Celebrating a New Icon of Thomas Merton by William Hart McNichols
Author’s Note: When Fr. Bill sent me this image of his newly completed icon of Merton, I was immediately dumbstruck by its depth and beauty. As I sat with the icon over the past few weeks, a passage from Merton’s Asian Journal, the record of his final pilgrimage to the East, kept coming back to me. Readers may also discern here gestures to the great meditation “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” and the sublime prose poem of 1962, “Hagia Sophia.” I completed the following meditation on the Feast of All Souls.
During an informal talk in Calcutta, just weeks before his death, Thomas Merton described the monk, and thus himself, as a “very strange kind of person,” a “marginal person, who withdraws deliberately to the margin of society with a view to deepening fundamental human experience.” The monk in the modern world, he continues, “is no longer an established person with an established place in society.” The monk “is essentially outside of all establishments.”
Weeks later, in a conference just hours before his death, Merton recalls a Buddhist monk who, during the Chinese invasion of Tibet, spoke these words to another monk in great distress: “From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.” Merton repeats the line, describing it as “an extremely important monastic statement.” From now on, everybody stands on his own feet. Merton gestures further: “You cannot rely on structures. The time for relying on structures has disappeared.”
It seems to me that Fr. Bill’s icon beautifully reflects Merton’s witness as a marginal person, standing at the margins, standing on his own feet. Yet Merton’s gaze, perfectly at home outside his hermitage, is not that of a rugged loner, indifferent to his visitor. His gaze welcomes and invites me in.
It is She, Sophia, who welcomes and invites me in: the divine Wisdom-child, the Holy Spirit of Life, in flame dancing playfully over Merton’s head. She and Merton are one, and we are three, encircling in time and space like Rublev’s Trinity. I am at peace. We are friends. The time for relying on structures has disappeared.
The monk is a marginal person, and I confess, I want so much to follow. Cor ad cor loquitor; heart speaks to heart. From before all beginnings, Her heart speaks silently to my heart, calling me forth with gentleness into being, into a brand new day.
The monk is a liminal man, in wool cap and denim coat, guarding the doorway between life and death. Why do you seek the living among the dead? There is music on both sides, but stay awake, and let Life be your song! It is life and love that makes you dance. How the valley awakes! The cool hand of the nurse, whispering “Mercy within mercy within mercy.” Christ the bridegroom is coming.
The frost at Merton’s feet, spread thinly over Kentucky bluegrass, is familiar to me. I am a native of Kentucky, where gray-damp winters drove us children indoors by late afternoon, prompting family play and conversation after dinner, deep into the evening, around smoking wood fires that my father loved to build. A Child’s heart, sometimes frozen, still beats within me. I want the frost to melt away.
In Fr. Bill’s icon, Merton stands before us as heir to Julian of Norwich, heralding the eschatological secret of Christian hope. Gazing on me, gazing on him, he reminds me, “Do not be afraid.” What was fragile has become powerful. I loved what was most frail. All things are pregnant with expectation.
“Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, and I am learning, even as I fall back into sleep, how to attend. A child held in Her mercy, I am learning to stand on my own two feet.
Thank you, Fr. Bill, for showing us, so humbly and lovingly, how to listen, and for bringing into birth this remarkable icon of Thomas Merton.
Feast of All Souls, November 2, 2013