Thomas Merton, (1915-1968) was born in France, the son of Owen Merton, (1887-1931) a British landscape painter. In 1941 he became a Trappist Monk at the Abby of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in the state of Kentucky here in the U.S. Although Owen Merton's paintings are still being exhibited and sold today, his son’s reputation as an artist has far outstripped his father's. Thomas Merton was a prolific writer and gained international recognition as an author and poet, writing more than 60 books and many essays. He also tried his hand at photography and made some attempt to do Zen brush painting. His most famous book, "The Seven Story Mountain," is a biography written while he was living at the monastery in Kentucky and is considered a religious classic.
In his later years Thomas Merton began to study Zen Buddhism to see what relationship or connection it might have with Catholic monastic life. He became friends with D. T. Suzuki and the Dalai Lama and wrote several books on Catholicism and Zen and the search for a deeper understanding of the inner self. The fact that he understood the life of an artist through his father, and was himself an artist, makes me think perhaps he was trying to integrate the two disciplines to better understand the inner workings of an artist. He didn’t say as much because he was, at the core, a God believing religious monk, not an artist. But he did say, “The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it.” In essence, an artist’s head may be in the clouds but his feet are still planted on the ground. It is that inner conflict of opposing forces that constantly torments an artist, and I think in some way he may have been trying to define and resolve that issue.
I have read many of his books, picking my way through his Catholic God believing passages, dodging his religious dogma, trying to mine his seven story mountain for small nuggets of insight into the nature and spirituality of art from a contemplative's point of view. However, it must be understood that I feel a spiritual kinship with Thomas Merton the artist, not Thomas Merton the Catholic God believer, - for I, like Picasso, am a non-believer.
With that in mind, I am going to briefly follow Thomas Merton the artist as he worked with his camera in Northern California taking photographs in and around Our Lady of the Redwoods monastery at Whitethorn. I hope to find some of the locations where he aimed his camera. I want to try and paint some of the same scenes from the exact spot if possible. In this way perhaps I will connect with the spirit that was Thomas Merton the artist. Someday I hope to find a clear connection between Zen, religion and art.
Joining me on this pilgrimage will be my wife Alice, who, as always, guides my physical being through all the obstacles that are the roads, towns, motels, restaurants, and things to numerous to mention, to our destination. Joining us also will be our cousin from Detroit, Doug Locke.