME

Keeping Biafra Alive
TIME has an interesting article on the ongoing war between Nigeria and the break-away state of Biafra. The situation in Biafra is typical of the tragic violence of post-colonial Africa... a brutal violence involving an intersection of tribal rivalries, colonial powers, super-power politics, famine, and lucrative resource development, in this case oil. The Biafrans are being armed by the French (and others) the Nigerians by the British, starvation strategies and civilian massacres abound. From out of this chaos would emerge a new international aid organization that remains active today, "Médecins Sans Frontières" (Doctors without Borders).

More Ferment
Another story speaks of the continued unrest in Pakistan with President Ayub Khan ordering the arrest of "Pakistans Peoples Party" (PPP) leader Zufikar Ali Bhutto. TIME notes: "...last week, in one of Pakistan's most turbulent periods since independence in 1947, thousands of angry citizens, mostly students, surged through the streets virtually every day in protest against Ayub's rule."

Footnote:Bhutto would eventually become the leader of Pakistan before being executed in 1979. His daugther, Benazir, served twice as Pakistans Prime Minister and was seeking another term before she was assassinated in December 2007.

Miscellaneous Chaos
Other TIME stories on this day include...
  • civil unrest and protests in Egypt,
  • the 1968 currency crisis,
  • challenges facing Nixon in Vietnam and the Middle East,
  • an epidemic of airline hijackings,
  • plans for a new US "super-sonic" bomber, and
  • a review of a new book on the JFK assassination.
Just a few of the stories from December 6, 1968...


"Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land... he is the harbinger of death." Planet of the Apes 1968

Beware the Beast Man

Planet of the Apes - 1968

December 5, 2008

Merton's Three Epiphanies

Gary Commins wrote a wonderful piece in "Theology Today", "Thomas Merton's Three Epiphanies", in April 1999 describing three significant epihanies in Thomas Merton's life. He summarizes these three events as follows...

  • Havana, Cuba, 1940: Thomas Merton goes to church and sees heaven.
  • Louisville, Kentucky, 1958: He goes to town and sees the human race.
  • Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, 1968: He goes to Asia and sees creation.

St. Francis - Havana

"One experience came as a "thunderclap," another woke him "from a dream," the third "suddenly, almost forcibly" yanked him into a deeper level of awareness. The events and his interpretation of them are markers of his personal transformation, stations on his journey with Christ, icons through which to gaze into Merton's personal eternity." Gary Commins

Fourth and Walnut

After some insightful analysis of each of these events Commins goes on to say...

"In Havana, he had seen heaven; God belonged to him. In Louisville, he had seen the human race; they belonged to one another. At Polonnaruwa, the inert rock pulsated with divinity, reality, life: all matter was charged with compassion, the cosmic body of Buddha, the essence of all things. He had seen emptiness (sunyata) and compassion (karuna), the primary elements of enlightened-mindedness, the All and the Nothing of St. John of the Cross. Theologically, he had written, there were differences, but psychologically, there was "an exact correspondence between the mystical night of St. John of the Cross and the emptiness of sunyata." All religions, Merton had said, end up "with the simplest and most baffling thing of all: direct confrontation with Absolute Being, Absolute Love, Absolute Mercy or Absolute Void." Gary Commins


Regretably Merton was not afforded the opportunity to subject his Polonnaruwa experience to the kind of reflection, interpretation, and presentation that he applied to the Havana and Louisville experiences. Perhaps that is how it should be. We are left with the simple yet profound remarks of a person who has realized in large measure the goal of a great quest, to "settle the great affair" and find "the great compassion".

Holy Ground

As a minister I am often blessed to hear personal stories of "epiphanies" and experiences of "The Absolute", in whatever way they choose to name it. Often a person will relate a story of an experience, a dream, or a sense of "presence" which they clearly know connects them with God, the Holy, the Spirit, the Ancestors... For some, they will choose not to share this experience with friends or family because they feel it will not be believed, understood, or respected. But for most of them the common result is a deeper faith grounded in an experience which lets them say with confidence "I KNOW", or "I HAVE SEEN", or "I BELIEVE". When I find this in a person I am always inspired by how much a single "epiphanic episode" can sustain a lifetime of faith and compassion in the midst of trials and suffering. Merton's contemplative gaze on all things helped him to live in a place that most of us experience only fleetingly, if ever. We are truly blessed by what he has written and shared of his experiences!

Advent Peace and Blessings... Rob

"Buddhist words such as compassion and emptiness don't mean much until we start cultivating our innate ability simply to be there with pain with an open heart and the willingness not to instantly try to get ground under our feet." Pema Chodron

The Fool on the Hill

A clip from the Magical Mystery Tour movie...

December 4, 2008

Colombo - Singapore

December 4, 1968
"Today I fly to Singapore and the long day of sitting around has begun..."

Asian Kites

"Outside on Galle Face Green the kites rise and dip in the strong sea wind - wild and happy Asian kites - two like big black dishevelled and long-legged birds that flap and jump in the wind. Others with long spotted tails twist in the air like freckled dragons or serpents. Others have unidentifiable shapes. Asia is a kite-loving continent; there were wrecks of small Tibetan boys' kites on all the roofs and wires of Darjeeling." AJTM pp.228-229

The Beatles in Vancouver
December 3, 2008

(where's Thomas)

Last night I had a great opportunity to do a "historical context" fieldtrip as part of this "e-pilgrimage". My daughter Morgan (22) and I took in the "Classical Mystery Tour" as it passed through Vancouver. The "Classical Mystery Tour" is a Beatles tribute band who play with symphony orchestras (Vancouver Symphony in this case) to create an incredibly AWESOME concert experience. I had to imagine everyone there as 40 years younger but otherwise it was a great trip to 1968. The evening included 37 songs from throughout The Beatles history. We enjoyed every one of them from our front-row seats!!

TTFN... Rob

"Life is very short and there's no time, for fussing and fighting my friend."
The Beatles

The Beatles - 1968