Merton and art

Reading Angelic Mistakes: the Art of Thomas Merton, edited by Roger Lipsey (2006). The heart of the book is the collection of images of Merton’s inkbrush work, with selected passages from his writings. The untitled art works are expressionist, and towards the end of Merton’s life, despite the increasing influence of Eastern thought, his work still reflected the untrained dilettante working for his own creativity.

One can see why, as editor Lipsey notes, these works should remain fairly obscure except for Merton devotees. Although born of artist parents, Merton had no formal training and nearly despaired of attempting to work out a theory of art within his Catholic tradition, which did not address non-religious art, especially not expressionist or modern.

Not until the mid-sixties did two confluences encourage Merton: his achievement of hermit status, with his own quarters as a hermit, and his discovery of Zen calligraphy and D. T. Suzuki.

As to Merton’s hermit status, Lipsey concludes: “It was the solitude of the hermitage. Had there been no hermitage, there would have been no art.” As to the influence of Zen on his art, Merton described his works as “neither rustic nor urbane, Eastern nor Western, perhaps can be called … Zen Catholicism” — here using Aelred Graham’s famous book title.

The book does not delve into the effect of being a hermit (well, Merton was never completely a hermit) on Merton’s art, but choice passages from his writings do show this effect. “It is true,” Merton wrote in his Turning Towards the World, “places and situations are not supposed to matter. This one [referring to his hermitage] makes a tremendous difference. Real silence. Real solitude. Peace.” So much so that in the Notebooks, Merton came to refer to his sessions working on art as “collaborations with solitude.”

The presence of Zen in his awareness was transformative, and we will never know how far Merton would have taken it. It was certainly transformative for his creativity: “What really matters to me is meditation — and whatever creative work really springs from it,” he wrote in The Other Side of the Mountain.

Zen and his Christianity, Zen and his creativity, Zen and his whole personality — this was uppermost in his last years. Merton nearly predicted where he was going: “Suddenly there is a point where religion becomes laughable. Then you decide that you are nevertheless religious.”