As a young seminarian I was first introduced to Thomas Merton by reading his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. It left a deep impression on me. In that work I could relate to his honest search for meaning and hope in the midst of the somewhat confused world we live in.
In the years that followed, over the past several decades, I started to collect his works and engage with his work on the saints, scripture, prayer, contemplation, art, poetry, insights from the traditions of other religions. One of the Merton’s ideas that most interested me was that the discipline of prayer, meditation and contemplation was not just something to be done by priests, religious and monks, but was possible, good and achievable by everyone.
There was renewed interest in his work for the 50th anniversary of his sudden and untimely death in the past few years. With the spare time visited on us during Corona Virus Lockdown it seemed an ideal time to revisit the works and themes of the great spiritual master yet again. During that time, it was often remarked that, in effect, we were living a monastic style of existence with time to explore, reflect and contemplate the finer points of our faith.
Merton’s life is a fascinating one of three distinct phases. The first being his early years in France, England and America in the mid 20th century, sowing his wild oats, reading widely and exploring the literary world of writing and journalism. The second being his discovery of faith, prayer, his conversion to Catholicism and withdrawing from the world into the austere and disciplined monastic life of the Cistercian Order. The final period was that of re-engaging with the world in the topical issues of the post-world war 20th century, peace, racism, ecology, interfaith dialogue. All through that time he wrote prolifically and his work is a testimony to a lucid, engaged mind informed by the cultural, philosophical, theological and artistic trends of the day. Along with his prose and religious work he produced a huge collection of poetry and was an artist and photographer of note also.
In the opening quotation in the introduction of this new book Thomas Merton is quoted as saying that as a result of his seeking “delight begins to overpower me from head to foot and peace smiles even in the marrow of my bones”. I was intent to delve into what led to that smiling peace that Merton spoke of in glowing terms. Many of the elements of what contributed to that contentment are unveiled between the covers of Peace Smiles.
The cover portrait of the spiritual master, originally a photograph of Merton by John Lyons is done by Ennis artist Harry Guinnane. It is an engaging portrait with a great sense of presence. Its colours subtly suggest the many shades of Merton the man. The abstract background space allows the observer to engage fully with the subject and to be drawn to join Merton as a companion pilgrim.
Merton was not a vain man and he had a self-deprecatory sense of humour that endeared him to many. Jim Forest, one of his biographers said that Merton had a face that reminded him of David Duncan’s photos of Pablo Picasso, ‘similarly unfettered in its expressiveness, the eyes bright and quick and sure, suggesting some strange balance between wisdom and mischief’. Forest goes on to say that Merton once remarked that his was the face of a ‘hillbilly who knows where the still is’.
Harry Guinnane spent time studying the eyes in order to get right their friendly, gregarious and yet penetrating nature. He also captures the hint of mischief – that sense of knowing ‘where the still is’.
Merton’s own view that good art can give insight into God is reflected in Harry’s achievement in capturing in the outer eyes the suggestion of the insight and vision of the inner eye. Peace smiles in this portrait and evokes the lasting peace that is the smile of the beatific vision.
Merton died tragically after accidental electrocution. He was still a young man who was just getting into his stride with fresh ideas and engagement with the world of the day. His vast literary output remains a valuable source for anyone interested to get a window into where “true peace that smiles” might be found. I hope, like me, you too will be edified by the pointers given by The Master on that pilgrim path.
Peace Smiles – Rediscovering Thomas Merton, published by Veritas will be launched virtually by Br. Richard Hendrick on Thursday, November 12th at 7.00 pm. To register for the launch email firstname.lastname@example.org. Copies can be purchased on line from Veritas https://www.veritasbooksonline.com, Ennis Bookshop and a small number in the Ennis Parish Office.
✠ Fintan Monahan, Bishop of Killaloe