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The Paintings and Prose of Thomas Merton

Posted by John Moses on 1/31/20 7:00 AM

Thomas MertonThe genius of Thomas Merton (1915–1968) is to be found in his passion for God. It dominated the story of his life and enabled him to speak to people all over the world. His several vocations, which inform our perception of the man, must not be allowed, however, to obscure the fact that he brought to his life and work the instincts and the characteristics of a true artist.

Merton knew what it meant to enter the depths of our experience, to penetrate the bland certainties with which we console ourselves, to hold up a mirror to the face and to the pain of our world, to be in touch with life’s deepest rhythms. In his writings and in his drawings, he spoke of the Divine Passion that alone can give some sense of identity and purpose. In common with every great artist, he made it possible to set our immediate concerns within the context of the universal human drama. He continues to speak with a voice that is insightful, compelling, and prophetic.

His extensive writings provide ample scope into his thoughts, his questions, his concerns, and his passions. Words mattered: They were Merton’s stock-in-trade, his first and most characteristic art form.

Merton’s art encompassed over the years a wide variety of styles and techniques. Simple line drawings gave place to brush and ink drawings, and these in turn gave place to the creation of images through a unique printmaking technique. Merton was seeking new visual experiences—what he called “summonses to awareness”—set free from the predictable categories of “religious” art. He wanted to press forward, to explore, to make new connections.

And it is precisely here that the drawings might have a part to play as they invite us to stop, reflect, and surprise ourselves by new depths of awareness and understanding.

 

Encountering God

Thomas Merton was a man of contradictions. He was a deeply human man—down-to-earth, direct, and spontaneous. Those who knew him best recall the gaiety, the infectious humor, the belly laughter. But he could also be a restless spirit, questioning, provoking, pushing at the boundaries. His art reflects that dichotomy. Many of Merton’s drawings are inspired by a rich heritage of religious art. The circle—which has been employed by many traditions of faith to represent the totality, the unity, of the Godhead—is pressed into service here, but the interconnected circles speak also of a dynamic Trinitarian faith in which ideas of movement, of perpetual motion, are also captured and conveyed.

 

Living the Gospel

No other sign or symbol could represent the challenge of living the Gospel as the cross can. It speaks of the central drama, the central mystery, of Christian faith and life. But Thomas Merton’s drawing has two great merits: First, in depicting a Celtic cross with its many resonances—ancient as well as contemporary—he captures something of the simplicity and the austerity of missionary endeavor in a far earlier age; secondly, because there is something incomplete, unfinished, about the drawing, it is impossible for anyone to say in advance what living the Gospel might actually entail. Life and faith and love are gloriously open.


Thomas Merton's artwork


The Paradox of Hope

Is it possible that the face of the Man of Sorrows can speak of the paradox of hope? Thomas Merton’s reply would almost certainly have been that only such a man—one who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows—is able to speak to the torments of our world. Merton demands time and again that we return to the central mystery of Christian faith—life through death to life—because it is there and only there that we touch the ground of Christian hope.

 

The Experience of Prayer

Our experience of prayer is invariably tentative and uncertain. We bring the preoccupations of our daily lives, but all too often, we are left with a jumble of words and pictures, of hopes and fears, of petitions that flash by as they lose themselves in the busyness of living. Sister Wendy Beckett speaks of entering God’s energy when we pray, and something of what those words might mean is captured for me by the drawings of Thomas Merton. Could it be that the God who is all in all moves within the nerve endings of our fractured and disconnected prayers, enabling us to touch the rays we cannot see, to feel the light that seems to sing?

 

The Present Moment

It is the sharp edges that first capture our attention in this drawing, and this might so easily have been the way in which Merton would choose to convey the urgency that he felt about the present moment and all that it requires. The drawing—whatever might have prompted it—speaks to me immediately of the porcupine whose coat of sharp spines or quills protects it against predators.


The Art of Thomas Merton

The genius of Thomas Merton is to be found in his passion for God. It dominated the story of his life and enabled him to speak to people all over the world. His several vocations, which inform our perception of the man, must not be allowed, however, to obscure the fact that he brought to his life and work the instincts and the characteristics of a true artist.

Merton knew what it meant to enter the depths of our experience, to penetrate the bland certainties with which we console ourselves, to hold up a mirror to the face and to the pain of our world, to be in touch with life’s deepest rhythms. In his writings and in his drawings, he spoke of the Divine Passion that alone can give some sense of identity and purpose.

The Art of Thomas Merton brings together entries from Merton’s journals, extracts from his letters, quotations from his books and his countless articles, and lines from his poetry. But what truly sets this collection apart is the inclusion of Merton’s abstract drawings—exercises in quiet reflection that convey something of the awareness through silence that he was always eager to explore.

Topics: Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, mystics, The Art of Thomas Merton