A great deal of wood I have for the fire is wet or not sufficiently seasoned to burn well – though finally this morning I got a pretty hot fire going with a big cedar log on top of it.
It is hard but good to live according to nature with a primitive technology of wood chopping and fires rather than according to the mature technology that has supplanted nature, creating its own weather, etc., etc. Yet there are advantages, too, in a warmed house and a self-stoking furnace. No need to pledge allegiance to either one. Get warm any way you can, and love God and pray.
I see more and more that now I must desire nothing else than to be “poured out like libation,” to give and surrender my being without concern. The cold woods make this more real. And the loneliness: coming up last night at the time of a very cold sunset, with two little birds still picking at crumbs I had thrown for them on the frozen porch. Everywhere else, snow. In the morning, coming down: all tracks covered by snow blown over the path by the wind, except tracks of the cat that hunts around the old sheep barn. Solitude = being aware that you are one man in this snow where there has been no one but one cat.
– Thomas Merton, journal entry – February 2, 1965
It is not complicated to lead the spiritual life. But it is difficult. We are blind and subject to a thousand illusions. We must expect to be making mistakes almost all the time. We must be content to fall repeatedly and to begin again to try to deny ourselves, for the love of God.
It is when we are angry at our own mistakes that we tend most of all to deny ourselves for love of ourselves. We want to shake off the hateful thing that has humbled us. In our rush to escape the humiliation of our own mistakes, we run head first into the opposite error, seeking comfort and compensation. And so we spend our lives running back and forth from one attachment to another.
If that is all our self-denial amounts to, our mistakes will never help us.
The thing to do when you have made a mistake is not to give up doing what you were doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try, for the love of God, to do it well.
– Thomas Merton, from The Sign of Jonas
Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.
This is the man that I want to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.
– Thomas Merton
Lord, God, the whole world tonight seems to be made of paper. The most substantial things are ready to crumble or tear apart and blow away.
O God, my God, the night has values that day has never dreamed of. All things stir by night, waking or sleeping, conscious of the nearness of their ruin. Only [humans] make themselves illuminations they conceive to be solid and eternal. But while we ask our questions and come to our decisions, God blows our decisions out, the roofs of our houses cave in upon us, the towers are undermined by ants, the walls crack and cave in, and the holiest buildings burn to ashes while the watchman is composing a theory of duration. – Thomas Merton, from Journal entry – July 4, 1952 – The Fire Watch
…it becomes very important to remember that the quality of one’s night depends on the thoughts of the day, on the sanity of the day, I bring there all the sins of the day into the light and darkness of truth to be adored without disguise – then I want to fly back to the disguises.
Tonight it is cold again and, as I came up in the dark, a few small snowflakes were flying in the beam of a flashlight. The end of an oak log was still burning with small flames in the fireplace. Came up with candles, and sugar for coffee, and a jar to urinate in so that I won’t have to go out in the snow in the middle of the night. What greater comforts could a man want?
– Thomas Merton, journal entry – 12/5/64
The policies of people contain within themselves the judgement and doom of God upon their society, and when the Church identifies its policies with theirs, it too is judged with them – for it has in this been unfaithful and is not truly “the Church.” The power of “the Church” (who is not “the Church” if it is rich and powerful) contains the judgement that “begins at the house of God.”
– Thomas Merton – journal entry, November 30, 1964
Gelassenheit – letting go – not being encumbered by systems, words, projects. And yet being free in systems, projects. Not trying to get away from all action, all speech, but free, unencumbering Gelassen in this or that action. Error of self-conscious contemplatives: to get hung up on a certain kind of non-action which is an imprisonment, a stupor, the opposite of Gelassenheit. Actually quietism is incompatible with true inner freedom. The furden of this stupid and enforced “quiet” – the self sitting heavily on its own head.
Still thinking of K.C., who wrote from Cincinnati. From a certain point of view my letter to her was a scandal. I was in effect saying, “Don’t listen for the voice of God, God will not speak to you.” Yet this had to be said. Today, for a certain type of person, deceptive. It is the wrong kind of listening: listening for a limited message, an objective sound, a sensible meaning. Actually one decides one’s life by responding to a word that is not well defined, easily explicable, safely accounted for. One decides to love in the face of an unaccountable void, and from the void comes an unaccountable truth. By this truth one’s existence is sustained in peace – until the truth is too firmly grasped and too clearly accounted for. Then one is relying on words, i.e., on ones’ own understanding and one’s own ingenuity in interpreting existence and its “signs.” The one is lost and has to be found once again in the patient Void.
– Thomas Merton, journal entry, November 13, 1966
I went out on the porch before dawn to think of these things, and of the words of Ezekiel (22:30): “And I sought among them for a man that might set up a hedge and stand in the gap before me in favor of the land that I might not destroy it, and I found none.” And while I was standing there, quails began to whistle all over the field and in the wood. I had not heard any for weeks and thought sure they were all dead, for there have been hunters everywhere. No, there they are! Signs of life, of gentleness, of helplessness, of providence, of love. They just keep existing and loving and making more quails and whistling in the bushes.
From Thomas Merton’s Journal – November 7, 1965
In choir the less I worried about the singing, the more I was possessed by Love. There is a lesson in that about being poor. You have got to be all the time cooperating with Love in this house, and Love sets a fast pace even at the beginning and, if you don’t keep up, you’ll get dropped. And yet, any speed is too slow for Love – and no speed is too fast for you if you will only let Love drag you off your feet – after that you will have to sail the whole way. But our instinct is to get off and start walking…
I want to be poor. I want to be solitary. This business burns me. “My strength is dried up like a potsherd” (Psalm 21:16). I am all dried up with desire and I can only think of one thing – staying in the fire that burns me.
Sooner or later the world must burn, and all things in it – all the books, the cloister together with the brothel, Fra Angelico together with the Lucky Strike ads. Sooner or later it will all be consumed by fire and nobody will be left, for by that time the last man in the universe will have discovered the bomb capable of destroying the universe and will have been unable to resist the temptation to throw the thing and get it over with.
And here I sit writing in a diary.
But Love laughs at the end of the world because Love is the door to eternity, and he who loves is playing on the doorstep of eternity, and before anything can happen, Love will have drawn him over the sill and closed the door, and he won’t bother about the world burning because he will know nothing but Love.
Thomas Merton, journal entry – October 3 & 10, 1948
The light of truth burns without a flicker in the depths of a house that is shaken with storms of passion and of fear. “You will not fear the terror of the night.” And so I go on trying to walk on the waters of the breakdown. Worse than ever before and better than ever before. It is always painful and reassuring when he who I am not is visibly destroyed by the hand of God in order that the simplicity in the depths of me, which is God’s image, may be set free to serve God in peace. Sometimes in the midst of all this I am tremendously happy, and I have never in my life begun to be so grateful for God’s mercy.
– Thomas Merton, Journal entry, October 22, 1952
(photo: Monastery of Christ in The Desert, NM – September 2018)