Dancing in the Water of Life

Dancing in the Water of Life

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by Thomas Merton, Robert E. Daggy

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The sixties were a time of restlessness, inner turmoil, and exuberance for Merton during which he closely followed the careening development of political and social activism – Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Selma, the Catholic Worker Movement, the Vietnam war, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Volume 5 chronicles the approach of

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The sixties were a time of restlessness, inner turmoil, and exuberance for Merton during which he closely followed the careening development of political and social activism – Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Selma, the Catholic Worker Movement, the Vietnam war, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Volume 5 chronicles the approach of Merton’s fiftieth birthday and marks his move to Mount Olivet, his hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where he was finally able to fully embrace the joys and challenges of solitary life: ‘In the hermitage, one must pray of go to seed. The pretense of prayer will not suffice. Just sitting will not suffice . . . Solitude puts you with your back to the wall (or your face to it!), and this is good’ (13 October, 1964).

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In this volume of previously unpublished writings (the fifth installment of his journals), Merton speaks of his new life as a hermit and his reactions to contemporary upheavals in the Catholic Church and American society.

Having spent over 20 years in the strictly communal life of the Trappist Cistercian Order, Merton finally obtained permission to live in solitude. Although this move was clearly a way for him to follow his bohemian and intellectual bent, it gave expression to his deep desire to seek God absolutely, free from the trivia that often complicated life in the Abbey. These journal entries illustrate both modes of Merton's existence. He discusses his omnivorous (and apparently random) reading of such writers as Rilke, Nietzsche, Neruda, Flannery O'Connor, and Simone Weil. He corresponds with contemporary intellectuals, including the Buddhist scholar Marco Pallis and Zen master D.T. Suzuki, even visiting the latter in New York. We see Merton's exasperation with US policy in Vietnam and with the South's racial practices, his excitement at developments in the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, and his misgivings at the Church's liturgical changes (e.g., the Passion Gospel read in English instead of sung in Latin strikes him as "liturgical vaudeville" and devoid of imagination). Merton supports the peace movement and distrusts the optimistic clichés of contemporary American culture, lamenting an increasingly Americanized world without cultural roots. Vignettes of daily life in the Abbey and in the hermitage form a background for each of these pages. We see Merton struggling with the mediocrity of his abbot and his own inconsistencies. His relentless introspection makes challenging reading, while his copious allusions to spiritual writings down the centuries open to us the sources of his own rich inner life.

Merton at his best: sophisticated, honest, humorous, and mystical.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Journals of Thomas Merton Series
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)

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Dancing in the Water of Life

Chapter One

Living as a Part-time Solitary

August 1963-June 1964

August 3, 1963

From a prayer of Ambrose Autpert? ascribed to St. Anselm.

Intret Spiritus tuus in cor meum qui sonet ibi sine sono et sine strepitu verborum loquator omnem veritatem tantorum mysteriorum (sc. missae). . . . Rogo te Domine per ipsum sacrosancti mysterium corporis et sanguinis tui, quo quotidie in Ecclesia tua pasiimur et potamur, abluimur et sanctificamur, atque unius summaeque divinitatis participes efficimur, da mihi virtutes tuas sanctas quibus repletus bona conscientia ad altare tuum accedam ita ut haec caelestia sacramenta efficiantur mihi salus et vita. [Let your Spirit, who sings without sound and speaks without the clamor of words, bring every truth of such mysteries (i.e., of the Mass) into my heart. . . . I ask you, Lord, through the mystery of your most blessed body and blood, which daily we eat, drink, are washed and sanctified in your church, and by which we are made participants in your one and highest divinity, give to me your holy virtues by which, filled with a good conscience, I might approach your altar in good conscience so that these holy sacraments might bring to me salvation and life.]

Finished St. Anselm's dialogue De Libero Arbitrio today with great enjoyment. Clarity and strength of his dialectic. I have the sense that there is much more below the surface: a whole consistent doctrine and attitude in which this simple treatment of a definition is rooted. "Potestas servandi rectitudinem voluntatis propter ipsam rectitudinem." ["The power of preserving the rectitude of the will on accountof rectitude itself."]

August 4, 1963. Day of Recollection

Hot day, but dry and with breeze in the afternoon. Pleasant enough in the novitiate chapel.

I am wondering if I can perhaps begin to be more detached from my existence. Or to think of it, better to accept the unthinkable notion of it not-being. How insufficient are conventional meditations on death! I have the responsum mortis [answer of death] in me, and have spontaneously been aware of death as a kind of presence several times today.

Distinguish this from death-wish and frustration. It is at once an acceptance of not existing any longer (whenever I shall cease to exist in this state I am in) and a full acknowledgment of the good of existence and of life. In reality, it is the acceptance of a higher, inconceivable mode of life entirely beyond our own control and volition, in which all is gift. To resign oneself to not being what one knows in order to receive a totally unknown being from a totally unknown source and in that source.

My solitude is very real now, though I have more to do with other people than at any time in my life. I see the full irrelevance of so much useless communication, and have nothing to say - though I can speak and say nothing since it is expected of me.

What is said to reassure my novices is perhaps "nothing" but it has its meaning. They need not the words, but the voice, and the warmth of a heart in it. This is not nothing.

[R. J. Zwi] Werblowsky was here - professor from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has been teaching at Brown. Zalman Schachter sent him down. Had a lively and interesting visit. I wanted him to speak to the novices on Hassidism; he preferred to speak on St. John of the Cross. Used material from an article he has written in Hebrew for festschrift for some savant attracted to Cabalism. I thought this talk very good, very clear, insisting on the existential reality of faith as total emptiness and night. It was a very serious and valuable talk and has had a deep effect, at least on me, if only to remind me of my own center, which I have ignored more or less, that is, I have forgotten its supreme reality and confused it with lesser realities. Some complained of his theology, but though he did not dot all the "i"s and cross all the "t"s his talks were very good. He does not think much of Hassidism, but likes Bahya ibn Pakuda and says he will send The Duties of Hearts.

From an old Dieu vivant luminaire: it is clear that one must choose between people like [Emmanuel] Mounier and people like [Renato] Mori and [Louis] Massignon; between the progressives and optimists, … la [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin, and the eschatologists. You can't be both. You can't be in every way fashionable. And presently the eschatological view is the least fashionable. But it is more my view and my choice.

"La solution des problŠmes humains . . . diffŠre du tout au tout selon que l'homme se croit appell‚ … construire l'univers et lui-mˆme par ses propres forces - mˆme si cette tache s'accomplit en nom du Christ - ou qu'il doit pr‚parer par la souffrance, le sacrifice et l'adoration … recevoir de la plenitude de l'Esprit une 'terre nouvelle' et de 'nouveaux cieux.' La parole du th‚ologien ou du philosophe chr‚tien ne peut avon d'efficacit‚ r‚elle que si elle s'enracine profond‚ment dans l'humilit‚ de son d‚but intime pour la sanctit‚." ["The solution to human problems . . . differs completely according as the man who believes himself called to construct the universe and himself through his own resources - even if this task comes to pass in the name of Christ - we whom He must prepare through suffering, sacrifice and adoration to receive from the fullness of the Spirit a 'new earth' and a 'new heaven.' The word of the theologian or of the Christian philosopher cannot have real effectiveness unless it takes root deeply in an attitude of humility from the beginning of his personal journey towards sanctity."]

August 9, 1963

Terribly busy yesterday. The whole morning went on a visit to the dentist (Joe Green) at Lebanon with Fathers Herbert and Bede and Brothers Giles and Pius. Felt that much was lost in the kind of time-wasting one gets into. Yet we had lunch with the Greens and that was nice of them, and I hope I was not too reticent. But really exhausted with talking. Would have much preferred a silent morning and some work. Then I would have been fresher for the afternoon - Arthur MacDonald Allchin from Pusey House at Oxford [University] being here. I like him and he has pleasant and interesting things to say and is a nice person very interested in monasticism. (I like his book on Anglican monasticism.)

He likes our Monastic Studies. Talks of Athos which he visited last year - it's real decadence. Likes what he has seen of America. Was at the Faith and Order Conference at Montreal. Thinks American Protestant theology is lovely, which it is.

I am reading St. Anselm's De Veritate and the delight of the book is mysterious, clear, contemplative. It is very simple, deceptively so, and one is tempted to think he is arbitrary with his debere esse [ought to be] until one sees that the root is esse [to be] and not debere [ought (to be)], or that it is both, and he traces them both to the esse [being] of God which is the debere esse of everything else. The idea of debere - devoir - debt has been so wrung out and exhausted and so divorced from esse that for us it is a tired authoritarian command that has nothing to say but "You must because you must." Anselm is saying "You must because you are, and being what you are you must say what you are, by being and action, and whether you like it or not you must say you are in God and from Him and for Him, and for no other!"

My poem on the children of Birmingham is in the Saturday Review this week. (Dan Walsh showed it to me.) The article on the Black Revolution is (unofficially) approved by censors but may be stopped by [the Abbot] General. Dan Berrigan will be in the march on Washington with the Negroes.

August 10, 1963. St. Lawrence

Grey day, misty, cooler. After the Night Office, black veils of mist blowing over the middle cornfields and all the hills visible.

Allchin leaves today. I enjoyed his visit, and especially his dear sweet Anglican spirituality, orthodoxy, etc. He has got me interested in reading some of the Anglican divines, and this is important. I am also thinking of [John Henry Cardinal] Newman. What is important is the recognition of the deep worth of Anglican writings and of the elements of mysticism which Anglicans themselves ignore. He points to [Richard] Hooker on the Incarnation as a theological source. In a broader way it was good to have some of the light of Oxford here. He represents what seems to me to be the most excellent in the English universities, a breadth, a simplicity, a sane traditionalism, a purity of vision and an originality that can only be combined in a really mature and developed culture. (Other side of this coin is the Profumo case!) I keep thinking of the broad court of St. John's College at Oxford (if I had gone to Oxford I should really have gone there). It would be a joy to go to Oxford and stay at Pusey House: but immensely complicated. Not too complicated to think of, however.Dancing in the Water of Life. Copyright © by Thomas Merton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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