Lectory » The Forest Is My Bride: Thomas Merton’s Writings on Nature

Sun 16 June 2002ShareComment

The mystery of Thomas Merton’s marriage to the forest is a rich and overlooked sub-theme in one of the most celebrated spiritual stories of modern times. A contemplative master of monumental fame and significance, Thomas Merton’s life reads like a great drama in which all the crises and challenges of modernity are portrayed in the searching of one soul for liberation and wisdom. His autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain resonates like the confessions of a modern American Augustine who introduced himself to generations of readers around the world in 1948 as the archetypal lost soul in search of union with God. His numerous personal journals and volumes of correspondence up to 1968 complete the masterful self-revelation of one man laboring for transformation and fullness of life in the confusions of the post-modern world.

The pathways he explored in his quest “to recover paradise” have become routes of discovery and healing for millions of seekers, and his prophetic voice on the perennial issues of violence, racism, commodity culture, ignorance, and psychic disorientation has pronounced saving wisdom that has changed the discourse and orientation of modern spirituality. All the turns in contemporary religious life toward mystical experience, engagement with the world in its woundedness and wonder, and the exchange of wisdom among the world’s contemplative traditions were pioneered by Thomas Merton. He leaves as a legacy, inspiring and challenging reports of daring explorations into farther reaches of the personal world, the social world, and the divine world. Curiously, what remains hidden or obscure in his very public discourse on matters of the sacred, is the significance that the natural world played as the ecstatic ground of his own experience of God. But a close reading of his voluminous writings reveals his intimate rapport with and progressive espousal of creation as the body of divinity – at once veiling and unveiling the God he so longed to behold and be held by.

…Like everyone else I live under the bomb. But unlike most people I live in the woods. Do not ask me to explain this. I am embarrassed to describe it. …
…I live in the woods out of necessity. I get out of bed in the middle of the night because it is imperative that I hear the silence of the night, alone, and, with my face on the floor, say psalms, alone, in the silence of the night.
It is necessary for me to live here alone without a woman, for the silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world.
Dancing in the Water of Life: The Journals of Thomas Merton Vol.V p 239 – 240
WC 195

Thomas Merton spent his whole monastic life listening for that secret pulsating in the heartbeat of creation, and wedded the forest so he could listen with absolute rapture and commitment as one would to a spouse, “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, until death…” What he heard in the murmurings of wilderness were “the sweet songs of living things” whose choirs he joined as a solitary monk offering a psalm of glory and thanksgiving on behalf of humankind. In time his own center became “the teeming heart of natural families” as his unique subjectivity opened to the cosmos in wonder and awe, sounding a silent interval of praise in the rapturous hymn of creation.

Thomas Merton’s restless and passionate search for God took him through the traditions of monastic and hermitic life, intense engagements with the bloody struggles of the human enterprise, and the rich libraries of spiritual and cultural wisdom. Yet he found at last “the wide open secret” he yearned to know in the “present festival” of the natural world, in a wisdom that awakened in him an intimate “primordial familiarity” with creatures. He wrote no book explicitly to trace his route through creation to communion with divinity. Nor has any book been written about his journey. But one can identify certain influences that brought Merton to insist that the human vocation was ultimately to be “a gardener of paradise.”

A Landscape Painters’ Son

On the last evening of January 1915, with the stars in the sign of Aquarius, Thomas Merton was born during a snowstorm at the foot of a mountain in the Eastern Pyreneees. Mt. Canigou cast its shadow at the bottom of his garden, in a town called Prades in the Catalan lands of southern France near the borders of Spain. His father was a New Zealander named Owen Merton and his mother, an American named Ruth Jenkins. Both were of Welsh ancestry and both were landscape painters. After the early death of his mother, Tom became his father’s companion on many landscape-painting adventures, and as they toured the monastic ruins in the valleys of southern France he conceived his lifelong desire of attending to the great silence he experienced there. In fact his father was his first and perhaps most influential teacher of contemplation, introducing Merton to the celebration of the sacred mysteries embodied in nature:

“His vision of the world was sane, full of balance, full of veneration for structure…and for all the circumstances that impress an individual identity on each created thing. His vision was religious and clean… since a religious man respects the power of God’s creation to bear witness for itself.” (SSM p. 11)

They traveled to the Mediterranean and down to the border of Catalonia, and into North Africa, to the edge of the desert, and then across an ocean to the tropics of Bermuda, and all the while young Tom was being tutored in the art of beholding. His father’s mentorship influenced his abidingly vivid sense of geography and the confluence of art and nature in his sensibility. He inherited this father’s intense and disciplined way of looking at the world, which Merton would later translate into a painterliness of language in describing it. Such training in “natural contemplation” became the foundation of his psychic life, and the ground of his experience of the divine, such that at an early age his religious instinct went skyward.

”Day after day the sun shone on the blue waters of the sea, and on the islands of the bay I remember one day looking up at the sky, taking it into my head to worship one of the clouds.” (SSM 30-31)

Franciscan Soul

Thomas Merton had a Franciscan soul, and this realization grew in him over time. In the Christian experience, Francis of Assisi personifies a way of celebrating familial intimacy with all the creatures of the universe: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth. Merton had his encounter with the Franciscan tradition in its intellectual form while an undergraduate student at Columbia University in the 1930s, and it inspired him to embrace Catholicism, and even more dramatically to become a Franciscan. Under the mentorship of Dan Walsh he was introduced to the great Franciscan intellectuals Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, with whom Merton explicitly identified. Both thinkers gave him necessary frameworks for understanding the hidden wholeness of creation, and Bonaventure in particular presented to him an itinerary for venturing on ‘The Soul’s Journey into God’, through the mysteries of creation, the self, and the dark and trackless path of being. According to Bonaventure, the sacred journey into God begins by following the divine footprints back to their source as we “place our first step in the ascent on the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over into God, the supreme Craftsman” (IMD I, 9).
Merton moved in a similar sensibility, celebrating creatures as vestiges or sacraments that reflected the overflowing creativity of their divine Source. This is especially evident in Seeds of Contemplation where Merton describes creation as “the art of the Father.” Likewise, his indebtedness to the Franciscan tradition is apparent in his poetry.

“For, like a grain of fire

smoldering in the heart
of every living essence

God plants His undivided power -

Buries His thought too vast

for worlds

In seeds and roots and blade

and flower”
(“The Sowing of Meanings” Figures for an Apocalypse)

In true Franciscan spirit, Merton could sense the “angelic transparency of everything, of pure, simple and total light.” Son of the landscape artist that he was, Merton’s aesthetic nature had a kataphatic orientation, delighting in the forms and images of the divine emanations. “We do not see the Blinding One in black emptiness,” he writes in “Hagia Sophia”, “He speaks to us gently in ten thousand things, the which His light is one fullness and one wisdom. Thus He shines not on them but from within them.” Merton was intuitively drawn to this language of “inscape” discovered in the writing of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was himself temperamentally Franciscan and likewise greatly influenced by Duns Scotus. Merton echoes Hopkins’ style in saying of creatures, “their inscape is their sanctity”, and he sensed in all visible things “an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness.”

But nature also comforted and companioned Merton in his troubling orphanhood, as he discovered in the community of creatures a kinship circle he could be at home with. Only in the solitude of nature did Merton truly experience the peace and joy of his Franciscan soul. Only the simplicity of creation – that world of “sanity and perfection” – offered relief from his gnawing sense of alienation and burdensome habit of introspection. It provided for him a realm of freedom where he could be buoyant, light-hearted, and happy. The kataphatic way of glorious forms invited Merton to celebrate the liturgy of creation as joyful communicant, feasting on a kind of beauty and silence he tasted no other way, conducting him into divinity indwelling in all things. Nature evoked the poet and psalmist in him, and perhaps for these reasons Merton did not in fact ever join the Franciscans, but found his way to the woodland choir of a Cistercian monastery where the order of the day was simply to praise.

Cistercian Heart

Thomas Merton entered the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani on December 10, 1941. An American foundation of the Cistercian order dedicated to the contemplative life, the monastery lands were set in the Appalachian region of Kentucky more remarkable for knobby woodlands than bluegrass. Merton came to this forest monastery to engage in a life long experiment in spiritual transformation by taking vows to harness and orient his energies of intention. Obedience, the primary Benedictine vow, directed the monk to listen with the ear of his heart to the still small voice of God speaking in all things. Stability of place grounded the monk in a community of guidance that provided the holding environment for the great work. The more dynamic vow “conversio morem” set him to the daily labor of radical conversion to recover the authenticity of his true nature. To deepen these, the Cistercian monk entered into deep silence, which was for Merton a paradoxical opportunity for profound dialogue with the world and creation. Merton’s promise of silence became a vow of conversation expressed in extraordinary literary creativity. During the twenty-six years of his life at Gethsemani he became the most prolific monastic writer of all time. Understandably he sought refuge from the exhaustion of his own verbal intensity in the “wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech” of nature that spoke its healing to him. It was creation’s lingua incognita that relieved his ambivalence and compulsion toward human language and communication, at once intensifying and slaking his Cistercian thirst for the waters of silence described in his early history of the order:

“When the monks had found their homes, they not only settled there, for better or for worse, but they sank their roots into the ground and fell in love with their woods…….Forest and field, sun and wind and sky, earth and water, all speak the same silent language, reminding the monk that he is here to develop like the things that grow all around him…”
(Waters of Siloe p 273-274)

Monasticism, east and west, was born in the woods and deserts of the earth. In so many of Merton’s works he explores the impulse to the margins of inner and outer space that is a signature of the monastic temperament. In The Wisdom of the Desert he traces the roots of Christian monasticism to the deserts of the Middle East; in his essay “From Pilgrimage to Crusade” he tells of daring exploits of Celtic monks in search of their “dysarts” on the wild, remote islands of the North Atlantic. Merton shared this orientation toward the solitary places of divine encounter, and although Gethsemani was the lure that drew him toward it, eventually the conventional monastic enclosure frustrated more than satisfied his hunger for solitude and silence. But in 1951 in response to Merton’s request for greater solitude Abbot Dom James nominated him “forester” which entailed restoring the woodlands that had been stripped a decade earlier. The job radicalized his experience of solitude, no longer perceived as privacy for intellectual pursuits, but an opportunity for embodied engagement with a whole community of wisdom in silent participation in the vitality of living things. This charge, along with his reading of Thoreau, reawakened his desire to become a competent naturalist, which enhanced his other monastic commitments, as husband of nature – planting, sowing, reaping, clearing, saving – and mentor of novices. In time he learned that the true mentor and spiritual director of souls was nature itself. The fields, rain, sun, sky, mud, clay, wind, fire were all masters of sacred wisdom, and themselves worthy subjects of contemplation.

Merton’s espousal of the forest intensified in 1960 when he began to take up residence in a hermitage set on a knob called Mount Olivet. There his Cistercian heart found a wider community inviting him to the daily office of praise. Now his choir mates were frogs, birds, and cicadas – the “huge chorus of living beings (that) rises up out of the world beneath my feet: life singing in the watercourses, throbbing in the creeks and the fields and the trees, choirs of millions and millions of jumping and flying and creeping things.” (SJ 360) His worship became “a blue sky and ten thousand crickets in the deep wet hay of the field;” his vow became “the silence under their song.” (CA 6) Soon the whole landscape became the primordial scripture on which he meditated as he saturated “the country beyond words” with his psalms.

Celtic Spirit

During the 1960s Merton began to sense what “writes the books, and drives me into the woods,” and celebrated gratefully the Celtic spirit that coursed through his Welsh blood. In his discovery of Celtic monasticism he recognized himself in the hermits, lyric poets, pilgrims, and green martyrs of a tradition that opened a new world to him. He shared a similar spiritual temperament with these masters of “natural contemplation” (theoria physike) who sought God less in the ideal essences of things than in the physical hierophanic cosmos. Though ever a romantic, his engagement with nature as farmer and forester was also tactile, athletic, even sensuous; like his father, he loved to walk barefoot in the woods, feeling the fragrant pine needles of Gethsemani beneath him. With the green martyrs of the Celtic tradition, he always enjoyed a palpable sense of the presence of the Presence for whom he and they had sacrificed the world of human society. It encircled him in the great encompassing of creation, and imparted to him a peace unlike any other. But his embrace of “green martyrdom” was never bucolic: his wedding to the solitude of the forest allowed this orphan man to feel in earnest the raw and excruciating wound of loneliness that widened and deepened with the years. He chose to live alone in the forest as refuge for his own existential pain, but also to make reparation for the violation of earth and earth peoples. Here he became a poet, a protester, a prophet, a political prisoner, and an escaped prisoner. Ever in search of his “true self” beneath his distress and artifice, he came in time to realize it was none other than his “green self” – his original nature healed of inner agitation, congestion, drivenness, turmoil, and suffering by entrainment to the merciful rhythms of the elements, the seasons, the creatures, in the particular bioregion of Kentucky that he called home.

Merton also identified with the Celtic monks’ restless quest to recover paradise as a lived experience of the native harmony and unity of all beings. Indeed his lyrical language betrays his Celtic spirit playing at the “thin places” that interfaced the physical and imaginal realms, as he allowed himself to be taken to in-between dimensions of sheer transparency where being sensibly flows through the courseways of creation, where time alters, where space opens to the numinous. And like his Celtic monastic ancestors he made “a profound existential tribute to realities perceived in the very structure of the world and of man, and of their being.” In lineage with them, he engaged in that “spiritual dialogue between man and creation in which spiritual and bodily realities interweave and interlace themselves like manuscript illuminations in the Book of Kells.” (“From Pilgrimage to Crusade” Mystics and Zen Masters p97).

Zen Mind

If Irish monks affirmed his Celtic spirit in their mastery of kataphatic contemplation of the wonders of divinity in nature, Buddhists monks evoked his Zen mind and drew him onto the apophatic path of formless “emptiness” he had begun to walk with Therese of Lisieux, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and other Christian masters. From his days at Columbia, Merton had always entertained an attraction to the spiritualities of the East, and in the 1950s he began a serious study of Chinese humanism and Zen Buddhism. Within a decade he had written several books on the wisdom of Asia: The Way of Chuang Tzu, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Mystics and Zen Masters. As with so many other of his fascinations, he followed this one to its climax: his own death in Bangkok, Thailand during a pan-monastic conference of Christians and Buddhists. As the Celtic monks made their lives a pilgrimage to their place of resurrection, Merton embarked on his voyage to the East in 1968 with an uncanny awareness of the destiny and ultimacy of this long desired journey. The Asian Journal reveals not only his readiness for the profound encounters and experiences that awaited him there, but the clear and simple state of mind to which his Zen studies had brought him.

Merton found in the teachings of Buddhism a direct method for dismantling the false, afflictive self that is the source of all personal, social, and even ecological suffering. As he experimented with forms of meditation and perception proposed by the Zen tradition, his consciousness began to transform. A Zen-like quality arose in his later writing on many subjects, but noticeably in his reflections on nature. The platonic intuition cultivated by western masters began to yield to a direct, existential apprehension of the immediacy of things induced by Asian mentors like Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu. The romanticism of his early years distilled to a spareness of observation. There was less interpretation, less “self” bleeding through the lean verse; less narrative, because the narrator was disappearing. The great storyteller of “Monk’s Pond” had no story to tell anymore; he was simply attending to the “wild being” he shared with creation, sensing it “strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky.” (SJ 340)

Merton had recovered the Tao, the way of nature, in all its immediacy and transformative power, by the practice of self-forgetful attentiveness to creation that drew him out of his distorting mental preoccupations. This entrainment to nature brought him to his senses, letting him experience the naked vitality of life encompassing him on all sides. The incarnate word of each particular thing – with its own “suchness”- presented itself to him as a vibrant koan with which he wrestled in a gentle, playful way. In the process his perception was washed clean of mental and emotional formations that blurred his vision of the way things really are: impermanent, empty, self-less, undying.

The awakening of his Zen mind disclosed the deeper mystery of the God beyond concepts and images, intimated through a discipline of abandoning every name, every form, every concept of the divine. The fruit of this labor was a perception of the startling immediacy of an ever-incarnating divinity at once revealed and concealed in creation as mercy and love. He summarized the climax of his Asian journey – indeed, of his earthly pilgrimage – in a few spare words inscribed in his journal after his barefoot visit to the monumental Buddhas composed into the rocks and landscape of a garden in Polonnaruwa a few days before his death. In them he harvests the fruit of his Zen practice in his forest hermitage: “all problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.”

The Recovery of Paradise: Espousing Sophia

Yearning for paradise was both a Celtic and Cistercian habit of heart that engaged Merton his whole life. Not an otherworldly quest, the recovery of paradise was realized in the awakening of a sense of communion in the mystery of life. He saw himself as a “New Adam” in the garden of the new creation, knowing and naming living things as his kin, saluting all species as the “innocent nations” that comprise the earth. Like a grateful celebrant, each morning at “le point vierge” (the virgin point) of dawn, he witnessed the re-birth of the cosmos “when creation in its innocence asks for permission to be once again.” Thus awakened, wilderness was “another country” closer to Eden than any other he had ever known, where he “sat in stillness and loved the wind in the forest and listened for a good long while to God.” There in the woods, he experienced himself at the center of the universe where at any moment the gate of heaven would open wide and he would perceive the undying heavenliness in the real nature of things. “Paradise is all around,” he heard the dawn deacon say: all we need do is enter in.

On each and every threshold of the encircling paradise awaited Sophia, ” the Mother of all, Natura naturans,” the diffuse shining of God in creation. Merton understood her to be the personification of divinity at once hidden and manifest in all things. She was the eros that throbbed through countless creatures that mated, bore, and nurtured the infinity of cells in the body of God in their shape-shifting dynamics of praise. Her beauty and magnetism drew all beings into life as communion, as thanksgiving, as festival, as glory. As the very love that unifies the cosmos, Merton proclaimed Sophia “the Bride, the Feast, and the Wedding.” It was she whom he espoused in her forest pavilion. In her embrace he experienced overpowering peace and delight, and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world became his great love. Thus he learned the secret of intimate communion “sent from the depths of the divine fecundity.”

Thomas Merton’s Reflections on Nature

If, as geologian Fr. Thomas Berry says, we have entered the “ecozoic age,” it is important that global spirituality reflects and fosters a new sense of the sacrality of the natural world and of human identity within it. As in other issues of contemporary spirituality, here too Merton leads the way. He wrote about his intimacy with creation in a style that is at once inspiring and instructive for other contemplatives in the world. In this his legacy is both accessible to and critical for modern people who labor toward a re-birth of our consciousness of and identity with creation, as an urgent spiritual and ecological necessity. Scattered throughout among his journals, letters, and poetry are “seeds” of a vibrant creation spirituality in which Merton celebrates the natural world in all its variety, complexity, and beauty as the body of God. While this volume does not present Merton’s entire “nature corpus,” it is intended to be the first of a trilogy of meditation books presenting the fruit of Merton’s reflections on nature in the “seeds” of mystical insight gleaned in a contemplative reading of his personal reflections.

In these reflections we hear not the voice of Merton the prophet rousing us to a new ecological responsibility, nor the voce of the guru delineating a clear route for contemplatives on the path of creation spirituality. Rather we hear the voice of the creation mystic inviting us to become part of the present festival, to join the general dance and embrace nature as the bride, the feast, and the wedding whom we espouse moment by moment in the healing art of attentiveness to her beauty and mystery.

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