Metamorphosis, changing form or transformation, is a key word in our Christian-Judaic traditions. As a matter of fact, it is in all world religions because it is the heart of the spiritual way. It moves between our most intimate self, the soul, and that which transcends us – in complete reciprocity. This process is conceived and expressed in terms like form, deform, reform, conformity, and with the ultimate aim: transformation, in the Image of the Divine.
As an introduction to this year’s theme from the discipline of spirituality I am turning to the life and works of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968). He himself was not only a monk, but an artist as well. As such he was a prolific writer and poet, and later in life became a photographer and (modest) visual artist. For him, both monks and artists are, or should be, people who live a contemplative life. This means, people who are ‘deliberately seeking to live in the margins of society, outside of all establishment, with a view to deepening fundamental human experience.’ (Merton 1968) Being a marginal is similar to being free to be a true self, because in the margins there are no masks to be held up because it is there where we meet the limits of everything and go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and become free to be a ‘witness to life’. For Merton the fact that there are always people who dare to seek the margin of society is a small message of hope: ‘(…) people who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. (…) And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion.’ (Merton 1968) It is the vocation of monks and artists, for every human being really, to grow into a true self. This is the spiritual way. It is an ongoing process of emptying oneself in order to be able to be fully awake, in being fully receptive to our surroundings and response to life, people, nature and cosmos with a warm embrace. Merton tells us over and over again to not only look, but see, through the inner and outer eye of Divine Love. Just because of this very specific (mystical) perception, Merton himself also grew a very conscious and critical mind and had an outspoken voice. His aim eventually was not only an inner transformation, but a metamorphosis of the world. He invites us to go on the journey with him, ‘to move from alienation toward community and wholeness.’ ‘Alienation begins when culture divides me against myself, puts a mask on me, gives me a role I may or not may want to play.’ (Merton 1984) He points to the alienation in which we are living in the contemporary world. We are alienated from our selves by our economic structure and the falseness of modern culture. His prayer is for us to move into wholeness and healing. As monk and artist, he is receptive to the uneasiness of this alienation, feeling it ‘itch’. It is about seeing and experiencing God’s blueprint in everything. But this blueprint requires an awareness and sensitivity to be seen and read.
Artists have much in common with the prophet and in accepting their vocation, they becomes homo cooperator. For Merton, goodness (ethics) and beauty (aesthetics) are two ways of finding God. He viewed both as an extension of the divine creation. Moreover, aesthetic awareness, opened human beings to the “interior sanctuary of the soul”. Aesthetic perception allowed the artist to see being in its ultimate sense:
‘There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, my own nature, and the gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.’ (Merton 1977)
Returning to the theme of the Mandorla Art Award for 2022: as a monk and artist Thomas Merton is a spiritual guide in the metamorphosis of humanity and creation into the Divine Image. All artists are invited to enter the competition, from the margins, a space of freedom, from which you can tune into dissonances, and enter into the cosmic dance of metamorphosis of the inner landscape of your soul, in dialogue with the world around you:
‘(…) we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.’ (Merton 1961)
Merton, T. (1961). New Seeds of Contemplation. New York, Toronto, New Directions.
Merton, T. (1968). The Asian Journal. New York, New Directions.
Merton, T. (1977). The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. New York, New Directions.
Merton, T. (1984). The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton. New York, New Directions.
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
To speak your
To the living walls.
Who are you?
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?
Who (be quiet)
Are you (as these stones
Are quiet). Do not
Think of what you are
Still less of
What you may one day be.
Be what you are (but who?) be
The unthinkable one
You do not know.
O be still, while
You are still alive,
And all things live around you
Speaking (I do not hear)
To your own being,
Speaking by the Unknown
That is in you and in themselves.
“I will try, like them
To be my own silence:
And this is difficult. The whole
World is secretly on fire. The stones
Burn, even the stones
They burn me. How can a man be still or
Listen to all things burning? How can he dare
To sit with them when
All their silence
Is on fire?”
Sylvia Grevel, PhD Candidate: Innovation of Spiritual Care by the Arts, and Committee member, Mandorla Art Award.