Merton's Prayer 16 (Part 2)

“What can I say about the emptiness and freedom into whose door I entered for that half-minute, which was enough for a lifetime, because it was a new life altogether? There is nothing with which to compare it. I could call it nothingness, but it is an infinitely fruitful freedom, to lack all things and to lack my self in the fresh air of that happiness that seems to be above all modes of being. Don’t let me build any more walls around it, or I will shut myself out.

“It seems to me that I shall never desire anything but this pure love of You which is You loving Yourself, not only in my soul, but in all my faculties so that they are empty and lost and finished and done with and nothing is left but liberty.” (Entering the Silence, 127; Dialogues with Silence, 47, 49)



John Wu, Jr.

I wonder if any of you have ever had the kind of experience that Merton speaks of here. Something similar happened in my late 20s on a retreat near Washington D.C. at the Holy Cross Abbey nestled along the banks of the Shenandoah River in Berryville, VA. I will never forget it even though its sense and rhythm remains inexplicable to this day.

Holy Cross Abbey is a Trappist community. In those days, in part urged on by Vatican II reforms, enthusiastic Christians were fired up by the ideals of Christian unity. It was not surprising that some Catholic monasteries attracted Protestants of many persuasions. On that particular week in May, 1970, there were several young Lutherans who, like me, were at the Abbey for some days of peace and quiet. For me, it was a very special time for my wife, Terry, and I had decided to make Taiwan our new home for the next few years. For me, the retreat was a time of discernment: Could God grant us some assurance that our future was not merely a whim? Our first born, Thomas Merton Wu (Wu Tsao-an), conceived in New Jersey, was merely 14 months old and Terry, shortly after, became pregnant with our daughter, Raissa (Tsao-fen). We later named her after the wife of Jacques Maritain, the French neo-Thomist philosopher, for during her pregnancy Terry had been much touched while reading the beautiful spiritual Memoirs of Madam Maritain.

Though at a retreat, the young Lutherans were lively and fun-loving. One of them had brought with him a simple method of meditation and, as we sat on the grass under a great oak, we took turns being his guinea pig. He asked each to meditate on one single word. When it came my turn, I chose the word love, and under his direction, I did what the others had done before me. He asked me to close my eyes in order to better concentrate and at the same time breathe slowly and deeply. As I did so, I bobbed my head, first, from side to side, then forward and backward, and finally from corner to corner, all the time continuing to breathe slowly and deeply and meditating not so much on the abstract concept of love or even on any of its concrete manifestations, but on love as a boundless principle, that is at the very source of life itself. Later I was told that within seconds, I had gone immediately into a deep trance. Apparently, I had lost normal consciousness, entering into an episode of ever deeper breathing—now out of my control—that, as far as I knew, I had done absolutely nothing to evoke. While deep in the trance—which I vividly remembered as peaceful and tranquil—I had no knowledge of what the others, watching me, no doubt curiously, had been privy to. People speak of out-of-body experiences; this may very well have been such an experience for me.

When I regained my normal consciousness—perhaps no more than a minute later, but which, like Merton’s, seemed “enough for a lifetime”—the others stared at me with disbelief but smiling faces. One said excitedly, “Were you ever in a deep trance! Where did you go?!” Another exclaimed, “You seemed under the power of some higher being!” A third, our “director,” the most fun-loving of the bunch, said, “Holy Cow! You were breathing so deep, we thought you had left us and would never come back again!”

Nearly forty years later, I am still as dumbfounded as I have ever been regarding what happened. Frankly, I do not know what to make of it. Yet, the realness of that vision, of being carried away or transported to another realm into what others might call an experience of transcendence has never left me and is, in fact, as close to me today as it was when it first occurred four decades ago. It indelibly strengthens my beliefs and not only makes possible but confirms in me that our true vocation is the hallowing of the everyday, when we realize the commonplace is in fact eternity. Like the simple way that Merton describes his “half-minute,” I too heard no voices, nor felt any extraordinary sense of ecstasy or saw any vision that some saints as Teresa of Avila describes so vividly. Moreover, having such an experience does not suggest that one is favored by God. My own take on it is that, perhaps, I was given a glimpse of Eden because God had known even before my birth the great need I have always had to be continuously assured of the reality of faith. That one minute of being transported into His loving and merciful bosom is perhaps my salvation for it remains entirely unforgettable.

Merton’s prayer can be said to be a footnote to what I experienced and, I add, continue to experience whenever my mind, not in full control, drifts off to that blessed late morning Spring day under that vast oak in the delightful Shenandoah Valley. Was it the presence of God that touched us all that morning? I do not even remember one name from among the playful, jolly young men nor from where they had come. Yet, their lives are somehow intertwined with mine, perhaps, for all eternity. Well, why not?