Part of the Weather
and Part of the Climate and Part of the Place
A review of
The Environmental Vision
of Thomas Merton.
(Culture of the Land Series)
by Monica Weis, SSJ.
Review by Brent Aldrich.
It might come as no surprise that Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk well-respected for his broad-reaching writing about social justice, contemplation and spiritual disciplines, peace, interfaith dialogues, etc., would also have something to say about another pressing issue of our day, ecological responsibility. Monica Weis’s new book, The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton, part of the University Press of Kentucky’s Culture of the Land series, does, in fact, present Merton as a sensitive contributor to the nascent environmental movement, but does so in light of the rest of his monastic life: deeply incarnational; aware of the interconnectedness of all of creation; and firmly grounded in the particular landscape of his place, namely the woods and hills of northern Kentucky. Interestingly, Weis frames much of Merton’s ‘environmental vision’ around a letter he wrote to none other than Rachel Carson, after his reading of Silent Spring; this same book is often credited with propelling the modern-day environmental movement, as well as leading to the establishment of the EPA, so it’s telling that Merton – already sensitized so as to be receptive to Carson’s book – would recognize the significance of Silent Spring.
Beginning with Merton’s childhood spent accompanying his painter father, Weis suggests early formational landscapes and geographies in France and Rome; these affinities come into their own, though, at Gethsemani, over the decades as Merton becomes more familiar and attuned to the knobs, trees, clouds, and light of the place. Deep, sustained familiarity with his place does two things: it moves Merton to compassion for the creatures and lives beyond just the human, but at the same time it further integrates Merton – in all of his human-ness – into the life of the place, suggesting reciprocity among all living things, and far beyond any human/non-human, man/nature, or subject/object duality. As Weis writes:
“Keen awareness of the weather – and by extension, the entire landscape – offers human beings an ongoing way of constructing and nurturing meaning in the world. Reading the weather and the landscape, Belden Lane argues, is integral to the process of ‘dwelling’ in a place so as to make it one’s own. In Donald St. John’s words Merton ‘was actively involved in making Gethsemani a sacred place. A new geography was being discovered and created.’ In his skillful reading of The Sign of Jonas, St. John maintains right that because Merton was an ‘inveterate traveler’ sensitive to the new, deeper geography of Gethsemani, his journals become ‘guidebooks’ to help Merton transform his monastic role from mere traveler to dweller” (84).1
This sensitivity to his particular geography leads Merton naturally to recognize inherent interrelationships among all of the lives – including his – in the Kentucky forest. As Weir quotes Merton, “‘The whole world itself, to religious thinkers, has always appeared as a transparent manifestation of the love of God, as a ‘paradise’ of His wisdom, manifested in all His creations, down to the tiniest, and in the wonderful interrelationship between them.’ In one sentence, Merton capsulizes the essence of incarnational thinking: because the Divine in its unending creativity has inserted itself into life on Earth, everything that is, is holy; the divine spark dwells in all creatures; consequently, each being is related to and interdependent with every other being” (129).
In addition to substantial support from Merton’s journals, a few of his photographs are included in the volume as additional support to his ability to penetrate the natural world to see its inherent interconnectedness. Of the six photographs, five share the same structural device: composing the image so that the space is encountered in layers, progressively drawing our gaze ever deeper into the image, and then quickly back again to the foreground; this back and forth of viewing no doubt complements Merton’s emphasis of observing the ordinary – trees, fields, knobs and valleys – to see the Kingdom of God embedded therein. (Just compare with the photograph of a deer on page 159, clearly not Merton’s, and the difference in vision is palpable; photographs such as this are why Susan Sontag compares shooting a camera with shooting a gun).
And so, it is in the relations, and in the woods in Kentucky, that the Incarnation becomes Reality. And it is just this ability to see reality – the incarnation in ordinary things – that Merton drives at in all of his writing, and which Weis suggests has been honed by an environmental (or ecological) vision of the creation. The significance of Merton’s view of ecological justice, then, is similar to his resistance to war and violence: it grows out of a deep sense of the embodied holiness of the entire world, and begins with love of the neighbor more than the self to move us towards all things being reconciled in Christ.
1. Or, as another poet formed by the Kentucky landscape, Wendell Berry writes that “I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place.” (What Are People For?) Compare to Merton: “I myself am part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place” (66).