What of the Paradox of the Night?

I like it when I am able to use material for two different things.  This inspirational piece is one of those opportunities.  I am responsible to write an article on another facet of Thomas Merton’s spirituality.  Although this is a task that requires some work, I am happy to do it.  Much of the satisfaction comes from having to dip back into Merton’s writings to see what he has to say about a particular theme.  In this case, the theme I am giving focus is “the mercies of the night.”
   
I chose to work with this theme because for Merton and for myself, mercy is an important idea.  Of course, it is a theological theme---even doctrine, if you will.  Certainly, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, it is commonplace to talk about the mercy of God.  Mercy is much like grace.  It is an undeserved gift.  Mercy is God reaching out to us when we have no reason to expect that. 
   
I also know how important the theme of the night is for Merton.  To talk about the night does not seem special when we think only of the period of the entire day when the sun has set and darkness surrounds us.  Night lasts until the inbreaking of the new day’s sunlight.  It is clear to me Merton makes much of this literal night.  But he also takes the literal night into the metaphorical night.  Associated images come into play with this metaphorical move.  Merton can introduce correlative themes like darkness, emptiness and not knowing. 
   
One of his writings I plan to spend a great deal of time analyzing is the epilogue of his book, The Sign of Jonas.  The book was published in 1953, but we know Merton began writing it five years after entering the monastery at Gethsemani (1941).  This is one of my favorite books from Merton’s pen.  In the book, Merton reflects on his day to day life in this Trappist monastery in Kentucky.  In so doing he is really reflecting on his vocation as a monk.  Merton is very intentional in choosing the name, Jonas (Jonah), the well-known prophet of the Old Testament who spends some time in the belly of a great fish (or, whale, as I learned in Sunday School).
   
Merton shares his rationale for choosing Jonah the prophet as the chief symbol of himself and the book.  In the prologue Merton says, “A Monk can always legitimately and significantly compare himself to a prophet, because the monks are the heirs of the prophets.”  Then he continues with a couple sentences I find interesting and to which I can relate.  Merton acknowledges, “Every prophet is a sign and witness of Christ.  Every monk, in whom Christ lives, and in whom all the prophecies are therefore fulfilled, is a witness and a sign of the Kingdom of God.  Even our mistakes are eloquent, more than we know.”  I would add all this is true not only of monks, but for all of us as believers and spiritual pilgrims heading to our own destinies.
   
In the book, Merton develops his idea that he senses that his vocation in the monastery is leading him to his destiny.  But this trip toward destiny in, oddly, in the belly of paradox.  To understand the idea of “belly of paradox,” Merton continues with the Jonah theme.  He declares, “The sign of Jesus promised to the generation that did not understand Him was the ‘sign of Jonas the prophet’---that is, the sign of his own resurrection.  Hence the key to understanding Jonah---at least from the Christian standpoint---is the resurrection.  One can see here a link to the great fish (whale) and the tomb holding the dead Jesus. 
   
Merton continued this thematic development.  “The life of every monk, of every priest, of every Christian is signed with the sign of Jonas, because we all live by the power of Christ’s resurrection.”  This could have been all Merton said about the topic and it would have been sufficient.  There is much to understand even to this point.  In a sense, Jonah presages not only Jesus, but every believer.  We all have life---new life right now in faith---by the power of the resurrection.  But Merton does not stop here.  He personalizes it.
   
Merton claims, “But I feel that my own life is especially sealed with this great sign, which baptism and monastic profession and priestly ordination have burned into the roots of my being, because like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”  This powerful sign is the way to read the entire book which we are giving focus.  Of course, there will be many themes, but being in the belly of the whale (paradox) is to be locked in darkness and obscurity.
   
This is the key theme to which Merton turns at the end of the book in his epilogue.  It is in darkness---at night---that Merton learns how really to learn.  So much of this will be paradoxical.  For example, he will learn that he must unlearn what he knows to go forward.  He has to stay in the night---remain in darkness---in order to be brought paradoxically to the light.
   
This is a fascinating and eventful journey.  We will come back to this on another occasion.  

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