“There’s an old piece of Hasidic folklore that claims that our world at any point in time is held in its planetary orbit by thirty-six conscious human beings. They don’t know each other, and they don’t even know if they’re among the thirty-six. But the quality of their work, rising like incense into the earth’s atmosphere, creates around our fragile planet a sturdy bandwidth of protection, blessing, and guidance.”
Eye Of The Heart, Cynthia Bourgeault 1.
Thomas Merton entered The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani on December 10, 1941, just before his twenty-seventh birthday. He died by accidental electrocution in Thailand on December 10, 1968, twenty-seven years later.
I first met Thomas Merton in the summer of 2016, the year after my father died. He, Merton, had been dead for almost fifty years. Still, his enduring guidance and even friendship have been a wellspring of presence in my life. Like so many seekers who Merton has found, I recognized him as soon as I saw him.
“Fire Watch,” The Epilogue to his first published journal, The Sign of Jonas, is considered one of the most profound and beautiful spiritual writings. The first time I read it, I was breathless, overwhelmed with a feeling which cannot be described in the language of man. The fire watch itself was a safety measure – the novitiate monks would travel the monasteries’ many rooms and heights at night to check for fire and other hazards. Its mystical meaning is captured best by none other than Merton himself:
“The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.”
While his writing’s power and elegance stand alone, what has struck me equally is the foreshadowing. There are two premonitions of Merton’s electrocution from a fan with faulty wiring:
“Eight-thirty. I begin my round in the cellar of the south wing. The place is full of naked wires, stinks of the hides of slaughtered calves… I punch the clock for the first time in the catacomb, I turn my back on the new wing, and the fire watch is on.”
“I have seen the fuse box. I have looked in the corners where there is some wiring. I am satisfied that there is no fire in the tower which would flare like a great torch and take the whole abbey up with it in twenty minutes…”
Merton would write a final, stunning, prophetic line is his 1967 collection of poetry “Cables to the Ace.” In a reflection on Merton’s death, Guy Davenport writes:
“Tom, who noticed everything, and who knew more about the world than forty other people together had not noticed a frayed electrical cord to his fan in Bangkok and had not known that the East has direct current rather than alternating. In Cables to the Ace, he had written:
‘Oh, the blue electric palaces of polar night
Where the radiograms of hymnody
Get lost in the fan!'” 2.
How could such an ordinary spark be what extinguished such an extraordinary light, or perhaps, how could it not be? And more glaring, how was it, like so many other prophecies, so clearly foretold?
Thus, in both life and death, Merton situates us in the Imaginal Realm — the in-between world connecting the physical plane of existence to the spiritual. It is where synchronicity and visionary experience occur. They are, in fact, the markers that we are there. Like Cynthia Bourgeault describes in the opening quote above, I think Thomas Merton’s consciousness was not only one of those thirty-six but continues to be in death. And, like Merton, others who have passed continue to be the divine spirit pouring out to us just as they were in life. For, as Rumi asks, “When was I ever made less by dying?”
In times such as these, how can that be anything but great comfort? In the skies above, we have the likes of Mother Teresa and Thomas Merton, Prince and Princess Diana, Rumi and Ram Das, Jesus and Leonard Cohen!
And so, on this shared anniversary of Merton’s entry into Gethsemani and his death, I offer the final lines of Fire Watch.
May the answer to “Why was it taken?” be for you, as it’s been for me:
“But Oh, My dear! Why was it given?” 3.
Fire Watch, July 4, 1942
“The Voice of God is heard in Paradise:”
‘What was vile has become precious. What is now precious was never vile. I have always known the vile as precious: for what is vile I know not at all.
What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with My mercy, and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy. I have forgiven the universe without end, because I have never known sin.
What was poor has become infinite. What is infinite was never poor. I have always known poverty as infinite: riches I love not at all. Prisons within prisons within prisons. Do not lay up for yourselves ecstasies upon earth, where time and space corrupt, where the minutes break in and steal. No more lay hold on time, Jonas, My son, lest the rivers bear you away.
What was fragile has become powerful. I loved what was most frail. I looked upon what was nothing. I touched what was without substance, and within what was not, I am.’
There are drops of dew that show like sapphires in the grass as soon as the great sun appears, and leaves stir behind the hushed flight of an escaping dove.” 4.
“Eye of the Heart”. Cynthia Bourgeault. pg. 139.
“Father Louie: Photographs of Thomas Merton by Ralph Eugene Meatyard. pg. 36.
“Eye of the Heart”. Cynthia Bourgeault. pg. 188.
“The Sign of Jonas”. Thomas Merton pg. 362.
When my bodyThe Avett Brothers
Won’t hold me anymore
And it finally
Lets me free
Will I be ready?
No Hard Feelings