Transformative living through contemplative & expressive arts
A love note from your online Abbess
Dearest monks and artists,
I am still traveling this week, having a little rest while visiting family between leading retreat programs. I have been savoring the delights of fall colors, a dip in the ocean, and time just to play and be.
Above is our latest dancing monk icon of Thomas Merton, painted by Marcy Hall of Rabbit Room Arts. Soon to be revealed will be the last three of the original 12 in the series - Amma Syncletica (desert mother), Rainer Maria Rilke, and Dorothy Day. We will be making prints of all twelve available for purchase by the end of October and are also working on getting some icon cards made.
Merton was a passionate advocate of the contemplative life and I think would have blessed our endeavors to bring the gifts of monasticism out into the world. Certainly he engaged the world and its ideas, including opening the doors for interreligious dialogue.
One of my favorite quotes of his comes at the end of Merton's book New Seeds of Contemplation:
The Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance.
For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. . . Indeed we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.
Merton was a most definitely a dancing monk, one who found the deep well of joy at the heart of life and let it overflow into his presence to others. The icon above depicts the Abbey of Gethsemane in the background, A Buddhist temple to represent his love of conversation across traditions, and his beloved trees and creatures. He also has a camera hanging around his next, because in addition to being a prolific writer and poet, he also developed a love of photography as a contemplative practice.
Here is an excerpt from my book Eyes of the Heart:
Thomas Merton as Photographer
We can trace some of the roots of photographyâ€”an undeniably modern art formâ€”as a Christian contemplative practice to the most famous modern monk, Thomas Merton. In 1968, Merton wrote to a friend soon after he had received the gift of a camera: â€œWhat a joy of a thing to work with . . . the camera is the most eager and helpful of all beings, all full of happy suggestions: â€œTry this! Do it that way!â€ Reminding me of things I have overlooked and cooperating in the creation of new worlds. So Simply. This is a Zen camera.â€
At this point in time Merton had been making photos for several years already, but now his photography took on more impetus. He discovered the lens of the camera to be a valuable tool for contemplative practice. Merton brought his camera on walks and photographed what moved him, letting the camera reveal what was there rather than bringing to the camera what he expected to see. Merton discovered in photography an alignment with his exploration of Zen practice.
Merton had begun his first serious exploration of photography in January 1962 when he visited a Shaker village near his monastery: â€œMarvelous, silent, vast spaces around the old buildings. Cold, pure light, and some grand trees. So cold my finger could no longer feel the shutter release. Some marvelous subjects. How the blank side of a frame house can be so completely beautiful I cannot imagine. A completely miraculous achievement of forms.â€ As he developed friendships with other artists and photographers, he wrote to them about his discoveries.
One of Mertonâ€™s most well-known photographs is titled â€œThe Sky Hook.â€ He wrote that the picture â€œis the only known photograph of God.â€ The composition of the photo is balanced between positive and negative space, a steel hook cuts through the top center of the image, curled toward the sky. The hook is empty, holding nothing. It is an evocative image that acts somewhat like a Zen koan by inviting us to see beyond preconceived and neatly packaged ideas.
---excerpt from Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (by Christine Valters Paintner)
How might the camera be a portal to the holy presence all around you this week?
October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis. Please click here to view the St. Francis Dancing Monk Icon and read a poem about his visit to the corner pub.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo: Thomas Merton dancing monk icon by artist Marcy Hall