Mom, Thomas Merton, and the Mystics & Zen Masters

The title of this post isn’t the name of a blues or jazz band, but I can see how it could be.

If mom were living, her birthday would be Wednesday, she’d be 85. That’s hard to imagine but I can’t imagine her being anything other than the bright light she was.

She, like her mom, was a reader. I can still picture her sitting out on the patio, a cigarette in one hand and an open book on her lap. She loved being out there in the quiet of the evening, but still chatting with Dad through the sliding glass door screen while he watched television.

Mom passed away twenty-four years ago, leaving her library that found its way into my sisters’ and my bookcases. Some of the books went to Goodwill, but most ended up with us. Mom did read novels, but her cases were filled with books on faith and spirituality, and that’s where she discovered Thomas Merton.

Last week I started reading this book from Mom’s library. It’s interesting, thought-provoking reading, but what I keep seeing is how closely Mom lived out the tenets of Zen and a contemplative life. One of the points the book emphasizes is that being a contemplative doesn’t mean completely withdrawing from the world and navel-gazing, it’s finding harmony with this world, embracing all the inherent goodness of it – which includes everyone living in it.

There aren’t notes in the margins, or a bookmark stuck in the pages anywhere to indicate whether Mom actually read the book. But she lived her life as if she had. Mom would be the first to say she wasn’t a saint, and my sisters and I would no doubt agree, but in her inherent goodness she chose to see the same in others. The following quotes are Merton’s, but remind me of Mom.

“Let us come alive to the splendor that is all around us, and to see the beauty in ordinary things.”

Our family had a few rough years, and I think part of what got us through was Mom’s ability to see beauty despite the turmoil. Her positive attitude aligned with the quote’s opening, “Let us come alive to the splendor that is all around us,”. Mom was fully alive and if you knew her you saw it in her eyes, her smile, and her laugh. She was always up for trying new things, but also appreciated the simple daily things, like her morning coffee.

For the last several weeks my Facebook feed has been inundated with photos of fall foliage. What could be more ordinary than a tree or a leaf, we see hundreds of them every day. Yet, in each season their beauty makes us pause, and year after year from the first barely visible bud to the stark bare branches, we anticipate the changes with excitement and awe.

Mom saw beauty in nature, but also in people. She always found a person’s inner and outer beauty and drew it out.

“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love to be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.”

My sisters and I grew up with guidance – Mom and Dad wanting us to grow into strong, independent, faithful women – and we had rules (which I’m sure each of us bent), but I don’t remember Mom ever trying to bend us completely away from our nature. She loved who were, where we were, and supported our wanderings. When I wanted to join Rainbow Girls, the young girls’ affiliation of the Masonic Temple, she didn’t blanch or bat an eye over the fact that as Catholics that might be an issue, because for her it wasn’t. And when the priest paid us a visit to find out why I wanted to join the organization, I knew Mom was in my corner.

She held various jobs that put her in touch with the public – an office manager in two different doctors’ offices, a waitress, and a clerk at the DMV. My sisters and I still hear stories of how she treated each person with genuine love, no matter their ‘station’ in life.

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.”

This quote aptly describes how my sisters and I were raised. The bottom line in decision-making was always “What’s the most loving thing to do?”  It was that simple and that challenging. While love can change people, sometimes it doesn’t, and I don’t think that was Mom’s point. Our love for others changes us, and in that we find others’ worthiness.

A couple years ago I spent an hour or so at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Merton’s home for the last 27 years of his life. As expected, there was an immediate sense of being on sacred ground, a solitude that extended deeper than simply hearing only the birds. Mom would have enjoyed visiting the abbey too. There are two shrines in Ohio that are special places for my sisters and me because of her appreciation for sacred space. While visiting those places fed her spirituality, she created that sacred space internally and it extended outward.

Wednesday I’ll head to McDonald’s, as I do every November 24th, for my large coffee to celebrate her. I may have to add a dessert since this birthday would have been a big one. I’ll take the book, and my journal – my way of discussing it with her and gaining some of her inherent goodness and wisdom.

Thursday we enter the season that feels like the greatest twisting of being in this world but not of it, as the sacred and the secular compete for attention. I think that soulful blues and jazz combo, Mom and the Zen Masters, would remind us those worlds aren’t necessarily separate. Harmony is seeing the sacred in the secular. May that be the case for all of us.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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2 Responses to Mom, Thomas Merton, and the Mystics & Zen Masters

  1. Thanks, Kim, for another insightful post. I didn’t know your mother, but I feel as though I do because of your writing. I love all the quotes. Confession: I didn’t know Thomas Merton was an actual person, nor that he lived in the US. Happy Thanksgiving to you & your family.

    • Good morning Martha, first, I miss you. I hope to see you soon. Second, thank you. Mom had a special beauty, inside and out, that came from humility, hurt, and healing. She truly was a blessing to many and even though you never met her in person, I’m glad you know her now. Yes, Thomas was a real person! I think you’d enjoy his books – there are several for sure lol. I hope you and your family had a bountiful Thanksgiving. Love, Kim

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