In the months before his untimely death in 1968, the celebrated Christian monk and author, Thomas Merton, began to focus much of his attention on his place in the natural world. His journal entries from these months are replete with accounts of his "deep peace" experiences of simply sitting in a meadow, on a mountain, on the shore of the ocean.
As I see it, Merton's accounts of his "nature" experiences at the end of his life are quite different from his earlier books, meditations, and journal entries. They are far less traditionally religious and not as theological. They are, in fact, quite similar to the "in the wild" meditations of Henry David Thoreau - not reflections "about" the natural world, but meditations about belonging to the natural world, "being at-one-with the wilderness."
In his later years, Thomas Merton was deeply influenced by Buddhist teaching. He often wrote about what he called "the hidden wholeness" of the world. On the surface everything seems divided, and separated and broken, but beneath the surface, the true nature of the world is unbroken, a dynamic web of relationship.
In his last months of life, Merton's contemplative practice in the world of nature showed him that it was indeed possible to go beneath the surface of an ego-driven consciousness and become aware of that "hidden wholeness" by the simple act of "paying attention."
And that's how Thomas Merton spent much of the last part of his life - simply sitting "in the wild" with an uncluttered mind and an open heart, "paying attention" to it all.
I particularly like one of his later journal entries:
A sweet summer afternoon. Cool breezes and a clear sky.
This day will not come again.
The young bulls lie under a tree in the corner of their field.
Quiet afternoon. Blue hills. Day lilies nod in the wind.
This day will not come again.
Yesterday I had one of those "hidden wholeness" moments that came to me by a simple act of paying attention.
"The Living Desert," is a beautiful desert garden just a few miles away from our home - sprawling acres of wilderness sanctuary established to preserve the natural wildlife of the area and to teach the public about the kind of vegetation that grows in this desert climate. Yesterday we spent some time there.
One of the areas of this desert sanctuary is devoted to remembering and celebrating the life of the ancient ancestors and original settlers of this valley - the tribe of the Cahuilla Indians. The plants and herbs, flowers and desert trees that were common to those original peoples fills this area of the sanctuary- some were quite exotic and as I had never seen them before, I was especially "paying attention" as we walked throughout this part of the "garden."
Then there was that one simple moment. It was a "Merton-like" moment of awareness - a moment in the "now" that could never again be repeated: "This day will not come again."
While standing in front of a brilliantly blooming "Palo Verde" tree, surrounded by the plants and trees, the flowering cacti, the fragrances of the exotic herbs, the same herbs used by those original tribal peoples of ancient times, I suddenly became aware of "wholeness." One brief moment of awareness of the true nature of the world: "hidden wholeness."
When we first moved out to the desert, my neighbor jokingly said to me, "Welcome to paradise." I'm not exactly sure what he meant when he said this, but I have come to know it's true. I do live in paradise. Paradise is a land of pristine, unbroken "oneness," and I live in that land even though it is often hidden from my sight.
But then again we all live in paradise. Paradise is the native land of every human being- always available to us by the simple act of "paying attention."