Many of you know I’ve been working on my directorial debut film, Day of a Stranger: the first film about Thomas Merton’s final years in his own words. For this short film, Patrick Shen and I recently took a winter trip to the hermitage and The Thomas Merton Center for filming, and from that have pieced together the latest teaser below. Thanks to Patrick for his brilliant editing and always working with me in such a way that allows us to both remain true to who we are as artists and ultimately humans.
Film Timeline: With a goal of having our rough cut by summer of this year, we are still completing some fundraising for post-production including editing, color correction, music, and sound design. DONATE HERE.
“Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves. And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity…”
–– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (p.101)
The most obvious characteristic of our age is its destructiveness. This can hardly be doubted. We have developed an enormous capacity to build and to change our world, but far more enormous are our capacities for destruction.
Thomas Merton, “Theology of Creativity,” 1960
Many of us sense an aura of doom when we wake up to the day. Destruction consumes our news feed as we scroll past the dead, the hate, and the eerie joy of our friends’ and families’ photos as though nothing were going awry. While we know our looking away doesn’t make things go away, we try and try, and try again.
We live in an age where men manufacture their own truth.
Thomas Merton, Sermon on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 12/8/62, audio recording
There is an unfading relevance to the words written nearly 60 year ago by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Many of us are rereading his books and essays with bewilderment, assuming they must have been written in and for this very time. Alas, we know that this beloved monk, said to be one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century, rests in that place of mystery beyond death while his body lies underground at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
Why does it matter?
What difference does it make if the words of this monk remain true for centuries?
Are we waiting for anything? Do we stand for anything? Do we know what we want?
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, 1966
It matters precisely because it testifies to the need for love and truth in an age of unending destruction, perpetual ignorance (largely a deeply ingrained desire to not know the other), and endless falsities that lead us into a place where love is forgotten and our fellow human is dismissed. Merton, on the other hand, seemed to point to a way out—a better way of moving in these times.
…Let us then recognize ourselves for who we are: dervishes mad with secret therapeutic love which cannot be bought or sold, and which the politician fears more than violent revolution, for violence changes nothing. But love changes everything. We are stronger than the bomb….
Thomas Merton, “Message to Poets,” 1964
Just the other day, CNN’s Chris Cuomo mentioned a passage from Thomas Merton’s 1960 essay, “Christianity and Totalitarianism” (found in his book, Disputed Questions, pp. 133-134). During his prime-time show, he shared some of these words from 60 years ago:
…for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies the enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand… Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice, and hate which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person. It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever he can, and first of all in himself, the capacity of love and understanding which makes man the living image of God.
Many of us assume we’re incapable of such an extent of love because we fear. We fear walking forward with open arms because we’ve been taught to trust no one. We fear the other because they’re different.
Yet the day after Cuomo quoted Merton, something else caught my eye. The nurse on duty at the Pittsburgh hospital when the gunman of the Synagogue shooting was brought in for treatment spoke out about being the murderer’s nurse:
…Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings….
Ari Mahler, RN
In a world of destruction, ignorance, and falsities—there is not only a place for love, but love is the only answer. Love is the way out—a better way of moving in these times. Love is the only way we can begin to clean up the messes before us. This love cannot hesitate. It cannot stutter-step its way to the other when such a pause can cause death. It is only by bringing our love back to a place of innocence—a place where it is free to grow and give of itself, a place where it no longer fears—that we can emerge with the ability and the desire to love.
Currently, I’m working on a documentary film about Thomas Merton’s final years in the hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Entitled Day of a Stranger, the film pieces together some never-before heard audio that he recorded of himself alongside meditative images of the hermitage property. Taking the walk that Merton took to and from the Abbey, listening to his late-night jazz meditations as the fireflies roll by the oil lamp, looking into the letters and essays that he wrote and the work that he edited—there is no doubt that this cinder block building was the home of some of Thomas Merton’s most important work.
My hope for the film is not for it to be a place of romanticizing the monastic life, Thomas Merton, or his words. Instead, my hope is that it becomes a place of interior recognition for the viewer: a place that points to the infinite possibilities of love we’re all capable of, a place that reminds us that—no matter how simple—our lives, our work, and our love matter.
You will answer: “Waiting is not inertia. To be quiet and bide one’s time is to resist. Passive resistance is a form of action.”
That is true when one is waiting for something, and knows for what he is waiting. That is true when one is resisting, and knows why, and to what end, he is resisting, and whose he must resist. Unless our waiting implies knowledge and action, we will find ourselves waiting for our own destruction and nothing more. A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice.
Are we waiting for anything? Do we stand for anything? Do we know what we want?
Here we stand, in a state of diffuse irruption and doubt, while ‘they’ fight one another for power over the whole world. It is our confusion that enables ‘them’ to use us, and to pit us against one another, for their own purposes….
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, pp. 55-56
How did you get inspired to create a film about Thomas Merton and his hermitage?
“We live in an age where men manufacture their own truth.” — Thomas Merton, Sermon on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Recorded 12/8/1962)
Even aside from politics, our days host an array of their own problems. Many have viewed the life of a monk or hermit to be a departure from the world and its many problems. But I’ve come to see this going away from the world as a way to love it—and its humans—more deeply.
I began reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation sometime back in 2011. This evolved into a Gethsemani Abbey pilgrimage which led to me traveling to the seventeen Trappist/Cistercian monasteries of the US to talk to monks and nuns about silence, solitude, and contemplative life. Somewhere along the way I became more and more interested in Thomas Merton’s work and hermitage years—why would such a brilliant person who has so much to offer the world go away from the world. The joke was on me until I began to read further into his desires for solitude and how this tension and paradox was another way of expression, another way of showing solidarity with the suffering of the world.
There’s a tension in the contemplative life—a tension that holds a paradox. This tension is intertwined with the pain of the world while meeting said pain in the silence and solitudes of our everyday lives (a paradox to many). This doesn’t make sense to everyone and the contemplative path is certainly not for everyone, but I do sincerely believe aspects of it can benefit the whole world.
Day of a Stranger is a title taken from one of Thomas Merton’s most beloved essays (May 1965). The essay was published in Latin America as a response to a journalist’s question about what a typical day in the life was like for Merton in his new hermitage home. Unbeknownst to Merton or the journalist that this would be his final home and “Dia de un Extrano,” (Day of a Stranger) was published in Papeles, a journal from Caracas, Venezuela in July of 1966 (also published in The Hudson Review in the summer of 1967).
Other questions answered:
What has surprised you the most about listening to Merton’s old tape recordings?
You were a co-producer of In Pursuit of Silence. How did working on that film help to shape your creative process for Day of a Stranger?
Why, a half century after he died, does Thomas Merton remain so popular? What do you think is at the heart of his appeal?
“…I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone…” Rainer Maria Rilke
I was around 8 years old when I began to have reoccurring dreams about death. With a rush of adrenaline, shocked and relieved to be alive, I’d wake up only remembering I was dead and floating in a white sky-scape of silence. I was alone, lost, and stagnant in limitless space and eternal time. This dream doesn’t sound grim to me anymore, but at 8 this nothingness had me sprinting to my parent’s bed. These dreams created in me a reverence for mystery and a deep longing to know the unknowable, to hold the ungraspable, and to forever chase what can never be met.
We live in a world that loves to know. We like to intellectualize things, name people, describe experiences, and we covet our ability to share tangible evidence of these ungraspable things. Metaphors, on the other hand, hold meaning for the nameless. Metaphors help us to make sense of the unknowable things. We spend our lives clothing the many mysteries we encounter with metaphors which may not otherwise have any meaning.
Defining is an interesting tool. It can be both harmful and helpful. We often use names to remain in control. We control our environment by regulating it, containing it, qualifying it. Most often names are used to define in order to make the definer feel more comfortable. Having a sense of knowing or grasping more creates comfort, and comfort makes us feel in control. Yet, I can’t help but contend that a controlledexperience always takes us away from a mysticalencounter. Holding creates an impossibility of beholding. And as a monk once told me, “Naming the nameless can leave all unrecognizable.”
Naming an encounter by way of our senses implies an unattainable certitude when really the elusive nature of mystery befalls all of our understanding. Silence is unnameable. To say something is or isn’t, to say something has a name or doesn’t, implies a dualistic nature. And in our desperate nature to cling, we are left time and time again barefaced before the mystery silence is. Only when we rid ourselves of this dualistic nature, we begin to see mystery for what it sincerely is. We begin to touch the bottomless depths of something hosting imponderable facets.
While working on In Pursuit of Silence, the topic of silence as a spiritual or religious practice came up on a regular basis. Silence is not necessarily spiritual or religious, and yet for some it may be entirely spiritual or religious. Silence is not a stranger to being likened to God in some fashion, yet similarly silence’s markings have been precisely that not of God, at least by concept. Silence holds the tension of absence and presence. Silence lives and breathes in the paradox of mysteries. Silence is infinite in its magnitude while remaining invariably naught. Silence is fully here and fully there, as much as it is nowhere and everywhere. But to create silence into being solely dualistic is to strip silence of its infinite possibility.
Maggie Ross has named silence as salvation. Others, like Saint John of the Cross, have marred it with a place of darkness and despair. And yet, these implications don’t diminish the capacity of the thinker to associate such an absence, or presence, with silence as it relates to God or otherwise. And, this is the beauty of silence: it finds its way of understanding into each individual mind.
“One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife…So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.” Thomas Merton, Day of a Stranger
For me, silence has been a place where I find the divine and I find myself. While my wariness of silence has been potent since my first meeting, I realize this is because of the depths of the unknown to which She has taken me.
Silence is where I meet myself and my fellow human.
Silence is where I see my darkest corners and my hidden faults.
Silence is where I meet God.
Silence is where I can grow and evolve.
Silence is where I bathe in wonder.
Silence is where I listen.
I often consider those reoccurring dreams first leading me to a lifelong love affair with the forever unrevealed. I consider the terrified 8 year old worrying her way through life, reaching for something always withheld. To be honest, not much has changed. My worry is now anxiety. My reaching is now a longing. Only now, I sit drenched in wonder as I tirelessly stretch out my arms towards the unknown. Now, I smile in awe as I untiringly attempt to package the mystery in language.