Still more Merton

“I learned from my father,” Merton writes, “that it was almost blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to reproduce some kind of a sensible pleasure or, at best, to stir up the emotions to a transitory thrill. I had always understood that art was contemplation, and that it involved the action of the highest faculties of man.” (Merton’s father, Owen, was a successful landscape painter, whose travels as a result of his success both broadened Thomas and prematurely orphaned him.)

Art as contemplation: I think that that’s what’s missing for me in these days when I’m not writing, which is why I’m trying to make something more of my photography and even of the Buddha Board quickie sketches I’m making, like this one of a live oak at Mepkin Abbey:

live oak

New York churches that mattered to Merton: Church of Corpus Christi, W. 121st Street; Our Lady of Guadalupe, 328 W. 14th Street; St. Francis Xavier, 46 W. 16th Street; St. Francis of Assisi, 135 W. 34th Street.

“…my greatest Jesuit hero: the glorious Father Rothschild of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies…”

“Two years ago–1939–I walked with the same problem, vocation to the priesthood, on the chicken dock in Greenwich Village.” He mentions the chicken dock more than once, but I can find nothing about it on the Web.

At St. Bonaventure’s College in Olean, New York, Merton prepared to enter the Franciscan Order and began to obsess about a monastic name. The paragraphs that follow are a delight:

Turning over the pages of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, I had looked for some name to take in religion–indeed, that was a problem over which I had wasted an undue amount of time….I knew in advance that I could not be a John Baptist or an Augustine or Jerome of Gregory. I would have to find some outlandish name like Paphnutius (which was Father Irenaeus’ suggestion). Finally I came across a Franciscan named Bl. John Spaniard and I thought that would sound fine.

I considered the possibility of running around in a brown robe and sandals, and imagined I heard the novice master saying: “Frater John Spaniard, go over there and scrub that floor.” Or else he would put his head out of his room and say to one of the other novices: “Go and get Frater John Spaniard and bring him here,” and then I would come humbly along the corridor in my sandals–or rather our sandals–with my eyes down, with the rapid but decorous gait of a young friar who knew his business: Frater John Spaniard. It made a pleasant picture.

When I went back to the cottage on the hill, and timidly admitted that I thought I might take the name of Frater John Spaniard, Seymour at least thought it was a good choice. Seymour had a weakness for anything that seemed to have some sort of dash about it, andmaybe in the back of his mind he was thinking of Torquemada and the Inquisition, although I don’t think the John Spaniard in question had much to do with that.

Receiving a list of things to bring to the monastery, “The only perplexing item on the list was ‘one umbrella.'”

Nessus shirt? The Shirt of Nessus, Tunic of Nessus, Nessus-robe, or Nessus’ shirt in Greek mythology was the poisoned shirt that killed Heracles. It was once a popular reference in literature. In folkloristics, it is considered an instance of the “poison dress” motif.

Third Order? In relation to religious orders, a third order is an association of persons who live according to the ideals and spirit of a Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran religious order, but do not belong to its “first order” (generally, in the Catholic Church, Franciscans, Dominicans or Carmelite friars), or its “second order” (contemplative nuns associated with the “first order”). Members of third orders, known as tertiaries (Latin tertiarii, from tertius, third), are generally laypersons, i.e. men and women who do not take religious vows, but participate in the good works of order and may be allowed to wear at least some elements of the order’s habit, such as a scapular. Less often, they belong to a religious institute (a “congregation”) that is called a “third order secular”).

Re Father Guerric, Merton mentions Guerric of Igny. A Web entry says:  “Born probably at Tournai and educated in the humanities and theology at the noted cathedral school there, Guerric visited the Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux as a seasoned scholar, with no intention whatever of abandoning academic life for the cloister. Urged to stay by the always persuasive Abbot Bernard, however, ‘without delay or looking back, the cleric became a monk, the master a schoolboy’. He was elected abbot of Igny, near Rheims, in 1138.” More about the persuasive Bernard (of Clairvaux) later, for I’m suddenly thinking of a play about him.

Mactation: sacrificial killing.

Here’s an extraordinary paragraph, on p. 356: “The eloquence of this liturgy was even more tremendous: and what it said was one, simple, cogent, tremendous truth: this church, the court of the Queen of Heaven, is the real capital of the country in which we are living. This is the center of all the vitality that is in America. This is the cause and reason why the nation is holding together. These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for it the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.”

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