It was raining the night Thomas Merton began his essay on "Rain and the Rhinoceros." The rain surrounded the hermitage as quietly and mysteriously, as comprehensively as grace or love can surround the human spirit. Rain seems to have no origin except its own spontaneity, no purpose except its own rhythm, no limit except its own boundary.
A human life gains depth from the experiences it encounters. These experiences may be exotic, extraordinary, like encountering the presence of one's decesed father in a hotel room or praying in ecstasy before Buddhas a few days before one dies. More often, the experiences which bring us depth are simple, familiar, ordinary, like praying at a Liturgy in Cuba or standing at a busy corner in Louisville.
The entire sacramental theology of the Church is premised on the belief that the ordinary is mysterious, eventually infinite, inevitably divine. Bread and wine and oil and water are, at first sight, not extraordinary. Every poet knows, however, what every good theologian affirms, namely that grace is everywhere and that nothing which exists is superficial. Ordinary reality is an oxymoron. Sacramental celebration is an encounter with the deepest dimensions of bread and wine or with the endless possibilities of existence, creation and the material world.
If grace is everywhere, then anything can be sacramental. Or, better, everything is sacramental. On some nights, rain is the sacrament. On this night, it was.
Merton's own records note that he finished the essay on December 20, 1964. Four years later, also in December, he will die in Asia and be buried, a week later at Gethsemani. The essay was sent to Holiday magazine where it appeared in May 1965. It was published as the lead article in a collection of Merton's writings Raids on the Unspeakable in 1966.
We are dealing with a late work of Merton, coming at a time when his life was reaching synthesis and resolution, at least as far as this was possible for such a turbulent and unpredictable personality.
In any case, Merton, assessing Raids, writes to June Yungblut, his Quaker friend, that he feels "happy" about the collection. He believes it to be "more personal, more literary, more contemplative" than his other work. The letter is dated March 6, 1968, the calendar year of his death. He lists, in addition to Raids, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, New Seeds of Contemplation, and Sign of Jonas.
The rain reaches the poet in Merton. He begins his essay with references to the ordinary gifts of an apparently unremarkable day. He arrives at the hermitage in the darkness, walking through the cornfields after Vespers, listening to the rain as the aroma of toasted bread and the warmth of a log fire envelope him. Merton evokes the elemental experiences which define our lives: bread and fire, rain and darkness, cornfields and prayer.
There had always been a tension in Merton between conformity and confronting. He is a prophet-- with a vow of obedience. It is the prophet who reaches us most deeply. Merton has a way of belonging which keeps him from being predictable. He is, indeed, a monk but he has crafted for himself the script for playing this role and living out this vocation.
Polarities are often another way of reaching the same point rather than opposities. Prophecy and obedience may not be as different as they seem, Merton learned that secularity and monasticism were linked. He saw this most clearly at a street corner in Louisville.
This night it is Eugene Ionesco's Play The Rhinoceros which leads him into contemplation. He confronts the work at hand but also himself and all of us. His genius lies in his ability to keep these many dimensions going and to write in clear compelling prose.
The rain is unrelenting, God-like in its pervasiveness and its gentleness, in the relief it brings and the challenges it poses, in its capacity to make us eager for it and reticent at one and the same time. The darkness makes the rain mysterious. The sound is everywhere and yet one sees nothing. Merton tells us he sits absolutely alone, deep in the forest, late at night. Here, he writes, "in this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again." It is a silent night, and the rain intensifies the silence, the way music envelopes us in sound as it creates silence in our souls.
On this night Merton will assess the tensions between prophecy and obedience. He will raise questions about grace and collectivity, about creativity and compulsion. It is a night of some importance for his spiritual life and ours.
1. Systems and Silence
What does Merton see and what moves him to appreciate The Rhinoceros so readily?
Eugene ionesco's own analysis of his play is that it indicts those who are always in a rush, who have no time, who have lost the need for solitude and have bcome prisoners of necessity. Such people are depicted as a herd of rhinoceroses. The play is an atempt to summon people to preserve their individuality, to honor their conscience and to resist the pressure to conform at all costs.
Ionesco's play resonates with themes Merton had affirmed through his entire life. It is a play he might have written and one, therefore, he celebrates and promotes.
Merton comes to the monastery because he is unwilling to live a life of conformity. He is driven by a mystic need to be his own person. He does not wish to be a conformist. This leads him, early on, to reject the conventionalities of French and English culture and later, of academic life. He opposes military service, the rigidities of capitalist societies, and the inexorabilities of secular life. He turns to the Catholic Church with a passion as a counter-culture experience and to the monastery as a relief from expectations now become necessities. He does not want to be infected with rhinoceritis.
For a time, for a long time, Catholicism and monastic life rescue him. In the fnal decade of his life, he begins to feel trapped by the very experiences which kept him from being a prison of necessity. There is, therefore, a massive display of non-conformist behaviors, of apparently contradictory choices, and startling decisions. He emerges as a hermit on a lecture circuit, a celibate who has not resolved his romantic needs, a Christian who is mystically bonded to Buddhism, a monk who wishes to live alone, a Cistercian who is deeply involved in social protest, a man in Asia with commitments to return to Gethsemani, Nicarauga, and a continental search for a place where he can separate himself from a secular world he will not relinquish.
There are, of course, continuities in his life which go deeper than this surface restlessness. But one of these continuities is an aversion to conformism. He writes to Robert Lax, his friend, in A Catch of Anti-Letters, that settled systems sicken him. Systems are the adversary. He does not want to be a captive whetehr playing prisoner's base as a child or becoming a prisoner of necessity in later life. He shifts identities and opinions with startling rapidity and, at times, it seems, without even a passing reference to where he was a short while before this. There is a unity beneath these multiple possibilities which keeps his life stable and creative. But the unity eludes him and his friends often and for long periods of time.
When Merton comes upon Ionesco's play at mid-point in the final decade of his life, he is primed to rsonate with it. The theatre of the absurd is a congenial environment for anti-poets who wander in lands called Lograire, sending cables of misunderstanding to the world at large, fascinated with the improvisations of jazz and the incongruities of modern art.
Merton registers a silent rebellion of the spirit against the fleshy demands of systems. His protest liberates him and all who catch his vision. He would find, I believe, the restorationist mentality in the CatholicChurch as oppressive and confining as he found the pre-conciliar Catholicism of his first years in the momastery.
Ecclesiology as rhinoceritis is neither evangelical nor lovable. Both Ionesco and Merton reject rigid systems of rationalism, absoluteness, and infallibility. Merton's last decade of life was focused on protest against tyrannies in political or monastic circles, against economic or ecclesiastical arrangements which benefit the few at the expense of hte many. He finds freedom at various times from all this in Gethsemani, in the Hermitage, in Zen and Desert Mystics.
More dangerous than the appearance of the first rhinoceros is the acceptance of this by the many who endorse the drift toward rhinoceritis.
It was not the appearance of Nazi officials in Germany and in Europe at large which made the Holocoust possible but the endorsement of their policies by the many. It is not the first ecclesiastical decrees which kill the spirit of a community but the enforcement of them by local leaders and passive believers. Eventually, rationalizations justify the legitimacy of the unjustifiable by those about to become rhinoceroses in Ionesco's play or in fascist political systems or on various levels of Church life.
A sign that conformism has driven out conscience and that individuality has been destroyed is the meaningless use of language. Merton deals with this in The Tower of Babel, Cables to the Ace, and Geography of Lograire. We suffer from the malady of conformity that Ionesco calls "rhinoceritis" when our language makes about as much sense as a series of snorts and bellows.
As Ionesco's play progresses, people speak in platitudes rather than addressing the crisis. Their language, like the speech of politicians or befuddled Church administrators, is an excursion into triviality. Those who speak such a language are always beside the point in their references.
One is reminded, in the Nazi era, of discussions about obedience rather than examing the character and content of the orders. Efficiency, train schedules, and camp management were analyzed but not the extermination and genocide which were the real issue.
One is also struck by those in Church circles who encourage people to wish for rather than work for the solution of problems and crises. One may, for example, hear rhinoceros sounds about praying for ministers to serve God's People while supporting policies which assure the shortage. Is not human language lost as some trumpet sounds about marital status and gender even though these issues are peripheral to ministerial identity and performance? Language is used to rationalize a position already declared rather than to clarify and explain in a convincing manner. Can one hear a rhinoceros summons in angry appeals to terminate all discourse and even thinking on an issue because an infallible authority has been invoked?
What does one do about a herd mentality which waits for a lead rhinoceros to determine the direction one should take? Would not Merton enjoy the humor even as he deplored the crisis?
Merton withdraws from the systems which wither his spirit by silently exempting himself from their influence. In the silence, the toxicity of the herd is purged and the sources of language in his life are refreshed. When Merton writes Seven Storey Mountain, Seeds of Contemplation, Sign of Jonas, Conjectures and other books he shows us a person who has been cured of rhinoceritis. He writes with elegance and grace, on the point, at the heart of the matter.
2. Theatre And Hermitage
Eugene Ionesco was born in Rumania in 1912. He grew up in Paris. Rhinoceros was performed for the first time in 1958. This marked the period when Merton began to change course, moving from monastic and ecclesial systems which once offered liberation but were now confining.
Ionesco chose the stage for his statement; Merton, the hermitage.
Ionesco directed The Rhinoceros against the tyranny of usefulness. The reduction of human value to practicality and economics troubled him. Ionesco wanted a flower to be a flower, existence to be existence, justified in their own right without reference to utility for their meaning. The play alerts us, therefore, to the grace of gratuity, to the festivity of speech and relationship, to the celebration of life on its own terms.
Merton catches the mood of the play exactly by his reflection on rain. Ionesco could not want for a more effective antidote to rhinoceritis than a monk, committed to silence, attentive to the rain in the early morning darkness of a hermitage.
Merton was consistently aware of the anonymous community we forge with people whose spirit is bonded with ours. Often, we never meet them; sometimes their agenda is adversarial, at least on the surface. Nonetheless we form together the company of those who defend life under siege and we collaborate with them without knowing clearly the identities of those who make common cause with us.
Merton notes in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that we must not suppose that the truth is smaller than we are. This supposition leads to belligerence as we seek to defend that which might be destroyed if we are not vigilant. We might be provoked to attack other human beings who are, we judge, in error, consciously or not and whose error is a threat to the fragile truth we guard. The Catholic Church, Merton writes, tends to assume that it is larger than the truth.
In reality, the truth is larger than we are. Our calling is to serve it rather than defend it. The truth will prevail, in spite of us if need be, and it will set us free.
A life or a Church built on the conviction that truth is indestructible releases us from the burden of necessity and brings us a spirit of festivity.
Merton's observations in Conjectures prepare the way for "Rain and The Rhinoceros." Freed from the onerous demands of duty, we turn readily to rain and poetry, to creation and liturgy, to humor and community. Merton does not invite us to a quietism which amounts to a disengagement from responsibility. His life and work hardly move in that direction. He counsels, instead, a peaceful engagement for the sake of others and for the sake of the truth, an engagement necessitating neither violence nor fear.
One may prefer the theatre or the hermitage for this engagement but the truth is easily at home in either setting.
One of Merton's greatest contributions was this ability to find truth where it abides. He sought to follow its lead rather than to decide beforehand that there were places where the truth could not be found. He transcended, as truth does, the artificial boundaries lesser spirits devise to contain and preserve it.
The Church may just as easily become an arbitrary boundary as may the more obvious false limits imposed by race, ethnicity, or gender. The truth is innocent of constructs devised by fearful and self-serving systems. The truth breaks through these obstacles with pentecostal suddeness and creates a universal language of its making. Truth knows neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. It is simply everywhere, able to emerge anywhere.
This sense of gratuity and tranquility is at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus finds the truth in Samaritans and Jews, in Romans and Greeks, in sinners and children, in executioners and victims in sycamore trees and lost sheep, in the Temple and by the lake in Scripture and the harvest, in bread and wine, in life and death. Truth has no boundaries nor, perhaps, privileged places. It is always gift, not possession. Like rain, it is simply there as a graccious presence.
The hermitage is the theatre of the absurd in another key, challenging reason, logic, and cognition at the boundaries where they limit life with sober necessities and grim practicalities.
Merton finds kinship with Henry David Thoreau whose priorities seem, at first sight so different from his. Thoreau sat in his cabin, Merton writes, and criticized the railways. "I sit in mine and wonder about a world that has, well, progressed." Where he and Thoreau are united most impressively is in the solitude and in the resistance to collectivity. "Just being in the woods, at night, in the cabin, is something too excellent to be justified or explained."
Merton goes to the monastery and the hermitage for the same reasons Ionesco goes to the theatre, to satisfy a deep need in himself, to respond to a summons that he give witness on behalf of truth. Merton goes on stage, so to speak, from the cloister, so that he will not be a guilty bystander seeking his own salvation. Gregory Zilboorg, the Harvard psychiatrist, once indicted Merton sharply for always calling attention to his life, even in a hermitage. Zilboorg is right in the observation but wrong in the motive. He attributes Merton's sense of theatre to narcissism rather than compassion. Compassion feels the other's pain even though one is already comfortable in one's own life.
Merton is anxious that his monastic life not become self-indulgent. He is even more insistent that the contemplative life not be seen as exotic but as readily available to all, as is the rain, with the joy and festivity rain brings with it.
The absurd into which ionesco's play and Merton's late poetry drift is not chosen for its own sake. This would neither be helpful nor welcome. The absurd, however, set in a larger context, is fatih by another name; it is Easter, shattering all rational categories, after the irreversibility of the cross and the necessity of the tomb are overcome.
On the surface, Ionesco and Merton are worlds apart. On a deeper level, theatre and hermitage are different ways of serving the truth and preserving people from inauthentic living.
3. Protest and Prayer
When Berenger, the protagonist in The Rhinoceros, cries out: "I just can't get used to life," he speaks on behalf of Thoreau, Ionesco, and Merton. Berenger's problem is not life itself but its enforced unncecessary and destructive conventionalities.
The difference between Thoreau and Ionesco on the one hand and Merton on the other is not the purpose or the benefit of the protest. In these matters, there are mostly similarities.
Thoreau and Ionesco envision a fully enlightened humanity, self-contained, as the ultimate stage of human development. Merton affirms the divine and eternal dimensions of human experience. Conscience and contemplation count for Thoreau and Ionesco but not prayer. For Merton, resistence to rhinoceritis leads to an encounter with God. Authenticity is a secular word for grace.
In The Rhinoceros, Berenger preserves his humanity by affirming his individuality. He chooses aloneness over compliance and captivity. He will not end his isolation by finding company in the herd. There, one rhinoceros is not distinguishable from another. Nor need there be any distinction since all think and act alike. One cannot reason with a rhinoceros or as a rhinoceros.
At the end of the play, Berenger cries out that he will never capitulate and that he will remain as the last human being if need be. There is defiance but also despair at the end, victory, of course, but also melancholy.
It is at this point that Merton would introduce another factor in the equation. He would bring God on stage, not a God who makes protest lessurgent, but a God who gives protest a final meaning.
Thoreau and Ionesco, quite rightly, do not want God to trivialize the human delemma by offering victory on terms which keep one from individuality and integerity. All the more they reject a Church system which uses God to enforce conformity.
Merton presents a God who does not make the absurd less painful but who allows a life beyond the absurd and shares that life with us.
God, I believe, is not credible to the contemporary world except in the terms Merton proposes. Otherwise, God becomes part of the absurd, someone who usurps individuality, conscience, and freedom.
In his essay, Merton makes it clear that he too has suffered from the absurd. He proposes no easy solution to its challenge. But one always has the rain. The rain merly rains. It does not adjust to our schedule or agenda. It is not of our making. It does not yield to reason or control. It resists secular and ecclesiastical conformity. It nourishes the seeds of contemplation whose ultimate fruit is neither isolation nor despair.
4. Common Cause
Merton finishes "Rain and the Rhinoceros" on December 20, 1964. He goes to the hermitage the next year, August 20, 1965 (actually eight months later). He meets Margaret the next year, March 25, 1966 (actually seven months later). In fifteen months these three eventsoccur. I believe there are connections here and that these events influence his Asian journey and journal.
If rain is festivity and freedom and if system leads to melancholy and servility, then the hermitage is a worthy place for Merton and a good place to listen to the rain.
The spirit of Merton was progressively unshackled at Gethsemani as the monastic life led him, through its structures, to tranquillity and creativity. Gethsemani released him from his former addictions and obsessions; it allowed him to grow beyond the secular systems which terrified him and held him captive for a time.
Eventually, however, Gethsemani became an ecclesial system which oppressed him with censors and censures, with the Abbot's inadequacies and Rome's intransigence. Then it was that Zen and the hermitage, rain and the rhinoceros, offered festivity and freedom again. Merton was rescued by these experiences and by love, romantic and erotic, from a subtle but lethal form of rhinoceritis.
Merton was, as we know, a free spirit who, surprisingly, needed structure and protest to keep him creative. Without structure, his creativity turned easily to anarchy and self-destructive tendencies. One sees anarchy in the life he lived before entering the monastery and one catches sight of it again as he is given his own way in the last year. Without protest, his creativity drifted into conformity. One sees this at work in such dreadful books as Exile Ends in Glory, What Are These Wounds? and Ascent to Truth.
No one can speculate where all this might have led him had he returned from Asia.
In any case, Ionesco's play came at a good time in Merton's life. It reaffirmed the value of seeking his own way. It strengthened the conviction that he did not want to end his life as characters did in The Rhinoceros , by moving always with the time so that he was always indistinguishable from the collectivity.
"Rain and the Rhinoceros" is a refreshing essay because it shows us Merton at his bet. It is light and free, airy and inviting. It has the unrestrained joy of Seeds of Contemplation, Sign of Jonas, and the early poetry and the best parts of Steven Storey Mountain.. In the final years he returns to all that was meaningful in the first years of his conversion but he does so with a new sophistication and a profoundly cosmopolitan mentality.
In the initial years he wanted to bring the world into the monastery because he found joy there and a structure he believed everyone required. In the final years he wants to bring the monastery into the world because he finds in the world a freedom and love all should encounter. He attemtps at the end to develop a structure to contain the freedom and love. He dies before he discovers thisbut he does have some elements in place.
The new structure includes not only the Catholic tradition but the other religions and also the religionless spirituality which fascinated Merton. This structure must go deeper than official teaching and conventional religious formalities. It must reach the essence of each religious tradition, the core always recognized as familiar and admired by mystics and contemplatives from all the religious traditions. Merton was searching for this in Zen and the Birds of Appetite and The Asian Journal.
The new structure finds place not only for obedience and compliance when these are necessary for fidelity and commitment but place also for strenuous and public protest. This protest is especially in order when in the Church rhinoceroses are not only multiplying but are being promoted and even presented as models of Christian life. Merton was searching for this in Contemplation in a World of Action Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. where authority, infallibility, dogmatism and canonical legalism are sharply critiqued.
The new structure encourges equally celibacy and marriage on all levels of Church life. One can find no convincing reason why celibates are forbidden marriage and why celibacy need be a life commitment. Nor, I believe, are there convincing reasons why marriages must be permanent when it is clear they cannot be. The new structure honors both choices and focuses on what is deepest and most urgent for us, namely, whether love continues to grow over the course of a life. There is no easy way of predicting this without drifting into the absurd. Nor is it helpful to reject reality because it does not fit our rules or our expectations. The logician in The Rhinoceros. is a good example of this foolish effort. The rules of his logic "prove" what reality rejects. At one point , he argues:
All cats die
Socrates is dead
Therefore, Socrates is a cat
Have we progressed muchbeyond this when we insist that mandatory celibacy is an asset for the priesthood or that papal infallibility has been a great benefit for the Church? Do we not twist the data to fit the presupposition when we maintain that present Church policies are exactly what Jesus had in mind for the Church and when we do this by mere assertion, unable to offer any evidence or convincing reason to support our claim? Have we done much better than the logician when Church administrators refuse to convene Church Counciles even though Church Councils have been spectacularly successful experiences in the Church's life? Do we not sound foolish when we insist that since the Church is not a democracy that the voice and faith of its people need not be heard?
Merton was searching for a viable path through these difficulties as he eagerly affirmed the Second Vatican Council and as he fell in love.
When he goes to Asia, it is in freedom, without the awful judgmentalism of Seven Storey Mountain. He goes there having called for the Church to heed its prophetic voices, to allow optional celibacy, and to learn from the other religions. He goes to pray to Buddha and to Christ and to find the face of God through both. He does not have it all together. Perhaps he never would or should. But he loves Catholicism and Zen, the monastery and the world, celibacy and Margaret, Marxist idealism and democracy, the papacy and an open Church. He does not see contradictions here because love does not divide into opposites but creates greater unities. And he loves all the supposedly antagonistic polarities. He dies a holy man. All the contradictions brought him to that point. His holiness reveals to us that we judge too rigidly the means people tke to bring them to their end. It is what one is that matters in the final accounting. People sometimes use impeccable means but do not arrive at holiness. To make Merton choose differently is to force him to become not a monk but a rhinoceros.
Anthony T. Padovano holds an S.T.D. in systematic theology from the Gregorian University in Rome and a Ph. D. in English language and literature from Fordham University. He has written 25 books, articles and plays and has lectured on many aspects of religion and spirituality, including Thomas Merton as a symbol of this century.
This speech, Rain and Grace, was the keynote speech at the 5th International Thomas Merton Society Meeting in Mobile, Alabama, in June of 1997.
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