Z is for Zen

Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem to, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it?… Where there is a lot of fuss about “spirituality,” “enlightenment,” or just “turning on,” it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen…

Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the “nothing,” the “no-body” that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.

Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite

Circling, circling, circling — riding the currents high above the Frio River

More than any other quote, I struggled with this one — probably because I struggled with Merton’s interest in Zen and eastern mysticism. It seemed like a betrayal of Christ.

John Coleman, in his article “Thomas Merton and Dialogue with Buddhism“, said,

Merton who early on in his career showed a keen interest in dialogue with the religions of Asia (Hinduism, Sufism as well as Buddhism) tended to think such dialogue should, primarily, focus on practice and experience and less on doctrine or beliefs, as such.

Yes, that’s what I was hoping. As part of Thomas Merton’s search for contemplative experience, he stepped outside Christian tradition, but not Christian faith. It wasn’t about doctrine; it was about experience.

Goodreads said about Zen and the Birds of Appetite, “Never does one feel him losing his own faith in these pages; rather one feels that faith getting deeply clarified and affirmed. Just as the body of ‘Zen’ cannot be found by the scavengers, so too, Merton suggests, with the eternal truth of Christ.”

Below are two pages from Day of a Stranger, a book where Merton tries to describe a typical day in his hermitage. The book contains musings, thoughts, an imaginary conversation, and, best of all, some of his photographs. If you read these two pages, though, you’ll see that he doesn’t directly answer the questions regarding Zen — and it makes me think that, like the scavengers not finding the carrion because it wasn’t the right prey, perhaps we aren’t asking the right questions.

from Day of a Stranger by Thomas Merton
from Day of a Stranger by Thomas Merton


Y is for Yahweh

Yahweh glorifies His Name
by refusing to let it be
a quasi-magical means
subservient to man’s will.

Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration

I don’t have a picture of Yahweh, but I do think the moon is quasi-magical.

X is for eXactly

The monastic body is held together
not by human admirations and enthusiasms
which make men heroes and saints before their time
but on the sober truth
which accepts men
as they are
in order to help them become
what they ought to be.

Thomas Merton, The Silent Life

Can you imagine if we all lived like that — accepting people as they are, in order to help them become what they ought to be ?

from the Franciscan Monastery in Dubrovnik




W is for Worship

Is Christian worship to be communion in correctness or communion in love?

Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration

Art work created in community at a conference called Hutchmoot (2016). There, people from many different Christian faith traditions worship in love. It’s a beautiful thing.

Sometimes we’re so concerned about being right, that we forget:

In essentials unity
In non-essentials liberty
In all things charity

(not Thomas Merton, likely not Augustine, maybe Rupertus Meldenius or Marco Antonio de Dominis)

V is for Value

We are so obsessed with doing
that we have no time
and no imagination left
for being.
As a result,
men are valued
not for what they are
but for what they do
or what they have
for their usefulness.

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

(Emphasis mine)

Although sometimes what a man has
— homemade shortbread sent for a birthday —
is because of who he is
and not because of what he has done.
While he has done a lot in his life,
more importantly he has been
loving, and

U is for Utter

God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say
that love is the reason for my existence,
for God is love.
Love is my true identity.
Selflessness is my true character.
Love is my name.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
The pocket mirror I carried during Lent (and my father’s reflection in it)

For the past several years during Lent, I have carried a mindfulness object to remind myself of something Christ-centered during that holy season.  This year I carried a little pocket mirror on which I had written the first three words of today’s quote by Thomas Merton.

And these were some of my thoughts about his words —

What if, instead of the four Greek words for love, or instead of the five ways to say “I love you” in Mandarin, or instead of the nine ways to say it in Russian — what if, at any given time on the planet Earth, there are over 7 billion words for Love, uttered by God Himself, and they each have a face, and hands, and feet?

What if each time God utters a person into being, He’s saying another word containing a partial thought of Him — and that word is Love?

What if I am a word for love? Am I living my life in such a way that others can see that?



T is for True

Therefore, if you spend your life
trying to escape from the heat of the fire
that is meant to soften and prepare to become your true self…
you will be destroyed by the event
that was meant to be your fulfillment.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

New Seeds of Contemplation (Thomas Merton) — the sealing wax analogy

So often I pray not to be brittle.

S is for Show

Do not think that you can show your love for Christ by hating those who seem to be His enemies on earth.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

In Bosnia mosques and churches stand side by side.

R is for Revelation

The language of revelation is mysterious,
not in order that its meaning may be concealed from us,
but in order that we may be moved to seek it with a more fervent love.

Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness

Easter egg hunt 2017

There is great joy in the finding.

Q is for Questions

A monk ought not to inquire how this one acts or how that one lives.
Questions like this take us away from prayer and draw us on to backbiting and chatter.
There is nothing better than to keep silent.

Thomas Merton, Wisdom of the Desert

Sometimes there are no words.