Remembering Thomas Merton’s Woods, Shore, Desert


In 1968, visiting friends and Zen monasteries in Japan, I had also hoped to meet Fr. Merton, when word arrived that he had accidentally died in Thailand. Ten years later, living in Santa Fe, browsing through old issues of New Mexico Magazine, I came across some photographs Merton had taken during two visits he made to New Mexico during the last year of his life. Although I didn’t think the pictures themselves came up to the quality of his literary work, they intrigued me enough to query the Thomas Merton Studies Center, in Louisville, Kentucky, as to whether "there are enough of these photographs to make a book worthwhile."

Why Thomas Merton? I had read many of the details of his extraordinary life. His leap from rambunctious college student to Trappist monk. The irony of his flowering in midst of a religious order that demands almost total silence into a world-renowned author. A voice. A scholar of the history of the Catholic Church, who developed a deep interest in other spiritual Ways, especially Zen Buddhism, going as far as to practice zazen, and, in 1968, declaring, "I will be the best Buddhist I can be."

On a more personal note, Merton had published a poem mine in the last issue of Monk’s Pond, the literary journal he edited during that fateful year of 1968. His acceptance had been in the form of a warm letter, asking if I had any more poems he could publish. For a young poet this is an unforgettable experience, a debt of sorts. This was what I was feeling when I wrote to the Studies Center.

A few weeks later, I received a letter from Robert E. Daggy, then the Center’s Director/Curator, with some information on the photographs. But he didn’t stop there. To my delight, Dr. Daggy informed me that there was also a manuscript, and offered to send me a photocopy. The winter of 1978-79 was a particularly cold one in Santa Fe. I was hibernating in a claustrophobic apartment, cold even with the heater on, accompanied only by the family of mice who visited at night. On the day the manuscript arrived, with Merton’s penciled corrections still visible on the photocopy, my life began to warm up.

The manuscript, which he had titled Woods, Shore, Desert, identified itself not just with Thomas Merton’s deep grasp of the Christian tradition, but also deployed quotes from the Astavakra Gita, an extraordinary text that is one of the Vedantic roots of Buddhism. Although he set a Catholic table—"Return to the sources. Vernacular use of the Bible and the Fathers. Emphasis on redemption and grace. Emphasis on liberty or a more flexible idea of authority. They were ruined by the authoritarians"—it was a rueful one. I also noticed how Buddhism had refocused the base of his thinking: "Fatal emphasis (in a monastic life) on acquiring something. What about this imperative? Does it make sense? ‘Convince yourself that you exist!’ Baloney!" (He is referring to Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of Existentialism.)

As I was acquainted with the director of The Museum of New Mexico Press, I took the manuscript to him. After months of negotiation between the Press and the Trustees of the Merton Estate, I signed a contract to write an introduction, and to annotate the myriad references alluded to in the text.

To begin, I wanted to get a sense of the man who was perhaps the greatest Christian mystic of the 20th Century, and yet had remained so unabashedly human; who, in midst of scholastic remarks, could write "Baloney!" Besides reading many of his books—I had already read everything he had written on Zen Buddhism—I visited the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, near Abiquiu NM, where a portion of Woods, Shore, Desert takes place. (The balance of the book was written in that part of northern California where "The country which is nowhere is the real home; only it seems that the Pacific Shore at Needle Rock is more nowhere than this, and Bear Harbor is more nowhere still".

Merton’s two short stays at Christ in the Desert had become part of that monastery’s mythology. Although the essence of monastic living is that of a close-knit family, without subsuming this, following in the steps of Fr. Merton several monks had become semi-hermits, and a few of them began practicing zazen. His spirit seemed to infuse the humor and lightheartedness of the Brothers, as well as in the river and mountains beyond. "Distant sound of muddy rushing water in the Chama River below me. I could use up rolls of film on nothing but these rocks. The whole canyon replete with emptiness." During my short stay there, I was bitten by a red ant. In retrospect at least, it was an exquisite pain, a love bite from indigenous inhabitants of that harsh, uncompromising, yet sacred, land.

I also visited Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, in Pecos, New Mexico, and discussed Merton and monastic orders with the monks. To several of the monks, Merton had become a hierophant, a spiritual guide to a life not just of meditation and prayer, but—as he had been a outspoken advocate of peace and social justice--also of ethical concerns that lay beyond the monastery’s walls.

Although each one of us must make our own journey toward the Infinite, masters like Merton are markers by which we can measure how far we still have to go in detaching ourselves from the countless illusions presented to us along the way. That he walked the path of the dominant Western spiritual tradition, and yet came to embrace a truly ecumenical practice is, I suggest, the crux of his message.

In reading Merton’s books, one can hardly avoid the many pictures of him, which slowly worked themselves into my subconscious. The genuine smile contrasted with eyes that beamed wisdom, the burden of his intimate relationship with God balanced with the comedy of the Void he knew was behind the personae, the "Masks of God," in the famous words of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. I hadn’t drawn for more than ten years, when one sunny afternoon, sitting on front steps of the roomy house I had recently moved to, I began to sketch Merton’s compelling face. After completing a series of sketches, I started to fashion his likeness with strands of wire from clothes hangers. (It is only now that I remember something Peter Nabokov wrote to me about when he met Merton: "I felt like a clothes hanger made of wire beside him").

When I found that the wire looked more like an armature than a completed work, and that it was also too pliant, I bought a tube of Liquid Steel ™ and applied it sparingly to the sculpture’s joints. But the more of the gray toxic substance I added, the more I felt I needed to add, until, dozens of tubes later, I had built half of Merton’s face out of the hardened paste. Into its surfaces I rubbed various colored waxes, then a protective layer of varnish. The other half, the exposed wire, I painted with red acrylic. My thought was that Merton’s work on himself, as representative of all our spiritual endeavors, was only half-finished, as humanity is still evolving into being; and non-being too.

The finished piece, owned by the Merton Center, Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY., is titled "Thomas Merton-Mask.." Woods, Shore, Desert—A Notebook, May 1968, With Photographs by the Author was published in 1982, and continues to remain in print.

Joel Weishaus 2003