New film teaser, DAY OF A STRANGER

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.

And, If you’re interested in contributing to our production, we’ve recently began a partnership with Women Make Movies, a 501c3 sponsor out of New York City. With their partnership, contributions made through them can be tax-deductible! Go here to contribute through WMM.

“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)

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Merton’s Voice For Today

Recently, I was invited by Orthodoxy in Dialogue to write about why Merton matters in today’s world. You can read the article in full here or at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

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

You can read the article in its original form here.

Archival photograph ©The Merton Legacy Trust.
Used with permission of The Thomas Merton Center.

 

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Carl McColman Interviews Cassidy Hall

Read the full interview on Patheos here.

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 SilenceHow 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?

Read the full interview on Patheos here.

 

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The Great Anesthetic of Modern Day Life

(Originally posted on The Huffington Post Blog.)

“The world is like an anesthetic… people are not going beyond the superficial to the meaning of life — they don’t even ask that question because they’re caught up in that anesthetizing process.” A Monk of Holy Trinity Abbey, Utah

I woke up this morning with an overwhelming feeling of being so distant from my own self. While in the midst of a frenzied work month, drained by piles of to-dos, and in an echo-chamber of my own mind; I seem to have lost touch with the precise thing that brought me here. I’m waking up for a city’s premiere of a documentary film I’ve been working on titled In Pursuit of Silence, and yet, I’ve managed to lose touch with my own silence, space, and solitude. I’ve become the precise paradox our film opens our eyes to; I’ve forgotten myself, my own way of being, and the natural spaces around me. Like an anesthetic fog just after surgery, I’ve been going through my days clouded by the demands of modern day life.

 

Anesthesia seems to be an ideal sentiment for describing the world we live in today. We’re consumed by our phones, computers, televisions, technology, work, and busyness itself. So much so that there’s nothing left of us for the solitude, space, and silence for which we were designed. Our days are so marked by modern day life’s measurements of likes, comments, and first place ribbons of who has the most emails — that we come to the day’s end without the depth of sensations we were created to have. Even our allegiance to the word busy seems to fill our mouths like a badge of honor. Our society tells us only a busy life is a successful and productive life, while research and studies continue to quietly tell us otherwise. There’s an undertone that busy is a title, a symbol we’re doing life right, a life worth living — but what if it’s precisely this busy that anesthetizes us from living a genuine life of meaning, a memorable day, and a life true to who we were made to be?

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

Spreading ourselves too thin is now the law of the land; we insist we’re no longer good enough or doing enough for the people and world around us unless we’re giving more than what we have. And, as we watch our unique passions, desires, and hopes float away — we decide it’s time to take on even more. We cover our original design with layers of modern day life; we convince ourselves that losing ourselves is loving others more. And still, our purest and richest (in love and joy) selves come out in those moments when we’re true to who we are — listening to our creative urges in work and play, saying a hearty yes or empowering no to those around us, and being able to truly interact with our loved ones from a space of wholeness.

“Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” Hermann Hesse

For some of us, remaining busy is a way to feel sane — to keep us running from what is really going on, to avoid the truth of ourselves. But, what if the truth is actually an easier space to navigate? What if our true selves contain a space where we can see and feel more whole again — perhaps the real world we need to explore is not the world of to-dos and sensory overload but the vast interior world of ourselves. Maybe it’s time to turn off excerpts of our anesthetizing days so that we might feel again, recenter ourselves again, and re-engage with our natural equilibrium.

 

It seems that even when those small spaces peek up within our days, there is never enough time. Sleep is more important (it often is), my phone is more vibrant, those emails will just add up, and between all the day’s tasks the breaks to breathe are just that — how could anyone expect us to do more than breathe in such moments? And we know that we’re all so beautifully different in these realms: the ways in which we balance ourselves, the different rhythms that agree with us, and what makes sense for each of our lives. Thus, it’s all the more important to tune into our personal ways of being and trust that natural rhythm as we go about our days. The anesthetic fog will come again and again, because it is a part of modern day life — but there’s choice for us somewhere to see beyond that, through that, and let the fog lift.

“At the still point, there the dance is.” T.S. Eliot