|For an example of Merton’s photography click on the picture. Merton’s photographs are copyright by the Merton Legacy Trust and the
Thomas Merton called his camera a "Zen camera" - because as far as I can tell, what he understood and meant by "Zen" was very close to his understanding of contemplation. His photographs show us something of how he saw the world. Just as the light from the world outside enters the aperture of the camera and makes an image on the exposed strip of celluloid, so we get to see the image that was reflected in Merton's own "mind-mirror," a term used by the well-known writer on Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki.
We see not only what Merton saw in that captured moment but we see something of how he saw - we have literally an in-sight into Merton: what is written within me is there.
Every picture Merton took was, in a sense, a self-portrait. In the tree roots and tree trunks, in the peeling paint and household utensils, in the sea rock mist and half hidden mountain and perhaps most of all in the patterns of light and shade, we catch a glimpse of the identity and character of the person we call Thomas Merton.
The pictures are a self-portrait in another way too. As we look at the pictures and as we see, we may discover a new vision - our own vision.
Although Thomas Merton took the pictures, and on one level we see what he saw, and even come to appreciate something of how he saw, in reality we can only see what we see. Our vision is our own and nobody else's, just as the life of each of us is our own alone.
This is the essential non-communicability of experience - Merton for all his writing about contemplation cannot communicate contemplation to us and he says as much.
Suzuki says the same about Zen. This is perhaps common to all art - the artist expresses herself and some of that expression (but only some) may (or may not) be communicated to us as we look at the work - but our experience is not (and cannot be) that of the artist.
Merton's pictures invite us to lose ourselves in them and see what we might find. They invite us to take the time to allow what will reveal itself in the almost abstract patterns of light and dark, conscious that if we fully enter the picture and allow it to be fully reflected in the mind-mirror of our own soul, what we see and experience may be totally beyond words or expression.
These pictures need to be contemplated rather than studied and in doing so they help us to learn how to see. And as we learn to see we may discover a hidden wholeness - communion with reality, our oneness with all that is - with one another and with all matter - with God, the ground of our being, the hidden ground of love - and most of all, perhaps we may discover the wholeness that is hidden within ourselves and so grow more fully into who we are.
The Rev. Angus Stuart, rector of St. Francis-in-the-Wood, is a longtime student of Thomas Merton. This is part of a talk he gave at the Sacred Box Gallery in Vancouver in August at an exhibition of Merton's photographs, which has now moved on to Loyola University in Chicago.
Photographs by Thomas Merton. Used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the