Letter From Slovakia: Winter, Memory, and Thomas Merton

By Juan VidalJanuary 31, 2014

Letter From Slovakia: Winter, Memory, and Thomas Merton

THIS MORNING, EVEN THE NATIVES look dismayed. It’s cold and the wind carries with it a certain sadness.  Thick black smoke fills the air. The train station is packed. Women rant. Babies cry. The old buildings around me scream Communism Was Here. Much can be said about days like these; the one’s that arrive without you having processed the former; the way the breeze moves across your cheeks, changing their tint. Clinching both fists, I watch the drizzle do its dance on the pavement. I am thinking of home. 

On a bench, a mother tucks her lad under a teal leather coat to shield him from the cold. He lets out a sigh and straggles to safety, his baby sister in a mosaic stroller complete with three or more harnesses. The muscles in my face hurt. I stand there —motionless — as drops of rain fall gently on my boots. Frustration peaks as I’m notified the train leaving for Nitra will be arriving a few minutes late.

The sting of winter always leads me to Thomas Merton, specifically these lines from Evening: Zero Weather:

 Now the lone world is streaky as a wall of marble 
With veins of clear and frozen snow. 
There is no bird song there, no hare's track 
No badger working in the russet grass: 
All the bare fields are silent as eternity.

Like Merton, I left home in pursuit of a calling. My travels took me from South Africa to Russia to Central America, and all over Eastern Europe. I happened upon Slovakia — perhaps selfishly — seeking an escape, a simple respite from things. This morning my reflection bouncing off the window of the station tells the story. Nothing makes sense; not beauty, nor winter, nor Thomas Merton’s God.


Merton— the writer, poet, and Trappist monk— would have turned 99 today. Had he not been accidentally electrocuted in his cabin at the Red Cross Conference Center in Bangkok, he might even still be working.  Today, his many journals, meditations, and volumes of poetry continue to stimulate those drawn to matters of spirituality. What has always struck me most about him, aside from his hefty output as a writer and critic, was his humanity. And while humanity, seeing as we all possess our equal share, is not in and of itself admirable, in him it was noteworthy. 

 After his post World War II autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain” was published in 1948, he soon became one of the most celebrated religious figures of the time. Though he’d published poems prior to the book, millions were captivated anew on the strength of his memoir and its beautifully wrought transparency. He was praised and questioned, applauded and scrutinized. His confessional prose — which drew many comparisons to St. Augustine — was deemed, by some, unflattering of a monk. At any rate, it was obvious the young writer had tapped into something big, putting a fresh voice to themes such as morality and the meaning of success:

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else's imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!

Merton long wrestled with the praise given him as an artist and intellectual. At times, his professional obligations seemed to contradict his work in the ministry. He’d taken a vow to silence but his work spoke loudly. He drank and went to pubs and fought to keep his urges at bay. Although his books sold millions, his vow of poverty was something he took seriously. Much of the royalties from sales were used to maintain, for example, the financially struggling Abbey of Gethsemani, where he’d spent many years. 

His influence propelled him to levels of achievement shared by his secular counterparts. He received letters from the likes of James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg. Joan Baez made a pilgrimage to Gethsemani just to meet him. And while he’d secured a space for himself in public discourse, his position seemed to only intensify his longing. His was a struggle with loneliness, ambition, and an insatiable spiritual calling. 

In “Notes on Contemplation” Merton wrote, “Walking down a street, sweeping a floor, washing dishes, hoeing beans, reading a book, taking a stroll in the woods — all can be enriched with contemplation and with the obscure sense of the presence of God.” Much of Merton’s work can be looked at as an invitation — an invitation to seek and to grapple with the unseen. To question. To wrestle, like Jacob, until we find meaning. He proposed that life, a full, true, and just life — involves more than mere existence. Existing is immersing oneself in the trivial and paying rent. Living is risky, and it demands an abandon of sorts. A muskrat exists. But you and I can build a fire and memorize poetry and wonder aloud about this mysterious good that surrounds us.

Merton, admittedly, led a rather wild and boisterous youth. His mother died when he was only a boy and his father, a painter, was occupied with his work and his own affairs — eventually dying of a brain tumor when Thomas was a teenager. While studying at Columbia University, after years of giving in to his indulgences, to his womanizing and heavy drinking, his conscience began to do a number on him. He converted to Catholicism in late 1941. He entered into monastic life and devoted himself entirely to the discipline of prayer and study. What followed was years of service and social activism. And although his political involvement as a monk — his outspokenness on issues of war, race, and nonviolence —p ut him at odds with many in and outside of the church, his conviction was deeply felt. He wasn’t afraid to address social issues under the backdrop of a redemption story.  Still, he seemed to always be searching. His Catholicism, his Buddhism, his need to be connected to the divine, was always there.  


I think of Merton’s claim that “to be a contemplative is to be an outlaw.” I think of the High Tatras, the mountain range on the border of Slovakia and Poland, with its 17 peaks; namely the Gerlachovský štít —  the highest of them all — which stands at 2,655 meters. I think of the natives and their stories of run-ins with bears in these very mountains. They speak matter-of factly of the Eurasian lynx and of the many species of wolf native to this land.

The rain begins to let up and, after a time, a train rattles in the distance. As it makes its way within about 30 yards, my brain is bombarded with memories from more lucid days. Entrusted to me was a secret, I know; a word, a life that carried with it both the splendor of the cosmos and the hope of men. The large steel wheels bring the train to a halt, adding to the thickness of the already smoky air. I am reminded of an old television special I had once watched on steam locomotives and how few believed these high-pressured engines would ever work. I stand, looking at one man’s rise over cynicism. I reach for my ticket and walk on board, assisting an elderly woman with her duffle.  Her wrinkly face and pulsating eyes tell a story — her demeanor exuding the kind of strength that could only be obtained through experience. In Russia, these women are called “babushkas,” meaning grandmother. I locate my seat and settle in, placing a few belongings, a tattered knapsack and small water jug, in an overhead slot. 

Minutes later the conductor barks something indecipherable and we’re off. I glance out of the fingerprint-covered windowpane and whisper farewell to a beautiful city, a city to which I may never return. Then I reach into my back pocket and pull out a small stack of Slovak currency and few postcards — one is of the American Embassy in Bratislava and the other of the city center downtown. I am trying to remember.

You wonder at the oddity of these moments, moving from place to place, trapped in this body; moments of clearness, of 

indifference, and moments of fear at the thought of being in the wrong. It seems as though the entire world is looking to make sense of it, each of us trying to find his own way. Some go to horrendous extents just to feel something, anything. We make up what Merton called a “culture of overkill.” There is “extreme individualism and competitiveness” and “an overwhelming preoccupation with the power of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, and psychological overkill.” But there is also beauty. And to be in the mess of it all is to be human.

In 1954, Merton wrote this in a letter to Dom Fox:

I am beginning to face some facts about myself. Yes, need for more of a life of prayer, greater fidelity, greater sincerity and simplicity in doing what God wants of me. Easy to say all that. It depends on getting rid of something very deep and very fundamental in myself [...] Continual, uninterrupted resentment. I resent and even hate Gethsemani. I fight against the place constantly.

Even when we’ve found what we have been looking for, we realize that what we want is more. 

The train moves, leaving behind trails of putrid waste in its wake. As it speeds through endless miles of dilapidated structures and greenery, I consider the future. I consider Merton’s assertion, “We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being.” Heaven forbid we serve as models for hindered praise, where the beauty of an age-old mystery — of life and its uncertainties — is shelved alongside the slush of fairy tales and the memories housed in dusty photo books. This is my Bratislava morning.


Juan Vidal is a writer, cultural critic, and columnist for NPR Books. 

LARB Contributor

Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic. His memoir Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation is available now from Simon & Schuster/Atria Books. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.


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