Follow the Ecstasy: The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton

Follow the Ecstasy: The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton

by John Howard Griffin
In 1969, one year after Thomas Merton's tragic (and suspicious) death, John Howard Griffin was invited to write a biography of America's most famous monk, a monk who strangely had become a best-selling theologian. The result was Follow the Ecstasy: The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton (1983). Both Merton and Griffin were converts to Catholicism, and they


In 1969, one year after Thomas Merton's tragic (and suspicious) death, John Howard Griffin was invited to write a biography of America's most famous monk, a monk who strangely had become a best-selling theologian. The result was Follow the Ecstasy: The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton (1983). Both Merton and Griffin were converts to Catholicism, and they had become fast friends during Griffin’s occasional retreats to the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani where Merton was cloistered. As Robert Bonazzi writes in his Foreword, "With natural humility and intense spirituality, they taught each other by example and silence." Merton and Griffin were both photographers as well as writers. Griffin wrote about Merton's painting and photography in A Hidden Wholeness: The Visual World of Thomas Merton (1970). They also shared a fascination with the French theologian Jacques Maritain, as well as French modernists Pierre Reverdy, George Braque, and Albert Camus. Griffin fell ill before he could finish his biography of Merton, and the mantle of official biographer passed to Michael Mott, author of The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, an essential compendium of the monk's life. Yet Follow the Ecstasy gets closer to the man—a portrait made by one who shared not only personal histories and interests with Merton, but an "intuitive perspective of solitude."

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Fallow the Ecstasy

The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton

By John Howard Griffin, Robert Bonazzi

Wings Press

Copyright © 1993 Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi, Executor, The Estate of John Howard Griffin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60940-143-6



* * *

    A Messenger from the Horizon

    Look, a naked runner
    A messenger,
    Following the wind
    From budding hills.

    By sweet sunstroke
    Wounded and signed,
    (He is therefore sacred)
    Silence is his way.

    Rain is his own
    Most private weather.
    Amazement is his star.

    O stranger, our early hope
    Flies fast by,
    A mute comet, an empty sun.
    Adam is his name!

    O primeval angel
    Virgin brother of astonishment,
    Born of one word, one bare
    Inquisitive diamond.

    O blessed
    Invulnerable cry,
    O unplanned Saturday,
    O lucky Father!

    Come without warning
    A friend of hurricanes,
    Lightning in your bones!
    We will open to you
    The sun-door, the noble eye!

    Open to rain, to somersaulting air,
    To everything that swims,
    To skies that wake,
    Flare and applaud.
    (It is too late, he flies the other way
    Wrapping his honesty in rain.)

    * * *

    Pardon all runners,
    All speechless, alien winds,
    All mad waters.

    Pardon their impulses,
    Their wild attitudes,
    Their young flights, their reticence.

    When a message has no clothes on
    How can it be spoken?

    — Thomas Merton


Merton awakened early on the first day of January feeling that something was walking around the hermitage, and by the time he had come fully awake, he realized it was raining.

His Mass in the novitiate chapel and the thanksgiving afterward were filled with reflection on the last thing he had read in the old year the night before — a letter of Peter Damian to two hermits, which recently had been republished by Dom Leclercq. The hermits wanted to be buried, when they died, at their hermitage and nowhere else. Merton agreed wholeheartedly with that.

In his mail that morning he received a letter from Webster College, which asked to have an exhibit of his drawings in April.

During the following week, Brother Joachim continued wiring the hermitage for electricity and Merton acquired an old two-burner hotplate on which eventually he could do his cooking.

The other major event was an exploration of about eight hundred acres of wild, almost unexplored land nearby called Edelin's Farm, which the abbot was interested in acquiring as a place to set up hermitages.

On Epiphany, January 3, Merton suffered what he called "a sort of emotional hangover" from his day in the woods on Edelin's Farm. He sat at the top of the field looking down on the hermitage and tried to meditate until he felt the return of calm. At dusk, he returned inside the hermitage, raked coals from the fire to one side of the fireplace and cooked his supper — "a thin potato soup made out of dust in an envelope."

Early January was peaceful for Merton. He catalogued his joys in the semi-hermit life. He found a little Nietzsche stimulating, but really preferred to read Isaac of Nineva in the hermitage or Zen masters out in the fields.

Each morning, when he went down to the abbey through the starlit woods, he either said Lauds or the Little Office of Our Lady, aware of the stars and light, the frost and cold, the ice and snow, the trees, earth, hills, and entering the lighted monastery among the sons of men.

The morning of January 17 was brilliant in the hours before dawn, with a deep snow and a sparkling moon. The fire kept the front room of the hermitage warm, and Merton looked forward to walking down to the novitiate in an hour. In the stillness, the weather was frigid. Whenever he stepped out on the porch, the bristles in his nose almost instantly froze, "and the outdoor jakes is a grievous shock."

On January 18, the British Dominican Father Illtud Evans arrived to preach the annual retreat. Sister Luke Tobin, of the Sisters of Loretto, came over with Father Illtud. She was on the sub-committee working on Schema 13 for the Vatican Council, one of the first women to be in such a position, and she wanted to discuss the work of the committee with Frs. Merton and Evans.

The annual monastic retreat was a particularly effective one for Merton, though he felt an element of emptiness and anguish from the concentration of it. But in the end, he was certain that he was obeying the Lord and was in the way willed for him, "though at the same time I am struck and appalled, more than ever, by the shoddiness, the slackness, the laziness of my response. I am just beginning to awaken and to realize how much more awakening is to come." Once again, he realized spiritually that he must renounce all ambition and self-seeking in his work and contacts. "I am so tied up in all this that I don't know where to start getting free."

Merton resolved to make his approaching fiftieth birthday the turning point, and simply "die" to the past, to live more abandoned to God's will and less concerned with projects.

The retreat ended January 26. It had been an important one for Merton, and he cherished his private talks with Father Evans.

The next day, the third Sunday after Epiphany, the monks at Gethsemani had their first concelebrated Mass.

On January 30, the eve of his birthday, Merton did his annual "summing up" without too much "agonia". Much of the speculation centered around the external events of his life. He awakened to a cold night, filled with the depth and silence of snow. He had cooked what he considered a far too elaborate supper the preceding night — soup, toast, sliced pear and banana; and he concluded that if there were no better reason for fasting, the mere fact of saving time would be a good enough reason. "For the bowl and the saucepan have to be washed, and I have only a bucket of rainwater for washing."

Taking only coffee for breakfast made more sense, because he could read quietly and sip his two mugs of coffee at leisure, and it was really enough for the morning.

He felt a greater need for discipline and meditation. The early morning hours were particularly good, though in the morning meditation of one hour he found he was easily distracted by the fire. An hour of meditation was not much, he conceded, but he could be more meditative during the following hour allotted to reading. His mornings were filled with his duties as novice master, which he did not find too taxing. That afternoon work had become a burden. Not only did he have to keep the hermitage clean and the wood chopped, but he had an enormous mail and an overwhelming writing schedule.

On the afternoon of the thirtieth, a bright, snowy afternoon with "delicate blue clouds of snow blowing down off the frozen trees," Merton forcibly restrained himself from too much work around the hermitage and made sure he got an hour's meditation, and promised himself to do more later. He mailed a revised version of "Rain and the Rhinoceros" to Holiday.

Later, in the evening, he continued his summing up. Should he look at the past and analyze it again? No, rather he would thank God for the present, not for himself in the present, but for the present that was God's and was in God. A quick review of the past indicated to the hermit a lack of love, or rather a selfishness and glibness with girls, springing from his deep shyness and need of love. But that was hardly worth thinking about now, twenty-five years later.

What he found most in his whole life was illusion: the need to be something of which he had formed a concept. "I hope I will get free of that now, because that is going to be the struggle." And yet he felt that he had to follow a "concept" of what he ought to be, to meet a certain demand for order and inner light and tranquility. But he must cease striving for these on his own. Rather he must remove those obstacles that prevented God from giving him these things.

"Snow, silence, the talking fire, the watch on the table. Sorrow."

But what was the use of going into all this? No, it was better to move about, to do things — wash his hands, which were dirty — say the psalms of his birthday:

Yet you drew me out of the womb,
you entrusted me to my mother's breasts;
placed on your lap from my birth,
from my mother's womb you have been my God.
Do not stand aside: trouble is near,
I have no one to help me!

Later that evening Merton added some notes to the effect that no matter what mistakes and illusions had marked his life, most of it had been happiness and some of it, at least, truth. The profoundest happiness had occurred in and around Gethsemani as well as times of terrible anguish. The best times, for the monk, had been the hours alone, either in the hermitage or in the novice master's room or simply out in the fields.

Before going to bed he realized momentarily what solitude really meant:

When the ropes are cast off and the ship is no longer tied to land but heads out to sea without ties, without restraints. Not the sea of passion, on the contrary, the sea of purity and love that is without care. That loves God alone immediately and directly in Himself as the All (and the seeming Nothing that is all). The unutterable confusion of those who think that God is a mental object and that to love "God alone" is to exclude all other objects to concentrate on this one! Fatal. Yet that is why so many misunderstand the meaning of contemplation and solitude and condemn it.

On January 31, which again fell on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Merton awakened long before daylight to a fiercely cold cabin. Though embers still glowed in the fireplace, it was below freezing inside. The monk lighted his Coleman lamp, built up the fire and began heating the water for his coffee. Sitting near the fire, with his feet on the hearth, he read: "When I go home I shall take my ease with Wisdom, for nothing is bitter in her company, when life is shared with her there is no pain, gladness only and joy (Wisdom 8:16)." Merton said that if he really knew how, he would set those words to a beautiful music. "I can imagine no greater cause for gratitude on my fiftieth birthday than that I wake up in a hermitage."

What more could he seek than this silence, this simplicity, this "living together with wisdom?" On that festive morning nothing else mattered, and he realized that he did not need to defend the solitary life, that he had nothing to justify. He needed only protect "this vast simple emptiness" from his own desires and illusions.

Through the cold and darkness, in the immense stillness, he heard the Angelus ringing at the monastery.

He brought his coffee and the honey he used for sweetening to his work table and reveled in the jeweled glistening of the honey in the lamplight, seeing it as a festival. With such birthday gifts as this, he saw more and more that he must desire nothing but to surrender his whole being without concern. The frozen woods were in this awareness, and also his trip up the hill the evening before at the time of a very cold sunset, and the loneliness; even the two small birds still pecking at crumbs he had thrown on the frozen porch.

When he went down to say Mass, he found all tracks covered by snow blown over the path except fresh tracks of the cat that hunted near the old sheep barn. "Solitude: being aware that you are one man in this snow where there has been no one but one cat."


On February 4, Father Louis received a "fantastic present from [Daisetz Teitaro] Suzuki" — a scroll with the Zen scholar's own calligraphy. The monk had never seen anything more impressive. "It will be wonderful in the hermitage — but no clue as to what the characters say."

About this time Father Merton was asked to prepare a paper on the hermit vocation for a meeting of canonists to be held at New Melleray Abbey in the spring. In preparation he reread a 1952 issue of La Vie Spirituelle, which was devoted to solitude. He was struck by the evident progress that had been made. In 1952 the tone of the articles was not hopeful, simply a statement of regret that the hermit life had practically ceased to exist. By 1965, the hermit life was once more a fact, and moving beyond the state where it was thought necessary for a monk to get exclaustrated in order to fulfill his monastic vocation to solitude.

Even as he worked on the first draft of the paper on eremitism, his own hermit vocation began to look more favorable. He had hints that he would be able to move to the hermitage full time soon. On February 11, it rained all day, and the monk did not get back to the hermitage until after supper. At nightfall he sat at his work table in front of the window looking out to the porch, which shone with rain, and at low clouds being blown over the valley.

The rain turned into a furious storm — something Merton would ordinarily relish, but tonight he was troubled. He had received an invitation from Godfrey Dieckmann asking him to participate in an ecumenical meeting with Bernard Haring, Jean Leclercq, Barnabas Ahern and several others. The abbot had refused permission, again something that the monk would not ordinarily have given much thought. But this time he was filled with distress, for which he could not account.

"But I have to learn to accept this without resentment. Certainly not easy to do. So far have hardly tried and to tell the truth it angers and distracts me."

The distress persisted over the weekend. Father Abbot preached a sermon on vanity, ambition, using one's gifts for one's own glory. Merton could only infer that the sermon had something to do with his invitation to attend the meeting. The monk was depressed, and above all humiliated that he should feel it so much and be forced by his feeling to think about it all day. "How absurd. And yet the efforts I made to see it rationally as something trifling and laughable would not come off." Finally he lay awake half the night, something that had never happened before in the hermitage.

He wrote a note to the abbot, apologizing for having offended him and admitting that the abbot's sermon had made him miserable. He said that his writing and other work were not pure ambition and vanity, though there might be some vanity involved in them, and expressed the wish that the abbot would accept him realistically and not expect him to be something he could not be.

The abbot immediately sent back a note assuring Father Louis that his sermon had nothing to do with him, that he had no intention of hurting the monk and was most concerned. Father Louis dismissed it as an illusion on his part. "I was relieved that it was all settled. I am surely old enough to be beyond that."

On Monday, February 15, when Father Louis walked outside for a breath of air before his novice conference at the abbey, he saw men working on the hillside beyond the sheep barn. The electric line was being strung up to his hermitage. Throughout the day he watched them working on the holes, digging and blasting at the rock to set up the poles.

Galley proofs of the book Gandhi on Non-Violence arrived from New Directions. Father Louis sat out in the sun and corrected them immediately, finding the galleys contained few mistakes.


Excerpted from Fallow the Ecstasy by John Howard Griffin, Robert Bonazzi. Copyright © 1993 Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi, Executor, The Estate of John Howard Griffin. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Known primarily as the author of the modern classic, Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin (1920-1980) was a true Renaissance man. Having fought in the French Resistance and been a solo observer on an island in the South Pacific during World War II, he became a critically-acclaimed novelist and essayist, a remarkable photographer and musicologist, and a dynamic lecturer and teacher. On October 28, 1959, after a decade of blindness and a remarkable and inexplicable recovery, John Howard Griffin dyed himself black and began an odyssey of discovery through the segregated American South. The result was Black Like Me, arguably the single most important documentation of 20th century American racism ever written. Because of Black Like Me, Griffin was personally vilified, hanged in effigy in his hometown, and threatened with death for the rest of his life. Griffin's courageous act and the book it generated earned him international respect as a human rights activist. Griffin worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Dick Gregory, Saul Alinsky, and NAACP Director Roy Wilkins during the Civil Rights era. He taught seminars at the University of Peace with Nobel Peace Laureate Father Dominique Pire, and delivered hundreds of lectures worldwide. Earlier, during a decade of blindness (1947-1957), he wrote novels. His 1952 bestseller, The Devil Rides Outside was a test case in a controversial censorship trial that was settled in his favor by the US Supreme Court. Later in his life, Griffin was also recognized for his magnificent black & white photographic portraits, which were featured in his photographic books A Hidden Wholeness: The Visual World of Thomas Merton (Griffin was also Thomas Merton's biographer) and Jacques Maritain: Homage in Words and Pictures.

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