Merton and the West

Bright Lights Big City sunrise Michael J Fox

Bright Ligths, Big City, by Jay McInerney, doesn’t have a lot of scenes that take place in the full light of dawning day.  But the last scene does.

Jamie* sobers up finally and finds himself hungry.  He meets a bread truck making early downtown deliveries.  Jamies doesn’t have any cash, since he blew it all the during the night.  So he trades the driver his fancy Ray Bans for a loaf of bread–and a fresh start on life.

In the movie, they set this scene near the Hudson.  Jamie wanders out onto a pier and eats his bread facing west.

If we want to understand Thomas Merton–and some of us do, I think; some of us will make a Merton pilgrimage next month to try to understand better–if we want to understand him, let’s consider this fact:  Merton, the consummate Easterner, New Yorker, who grew up mainly in Europe–this man wound up living the better part of his life in west-central Kentucky, about an hour’s drive south from the Falls of the Ohio, where Lewis and Clark met up to start their expedition.

Hope became Merton’s daily bread, of course, as a monk.  We read in No Man is an Island:

Upon our hope depends the liberty of the whole universe.  Because our hope is the pledge of a new heaven and a new earth, in which all things will be what they were meant to be.  They will rise, together with us, in Christ.  The beasts and the trees will one day share with us a new creation, and we will see them as God sees them, and know that they are very good.

The West, our American West–the place into which our American soul has gone in solemn, ceremonial procession, so to speak, through the St. Louis Gateway Arch:  What is it, this West?

Well, for one thing, it’s the land where the French and Spanish, who came before us English, named the towns after saints.

thomas mertonFor another:  in the West, the future opened up–challenging, but welcoming.

I don’t mean that the Anglo-American idea of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny came straight from the mouth of God.  Not sure about that at all.

But I do mean this:  Twentieth-century America’s most conspicuous exponent of ancient and medieval Christian wisdom prayed and wrote in the wide-open land beyond the Appalachians that our frontiersmen ancestors settled.  Merton lived under their western sky.

Now, I bring all this up because:  I think that finding what makes us Americans “us” has become urgent business.  If we don’t try to figure that out; if we instead let ourselves grow more and more desperately insistent on each having our own personal, individual way all the time–or living in our personal abstract theories, instead of living together, on this one land that we all inhabit–if we don’t try to figure out where our common hope as a people has come from, through 240 years–won’t we descend into some kind of civil war before long?  I fear we will.

In the Divine Office today for the Memorial of St. John Chrysostom, we read about the intimate way the saintly pastor identified himself with his people.  He spoke to them about the exile he faced:

Where I am, there you are too, and where you are, I am. For we are a single body, and the body cannot be separated from the head nor the head from the body. Distance separates us, but love unites us, and death itself cannot divide us. For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people.  You are my fellow citizens, my fathers, my brothers, my sons, my limbs, my body.


Father Merton had an epiphany in Louisville and wrote this:

At the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to each other…This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.

The keystone in the mighty arch of man, the gateway of hope:  Christ.  He wills to share with us precisely the same interior Gift that united Him perfectly with the divine Hand of Providence–with the future, with an ever-dawning day.  May He pour His Spirit into us Americans to help us find the future together.  I think that Father Thomas Merton can help us a great deal.

* In the movie, the “you” of the book bears the name Jamie.

One thought on “Merton and the West

  1. One wonders how you understand Merton’s keen interest in Zen and Eastern religion. A conundrum?! Why was it that he died in Bangkok and not, say , in Assisi.? Talk amongst yourselves!

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