Art of Merton's hermitage which I visited in 1998, during one of my retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani. This piece and many others will be included in our 2012 online "Contemplative Beauty and Silence" which includes sketches and paintings during my retreats to the Abbey, journal reflections, and personal correspondence with my dear friend Brother Rene.
The most beautiful, and yet most difficult art there is, is the art of learning to love.”
-Father Matthew Kelty (Merton’s confessor)
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is one of the most famous monastic and spiritual writers of the twentieth century. While a student at Columbia University in New York City, he converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of twenty-three, and in 1941, at the age of twenty-seven, he entered Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky. As a monk at Gethsemani for twenty-seven years, he engaged the world of his times with prayer, writing and visual arts until his death in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968. He is widely recognized as a Spiritual Master for the 20th century and beyond.
Merton’s Art–Merton’s art was as varied and nuanced as Merton was; his prolific expression in varied literary forms (essay, poem, journal, novel) along with his occasional divergences into photography, calligraphy and drawing all reflected the beauty of his rich contemplative life in which he continually surrendered his life to God. Merton’s masterpiece was this beautiful life he lived in the Kentucky knobs, enclosed within a monastic community. The legacy he left was a plethora of words, which conveyed with brilliance and brutal honesty the paradoxes and struggles of learning to love. His keen perception and gratitude for God’s beauty in the world, was his life art. It was his aesthetic perception which purified his mystical contemplation, and his contemplative life which purified and transformed his aesthetic perceptions.
Merton was able to profoundly and intimately share his religious experiences and artistic perceptions. Being the first born son of artist parents, and through the tremendous loss of being orphaned by age 16, he was emptied and opened in such a way that his yearning for God’s love lead to a dramatic religious conversion to the Catholic faith. After his conversion all his gifts; brilliant intellect, keen perceptive observations, literary skills and creative expression, flowed forth from his ongoing struggle to become a man of “God Alone”.
Later in his life, Merton’s art took on social and cultural aspects, as he confronted, in both life and in his writing, man’s destructiveness in both war, environment and culture. Merton believed that to ‘create’ and to observe God’s creations was a stance against the violence inherent in man. That creativity opened his heart and clarified his intelligence, particularly as he continued to live and write out of the outpouring of his contemplative prayer.
The contemplative fulfills the role of contemplation, as the art fulfills the role of the artist when it reaches beneath the consciousness into even our darkness, mining in the depth of untapped riches. Religious art emerges from the crucible of experience, and it emerges with balance, unity, symmetry and a wholeness for the artist. Both prayer and art require learning to see, healing our blindness and obtaining a focused attentive gaze into the depths to reveal something new, yet something that had been there all along.
A profound discipline and sensitivity to silence, solitude, and simplicity encouraged Merton to use the canvas of his life to paint the beauty of life’s art which became so evident to him after his spiritual transformation. Merton opened the eyes of his heart and his vision for God’s beauty is his gift to us, a compass for those of us who struggle to paint upon our canvas of life. The more simply and prayerfully he lived, the more naked and vulnerable he became before the awesome, beautiful presence of God.
Click here to listen to our latest Chant in mp3
Photos from Abbey of Gethsemani
Photos by Mark Rummel