Near the end of his life, during a trip to Asia in 1968, Trappist monk, poet, theologian, and social activist Thomas Merton (shown below) came away from seeing ancient carved Buddhas deeply moved. “I don’t know what else remains,” Merton wrote, “but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.” Merton studied comparative theology not to reduce other faiths to some shadow of his own Christianity, but rather to synthesize them into some deeper, common belief that “pierced through the surface” to get “beyond the shadow and disguise.” Zen Buddhism struck a chord within Merton as achieving the same sense of interior wholeness that mystics such as Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross had in the Christian tradition. For Merton, a man deeply steeped in words, however, writing failed to convey the wordless qualities of Zen. A Hidden Wholeness: The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton, a new exhibition to mark the centennial of Merton’s birth, demonstrates how Merton found in photography the perfect medium for his Zen studies, not just to make images of Zen, but also to practice Zen itself.
For non-traditional Catholics and theologians, Merton remains a compelling figure, nearly half a century after his death. Merton’s 1948 bestselling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, considered by some one of the finest nonfiction books of the 20th century, inspired the ‘50s generation to consider the clergy, but later inspired the ‘60s generation (and all those that followed) to see religious faith as another aspect of the countercultural. Merton’s radical faith of action and outreach across political and denominational lines remains a fascinating example for study today, as shown by this exhibition designed by the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University (www.merton.org).
In “Through A Glass Purely,” Deba P. Patnaik, a personal friend of Merton, sees this paradox of extraordinary in the ordinary not only in Merton himself and his pictures, but also in Merton’s choice of photography itself. Many comments by Merton about photography can appear to be “undercutting” or “sophistical,” Patnaik writes, but really praised photography’s ability to bridge paradox. “One could argue,” Patnaik continues, “knowing Merton’s paradoxical inclination, photography attracted him because it inheres paradox. It is the most fleeting and ephemeral among the arts — painting, graphics, and sculpture. Yet, it attempts to arrest time and space.” Momentary yet everlasting, unremarkable yet noteworthy, worthless yet invaluable — the subjects of Merton’s photographs simultaneously embrace and celebrate the subjects and the method of visually framing those subjects for contemplation. “In their lucidity, simplicity, and lack of self-projection,” Patnaik concludes, “they echo Merton’s remark on Zen: ‘If Zen has any preference it is for glass that is plain, has no color, and is “just glass.”’” In the sometimes dizzying world of stained glass reality, full of color and complexity, Merton looked through the camera’s lens and saw a world of black and white simplicity that balanced out all the paradoxes, transforming them from confusing to enlightening.
[Images: Photographs by Thomas Merton. Used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University (www.merton.org). Photograph of Thomas Merton in study via Wikipedia.]
[Many thanks to the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University for providing me with the images above and other press materials related to the exhibition A Hidden Wholeness: The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton, currently at the Villanova University Art Gallery, Villanova, PA, until September 24, 2015.]