Art and Spirit - A Vamp on Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, writing of his conversion to Catholicism in The Seven Storey Mountain, underscores his realization that the creating of art is a contemplative act as one of the primary reasons he converted to Catholicism.

He thanks his study of William Blake’s poetry for this realization; specifically how ‘Blake rejected literalism and naturalism in lieu of the mystical and the supernatural.’ Merton expanded this reflection to the people in his life, especially his own father:

“I had learned from my own father that it was almost blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to reproduce some kind of a sensible pleasure or, at best, to stir the emotions to a transitory thrill. I had always understood that art was contemplation, and that it involved the action of the highest faculties of man.”

The artistic process, as Merton sees it, is integrally entwined with the artist’s spiritual practice. The artistic process IS the artist’s spiritual practice.

This sentiment, the conjoining of the artistic and the spiritual, has always made ready sense to me, and although I do a poor job of synthesizing the two regularly, the devotion that creating art requires draws on the same soul-source that my spiritual practice (a practice that is admittedly loose and haphazard) also employs.

I can’t at this point separate the two practices.

To vamp on Merton’s ideas, though, I would add a couple of clarifications/realizations.

One: thanks to good old American commodification, we often expect a product from art, a ware that can be sold to the world as some end-result of our artistic efforts. Although I respond to this like any American would (maybe MY novel will be discovered, and I’ll make a gazillion dollars) this notion is demeaning to the act of creating art as a spiritual practice where the art is as much in the doing as it is in the artifact being made.

Two: Merton’s own vision of having once wanted to be known and validated as a novelist—a desperate validation I am familiar with—portrays art as a singular, myopic act. As a younger man, I often held in great esteem those writers who sacrificed family, health, sanity for the pursuance of their art. Merton, who eventually lived a monastic life away from the temptations and the messiness of day to day America, is making art sound like a singular process when it is multi-faceted, raggedy, personal and public – much like the pursuance of spiritual matters.

These ideas—that artistic and spiritual work must produce something, that there is only one God, one religion, one way at the exclusion of all else—reduces and diminishes the many routes, the many small acts, that we all have available to us to go beyond the literal world before us and enter into the mystical, the supernatural.