In yesterday’s inspirational piece I commented over of the most recent issue of The Merton Seasonal. That is a quarterly publication by the International Thomas Merton Society, which continues to spread the message of the late twentieth century monk, Thomas Merton. Although Merton died in 1968, his writings, poetry and photographs still speak to the spiritual seeker of the twenty-first century.
That recent volume had a wonderful drawing on the front cover by my friend and Ursuline nun, Sister Donna Kristoff. Beneath the drawing are a few words from my favorite book of Merton’s, namely, New Seeds of Contemplation. The words fit the drawing, upon which I commented yesterday. In this piece I would like to ponder Merton’s words.
Thomas Merton said, “As we go about the world everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch…plants in us…something of heaven.” For those of us who know Merton’s works fairly well, this is vintage Merton. It is simple, yet elegant---much like the drawing from Sr. Donna. It is important to recall that drawing pictures a solitary figure walking down a deep, snowy path through woods that are framed by a bunch of evergreen trees. Merton---if that is Merton---or any of us making this pilgrimage through life, is deep in nature, which Merton feels is the product of a creative Author of beauty.
No doubt, something like this experience prompted Merton to write the words just cited. “As we go about the world…” Who among us is not going about in the world? If you are alive, you are going about in the world. It may be scintillating or boring, an adventure or blasé. The real issue is not whether we are going about in the world. The real issue is how we are going about in the world? That’s the spiritual question that Merton lifts up.
Merton’s words are prompts for us to be aware and to pay attention. These are two necessary aspects of any kind of spiritual growth and development. We cannot be spiritually alive without being spiritually sensitive and attentive. We can’t get it if we miss it! Merton’s words are a simple recipe, but they work.
“Everything we meet…” This reinforces my assumption that he means nature, at least as much as people. He could have said “everyone” we meet, but he chose “everything.” That is a good reminder for me. I value the role people play in my spiritual vitality…and that’s good. But the world is bigger than people. Am I aware of the nature in which I live? Do I see the trees and the flowers? Can I appreciate the rain, the wind and the sun? Am I oblivious to the obvious? If the answer is “yes,” then I can’t be very spiritual.
“Everything we see and hear and touch…” Merton checks off three of the five senses we use to engage the world in which we live. I think about the biblical passage that asks, “do you have eyes but fail to see?” (Mk 8:18) I have eyes to see, but how often does my spiritual eyesight fail me? With my lenses, my eyesight is 20/20, but I may still be spiritually blind! It is time to wake up.
Everything we hear asks the same question that seeing posed. If nature speaks to me, do I hear it? Have I learned the language of nature? Or is it really music and the birds are the singers? What do I miss in my fast-paced race through life? Where am I going that is so important that it matters not what I miss on the journey?
Everything I touch… I am not sure I know much at all about spiritual touch. You would think a farm boy would know a great deal about touch, but the way we farmed was more like an industry than like the Amish. When I was with animals would be the time I learned the most about the touch of nature. But I think I need a remedial course! I need to walk in the woods more.
The key to Merton’s line comes at the end. As we go about in the world…everything…plants in us something of heaven. I like how he picks up on my agricultural metaphor. I am happy to think about heaven as a seed that is planted in each one of us. It is not necessary to have a fully developed theological understanding of heaven in order to have that seed planted in us.
I have enough faith in the Divine Sower that whatever heavenly seed is implanted in me will be good, beautiful and full of love. I am quite fine if heaven is not a place---happy finally to go nowhere. I actually would be delighted if heaven is actually space---a good space, a beautiful space and a loving space.
I think it would be just like a creative Artist (one way I like to picture God) to plant a rich variety of seeds in each of us. Maybe heaven will mimic nature with its variegated presence and power. I want to see my trip through life as a walk in the woods where everything that is done makes me available to have something of heaven planted in me.