Remembering Thomas Merton: Rain, Grace and Rhinoceros

Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.
— THOMAS MERTON, from “Rain and the Rhinoceros” 

Whenever it rains, I think of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer.

The Encyclopedia Britannica refers to Merton as “one of the most important American Roman Catholic writers of the 20th century.”

For me he is simply one of the most important writers, ever.

As I grow older I find myself around fewer people who talk about Merton. And yet he shed more light on the mystical heart of religion than anyone I know.

Almost single-handedly, Merton initiated a Catholic-Buddhist dialogue that continues to this day.

He recognized that the Buddhist meditator and Christian contemplative are both grounded in a silence that is free of concepts. And, that silence is inherently ecumenical.

For Americans in the 1960s, this was a revelation.

It still is.

And what a body of work Merton left us! It includes poetry, a novel, a best-selling autobiography (The Seven Story Mountain), and many collections of essays — Zen and the Birds of Appetite, The Wisdom of the Desert, The Way of Chang Tzu, and more.

For me his most memorable piece is an essay titled “Rain and the Rhinoceros” from Raids on the Unspeakable.

Into solitude

Merton begins this essay by describing the setting. He has retreated, alone, to a cabin in the woods outside the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky.

His meditation for the night is the rhythm of the rain:

The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with inconsistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer. 

Rain cannot be planned, controlled, or sold. For Merton, this is what makes it sacred:

Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world…! 

In contrast to the rainy woods is the city, where every object is engineered for a purpose beyond itself:

There is nothing in the world of buildings that is not fabricated, and if a tree gets in among the apartment houses by mistake it is taught to grow chemically. It is given a precise reason for existing. They put a sign on it saying it is for health, beauty, perspective; that it is for peace, for prosperity; that it was planted by the mayor’s daughter. 

For people in cities, Merton writes, rain is an inconvenience. City dwellers do not see rain as renewal. Instead, they defend themselves from the rain with umbrellas and canopies, failing to see that “the streets shine beautifully, that they themselves are walking on stars and water.”

The tyranny of fun, the multiplication of needs

Meanwhile, Merton sits in his cabin and reads a book by the light of a Coleman lantern. He wonders how he can explain to city dwellers why he is alone in the woods.

Finally, he decides what he will tell them.

He will say that he is “having fun.”

This is something that even the makers of the Coleman lantern will understand. In fact, the lantern originally arrived in a cardboard box which stated that this product “stretches days to give more hours of fun.”

Merton finds this absurd:

Can’t I just be in the woods without any special reason? Just being in the woods, at night, in the cabin, is something too excellent to be justified or explained! It just is. There are always a few people who are in the woods at night, in the rain (because if there were not the world would have ended), and I am one of them. We are not having fun, we are not “having” anything, we are not “stretching our days,” and if we had fun it would not be measured by hours. Though as a matter of fact that is what fun seems to be: a state of diffuse excitation that can be measured by the clock and “stretched” by an appliance. 

For Merton, the problem goes deeper than an obsession with having fun. At bottom it is the attempt to define yourself “as one who has no needs that he cannot immediately fulfill.”

None of us, however, can fulfill all our needs alone. We need the collective — the system that manufactures products and services to satisfy our every need.

As long as we conform to the collective, we can avoid feelings of emptiness and contingency. We can have fun forever.

To guarantee its continued existence, the collective multiplies our needs. Advertisers tell us that we must buy more and do more in order to become complete.

This burden of ever-expanding need is the price of our submission.

Solitude as subversive

How do we escape?

One way, says Merton, is through the life of service — contributing to the lives of other people with no expectation of return.

Another way is the life of contemplation — regular periods of solitude.

Many spiritual practices are based on solitude. Even if you sit silently in a room full of people during a meditation retreat, you are still alone in a fundamental way. You are diving inward to investigate the nature of your body-mind.

The collective, however, views almost any form of solitude as an escape from social responsibility. After all, hermits are not useful to society.

But for Merton, solitude reveals truths that cannot be discovered in any other way:

…a confrontation with poverty and the void, a renunciation of the empirical self, in the presence of death, and nothingness, in order to overcome the ignorance and error that spring from the fear of “being nothing.” The man who dares to be alone can come to see that the “emptiness” and “uselessness” which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. 

Monastics of every religion can understand this. And they are not alone.

Enter the rhinoceros

Merton finds the same insight even in the Theater of the Absurd — specifically, in Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco.

This play is about the citizens of a small town who gradually turn into rhinoceroses — all except Bérenger, the main character.

Bérenger’s girlfriend (Daisy) and his best friend (Dutard) eventually argue for accepting this fact. Best to simply accept the bizarre appearance of the beasts and accommodate their behavior, they say. After all, they were formerly friends and family.

Berenger struggles with this. He feels so isolated at one point that he even tries to turn into a rhinoceros and fails.

But at the very end of the play — after Daisy and Dutard have both turned into rhinoceroses — he shouts “I’m not capitulating!”

In Rhinoceros Ionesco dramatized the dynamics of mob mentality and conformity. How do you respond when you feel like the last sane person in a land of monsters?

I can only wonder how many Germans asked this question as Hitler gradually ascended to power and Fascists claimed their country.

Solitude and the sacred as useless

Yet for Ionesco there are other dimensions to his play, which he describes in Notes et Contre Notes.

For one thing, it is the very people “who have lost the sense and the taste for solitude” who eventually turn into rhinoceroses.

In addition, they are also immune to art:

In all the cities of the world, it is the same. The universal and modern man is the man in a rush (i.e. a rhinoceros), a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be a useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots. 

Here Merton touches on my favorite definition of the word sacred — that which is ultimately useless, an end in itself and not a means to another end.

For example, many Buddhists hold nirvana — the end of suffering — as sacred.

If you ask why, you might get noble silence as an answer.

Nirvana is not a means to another end. It is the fruit of the path. It is the end of our seeking. It is divinely useless.

The present festival

I like to think that Merton — who died in 1968 — would have been pleased to see the spread of Buddhism, Taoism, and other contemplative traditions to the West. He was one of the main forces behind it.

I bet that he’d also be pleased by the current enthusiasm for mindfulness meditation. He’d find kindred spirits in people who go on retreats from daily life for regular periods of solitude and silence.

Mostly my heart aches for Thomas Merton. He died so young and has been gone so many years.

I often tear up near the end of “Rain and the Rhinoceros” at this haiku-like passage:

The rain has stopped. The afternoon sun slants through the pine trees: and how those useless needles smell in the clear air!