MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
© Abbey of Gethsemani
Io, Signore Iddio, non ho nessuna idea di dove sto andando.
Non vedo la strada che mi sta davanti.
Non posso sapere con certezza dove andrò a finire.
Secondo verità, non conosco neppure me stesso
e il fatto che penso di seguire la tua volontà non significa che lo stia davvero facendo.
Ma sono sinceramente convinto che in realtà ti piaccia il mio desiderio di piacerti e spero di averlo in tutte le cose, spero di non fare mai nulla senza tale desiderio.
So che, se agirò così, la tua volontà mi condurrà per la giusta via,
quantunque io possa non capirne nulla.
Avrò sempre fiducia in te, anche quando potrà sembrarmi di essere perduto e avvolto nell’ombra della morte. Non avrò paura, perché tu sei con me e so che non mi lasci solo di fronte ai pericoli
Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identify, our own destiny. We are free beings and sons of God. This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth. To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity. Thomas Merton
Although he is generally remembered for the books he wrote, Thomas Merton’s artistic output must not be overlooked. Over the course of his life, Merton’s art, like his prose and poetry, developed, dramatically at times.
In his book Disputed Questions, Merton had written that “in an age of concentration camps and atomic bombs,” beauty, both religious and artistic, “cannot be a mere appeal to conventional pleasures of the imagination and senses.” So, in the late fifties and sixties, as both his relationship to the world changed and as he began to dialogue with other faiths, most notably Zen Buddhism, a marked change took place in Merton’s art. He began exploring Zen calligraphy, primitive printing techniques, brush drawings he would call “graffiti” and photography.
What does Merton mean by Zen photography?
One definition of Zen suggests that its purpose is to make us wonder and to answer that wondering with the deepest expression of our own nature. To learn to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, what Thich Nhat Hanh would call “the miracle of mindfulness.” Learning to appreciate the present moment, to appreciate what is right in front of us, rather than always having our mind on results or on the next thing we have to do. The art of photography demands such awareness, such mindfulness from the photographer.
Merton’s friend, the poet Ron Seitz, recalls that Merton said to him at one point when they were out together photographing that he needed to “stop looking” and to “start seeing” – looking implies you already have something in mind, whereas seeing is “being open and receptive to what comes to the eye; your vision total and not targeted.
”Instead of looking for God in the spectacular sunset, the breathtaking view or in a sacred space, or in some preconceived way, we have to stop and see God in the ordinary, everyday things of our life; we have to learn to see God in the present moment. The Rule of St. Benedict teaches the monk to find God in the ordinary and commonplace, in the monotony of the life. Benedict instructs his monks to treat all the property of the monastery as if they are the sacred vessels of the altar and, I would suggest, the whole world around us. The Church Fathers called this intuition of the Divine through the reflection of God in nature “natural contemplation” – theoria physike. The mindfulness to see in this way allows us to discover the hidden wholeness, the spark of God in creation.
Merton’s Zen photographs can help us to learn to see, to find the Divine exactly where we are. To see, as he says in New Seeds of Contemplation, that “a tree gives glory to God by being a tree” – a root by being a root, a paint can by being a paint can. Zen photography helps us to open our eyes; it calls out from us “the importance, the urgency of seeing, fully aware, experiencing what is here… what is given by God and hidden by society.”
“Merton’s goal for the photographs was one of spiritual and intellectual transcendence, but they function on an aesthetic level so pure as to be visually transcendent as well. That’s almost too much to expect from photographs and an achievement not often seen these days.” SEE THE EXHIBIT