Celtic Monasticism as a Metaphor for Thomas Merton's Journey.

Paul M Pearson


In a journal entry dated July 18th 1964 Thomas Merton mentions that he has received a copy of The Voyage of St. Brendan and that he has begun "studying it as a tract on monastic life. The myth of pilgrimage, the quest for the impossible island, the earthly paradise, the ultimate ideal. As a myth it is, however, filled with a deep truth of its own." (1) The Voyage of St. Brendan and Celtic Monasticism seemed very much to occupy Merton from that summer of 1964 onwards. He makes references to them in his journals, in a number of letters and says that he is both preparing notes on Celtic Monasticism to use with his novices and considering the possibilities for a book on the subject. In the end the only article Merton wrote on Celtic Monasticism was "From Pilgrimage to Crusade" in his book Mystics and Zen Masters.

Merton found in Celtic Monasticism and in The Voyage of St. Brendan, in particular, a way of understanding monastic life and his own monastic life and this was why he was so fascinated by this subject and saw in it, as he says in a letter to Dame Hildelith Cumming, a "symbolic tract on the monastic life." (2)

In this article I would like to suggest that the important concept Merton found so attractive in Celtic Monasticism was its understanding of pilgrimage.

The metaphor of journey is widely used in understanding the Christian life and it is also a metaphor frequently used by and about Merton. It is a metaphor that covered his physical travels of his early life before entering the monastery and his final pilgrimage to the East, it covered his continuing conversion of life as a monk, his conversion to compassion and his conversion to his fellow human beings. Journey was also the metaphor he used to understand his search for God and for his true self.

Alongside such metaphors as solitary explorer, guilty bystander, stranger, wanderer, marginal person, Merton also used the metaphor of pilgrim of himself. In his Asian Journal Merton refered to himself as a pilgrim - "I have left my monastery to come here not just as a research scholar or even as an author. I come as a pilgrim...to drink from ancient sources of monastic vision and experience." (3)

The idea of pilgrimage, of a sacred journey, seems to be almost instinctive to humankind and can be found in all the great religious traditions. In his article "From Pilgrimage to Crusade" Merton had spoken of this idea of pilgrimage as a geographical pilgrimage which was "the symbolic acting out of an inner journey" and had contrasted to this an inner journey which was "the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage" and though it would be possible to have a geographical pilgrimage without an inner journey and vice versa it would be "best to have both." (4) Merton's own journey consisted of twenty-six years of geographical wandering and pilgrimage followed by twenty-seven years of inner pilgrimage or journey, until finally his inner journey was acted out in his pilgrimage to Asia.

In the Celtic monks of Ireland the geographical pilgrimage and inner journey were more closely linked than was often the case with other wandering monks on the continent. They saw three forms of pilgrimage. Firstly, a geographical pilgrimage in body only where the spirit remains unchanged. Secondly, an inner pilgrimage, where, though the spirit and soul journey towards God, the body remains physically stable. Thirdly, the perfect pilgrimage where a man leaves his country in both body and soul and journeys in search of the absolute, the very source of being. So the ideal for the Celtic monks was both the geographical pilgrimage and the inner journey. Their pilgrimage was not a pilgrimage to a shrine and afterwards to return home, no, their ideal was the man who "for his soul's welfare abandoned his homeland for good or at least for many years." (5) The Celtic monk who withdrew "from home and kindred, even from the larger religious community" (6) to pass his life, or a period of his life, in solitude became one of the most important aspects of Irish asceticism and one of its chief legacies to later ages.

All Christians are on a journey or pilgrimage and for Merton, as for the Celtic monks, the fountainhead of this idea of journey as a pattern for the spiritual life was Abraham, his journey is the example for all pilgrimages. As St. Columba is reputed to have said in a sermon:
"God counselled Abraham to leave his own country and go in pilgrimage into the land which God had shown him, to wit, the 'Land of Promise'...Now the good counsel which God enjoined here on the father of the faithful is incumbent on all the faithful; that is to leave their country and their land, their wealth and their worldly delight for the sake of the Lord of the Elements, and go in perfect pilgrimage in imitation of Him." (7)

Merton also used the call of Abraham as an example of monastic life, like Abraham's journey from Ur of the Chaldeans monastic life also involved a journey, leaving home in search of God. He saw monastic life as a journey into the unknown, by becoming a monk "one becomes a stranger, an exile." "We go into the midst of the unknown, we live on earth as strangers" (8) so that the monk is not at home on earth, not even in the monastery. There is a feeling of exile:
"We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners,
With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like sentinels upon the world's frontier." (9)
The radical, basic feeling of loneliness felt in the monastic life Merton attributed to this sense of exile. It was a loneliness essential to the vocation as "monks are supposed to be exiles." (10)

In Celtic monasticism exile was also an important theme, monks went on pilgrimage for the love of, or in the name of God, a pilgrimage in search of solitude and exile. Their pilgrimage, since Ireland is an island, almost inevitably involved some form of sea voyage. Often these monks floated off aimlessly into the sea in the belief that God would lead them to that particular place he had chosen for their exile. The Saxon Chronicler tells of one such group of Irishmen who arrived on the Cornish coast in 891 having "stolen away because they wished for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, they cared not wither." (11) Often these monks would use their considerable skill in navigation and, following Abraham's example, go off in search for the promised land.

One of the most famous of these voyages is The Voyage of St. Brendan. It is impossible to know how much of The Voyage is historical and how much is myth and much time has been spent speculating which geographical islands those in Brendan's voyage match and a similar voyage to America has been re-enacted to try and prove Brendan was the first European to discover America. But, for us, The Voyage of St. Brendan merits attention because of its monastic character, and it is this essentially monastic character of The Voyage which, I believe, throws light upon the usefulness of Celtic pilgrimage as a metaphor for Merton's journey.

So, what is this monastic character in The Voyage of St. Brendan? The Voyage is monastic to its core: it is a tales about monks, by monks, and at least in its original manuscript context, for monks, and this can be seen in a variety of ways:- The chanting of the divine office, prolonged fasts, and obedience to the abbot, are all central to the narrative. The voyage lasts for seven years and each year begins and ends with the two major celebrations in the church's year, Easter and Christmas. Fasts and feasts alternate and "correspond to the daily and yearly round of the monastery." (12) The length of the fasts, caused by the deprivations of the sea voyages, are of either two, three, fifteen, twenty or forty days and "the completion of the significant number seems to take precedence, when approaching an island, over the tide or wind," (13) so that the narrative comes across as stylised, abstract and non-naturalistic. From these factors it is possible to say that the monasticism of The Voyage is not an additional extra but its "central organizational principle both thematically and structurally," (14) as it was as well to Merton's life and journey.

The Voyage seems to operate on two dimensions simultaneously. As some scholars have tried to prove the whole voyage is highly plausible. The "Promised Land of the Saints" is not an allegory for Heaven but a real place and this is supported by the plausibility of the land Brendan and his crew discover. Unlike some places he visits on his voyage it is to a normal scale, if not modest "the land is broad and vast, crossed by a wide river, and exceptionally (though hardly supernaturally) bountiful" and they spend their time ashore "reconnoitring" rather than in "beatific visions", and there are neither "celestial choirs" nor "divine epiphanies." (15) So the first dimension is highly plausible.

The second dimension of The Voyage though is that "there is a certain strangeness to the geographical layout which cannot easily be discounted." (16) Barrind and Mernoc, from whom Brendan learns of the "Promised Land of the Saints," reach land after only "about an hour" (17) of sailing whereas Brendan voyages for seven years "apparently circling the place all the time, before the proper kairos is reached and he is finally permitted a landfall." (18) This second dimension is reinforced through a modern textual difficulty as to the direction in which Brendan sails - the manuscripts differ, some suggests "East" and some "West". If it is "West" then the geographical theories are feasible, but, if it is "East" then the "geographical considerations must give way to thematic and typological ones," (19) and the impression that Brendan is circling the Promised Land all the time is reinforced and the "East" becomes a rich symbolic image.

Brendan's seven years of voyaging is within the liturgical calendar of the church and through this cycle one is given a strong impression of circling. Despite tides, winds or storms Brendan and his crew keep scrupulously to the cycle of spending Easter in the locality of the Island of Sheep and Christmas with the monastic community of Ailbe. But though such stylisation suggests the voyage is allegorical there is enough realism to make it plausible as well. It has been suggested that the tension between realism and stylisation is deliberate, an attempt to hold the two dimensions together so that the voyage unfolds "simultaneously in both a geographical and a liturgical reality." (20)

I would like to view this weaving together of the two different spatio-temporal realities against the background of the nine canons or sutras that Raimundo Panikkar uses to define his monastic archetype in Blessed Simplicity. Canon five, "overcoming spatio-temporal parameters", and canon six, "transhistorical consciousness above historical concerns" (21) are concerned with the monk's relationship to time and place. Panikkar sees temporality as a dimension of the eternal, like "concentric circles emanating out of the same centre" so that human time is "contained within and unfolds within the dimension of the eternal; the eternal, conversely, does not take away from the reality of human time, but floods through it, illuminating it while at the same time introducing a transcendent dimension" (22) and the monk is one who "deliberately places himself in the overlap zone" (23) of the concentricity of temporal and eternal. So Panikkar can say that "the crux of this experience lies in experiencing this other dimension in the midst of the very everyday realities which normally presents itself to us as spatio-temporal." (24) The Transfiguration is for Panikkar the Christian symbol of this par excellence. The Christ of the Transfiguration, who the apostles see and speak to in time and space, has nonetheless transcended that sphere and past and future are made present." (25)

This spatio-temporal tension is a "hallmark of a characteristically monastic orientation towards life" (26) and it is in the overlapping zone between "the temporal and the eternal, between the times and places of the world and their larger infusing divine reality" that The Voyage of St. Brendan, and indeed, all archetypal monastic life unfolds. A specific example of this happening in The Voyage is when Brendan is on the Island of Sheep to celebrate Maundy Thursday and, in the spotless lamb they select from the numerous sheep on the island, Christ, the one spotless victim is vividly embodied - the liturgical cycle and their own voyage in space and time come together and infuse one another.

The Voyage of St. Brendan is neither strictly realistic nor strictly allegorical, it is somewhere in between. The same can be said of "The Promised Land of the Saints," it is found in "transfigured reality." (27) The Voyage has a "characteristically monastic orientation towards life, which expresses itself both in the destination of the journey and in the process through which the journey unfolds" (28) and it is an "exploration, not just of lands and places, but of the attempt to live, move and respond to the world out of a transfigured centre." (29) Merton would equate this centre with that centre where both the true self and God are to be found. Brendan's voyage to "The Promised Land of the Saints" in holding together the two tensions between the temporal and the eternal also holds together the tension between the external, geographical pilgrimage and the inner pilgrimage or journey. Gradually after the age of the historical figure Brendan there is an interiorization of the pilgrimage theme especially in monastic literature so that the perfect pilgrimage of the monk becomes "entirely spiritual and is in fact synonymous with monastic stability," (30) and the monk's imitation of Abraham involved leaving "the world" for the monastery cloister and stability.

In the Celtic voyage literature such as The Voyage of St. Brendan it is possible to see all the metaphors that have been used by or about Thomas Merton, also this specific metaphor brings together the elements of journey in his writing. In his article "From Pilgrimage to Crusade" Merton saw in Celtic pilgrimage that "the external and geographical pilgrimage was...something more than the acting out of psychic obsessions and instabilities. It was in profound relationship with an inner experience of continuity between the natural and the supernatural, between the sacred and the profane, between this world and the next: a continuity both in time and space." (31) This is an insight that can be applied to Merton's life as well. He went from a physical journey which was a flight from "the world", to a spiritual journey where he rediscovered "the world" and his fellow sisters and brothers in finding God and compassion, arriving at a point where on his journey to Asia the two journeys, the two tensions, came together, so that, like Brendan discovering "The Promised Land of the Saints", Merton could say at Polonnaruwa after having found "the great compassion" that "I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don't know what else remains." (32)

Through monastic ascesis Merton had learned to live out of "a transfigured centre," (33) as a monk he experienced a life lived in that zone where the temporal and the eternal overlap. His sense of exploring, wandering, homelessness, questioning, strangeness, his continuing conversion, his sense of journeying kept him moving forward like St. Brendan, like Abraham in search of the Promised Land.

Merton's journey like Brendan's is cyclical. Reading The Voyage sometimes "gives us the feeling that he goes round in cycles in more ways than the liturgical. But he did have a sense of ending," (34) so also with Merton. Monastic life and spirituality tend to be cyclical with their sense of rhythm and with their emphasis on the repetition of the psalms, the liturgical hours, the church's seasons and yet, by stability, they stand still, so that, in a paradoxical way, the monk stands still and goes round in circles, or a spiral may be a better image as the purpose of monastic life is to find God, it has an ending, a Promised Land, unlike a circle which goes on forever.

Anne Hawkins saw Merton's journey as a spiral. In an intellectual sense there was a "dialectical movement from one idea to its opposite to a higher unity" and also a physical movement of "encountering the same situation over and over, but at a higher level each time." (35) Also, on a spiritual level, the notion of epektesis suggests a linear movement, but, situated within the context of the absolute which does not change, the spiral is also a suitable image. So, in looking at Merton's journey, she could conclude that "it is this ethos of paradox, of contradictions, of open-ended questioning that turns the archetype of the quest into a spiral." (36)

Celtic pilgrimage, especially The Voyage of St. Brendan, as well as encapsulating the metaphors that relate to Merton's life as a journey and placing them within the context of a sacred journey also highlights two other important areas for our understanding of Merton. Firstly, his ability to journey in the zone where the temporal and the eternal overlap, thus bringing together the physical and spiritual journeys, and from that tension learning to live out of a transfigured centre, and, secondly, that the journey is circular, or more precisely a spiral, like the metaphor of The Seven Storey Mountain, spiralling upwards towards God.

Merton's journey was a lonely pilgrimage, a journey where it was necessary to go beyond and to "travel without maps," (37) to try and to journey as a marginalised person in that zone where the eternal and the temporal overlap. This metaphor of pilgrimage leads to the discovery of both God and the true self, and in this discovery one learns to live out of a "transfigured centre" out of "the great compassion" and discover in that compassion all humanity. As Merton said in Mystics and Zen Masters:
"Our task now is to learn that if we can voyage to the ends of the earth and there find ourselves in the aborigine who most differs from ourselves, we will have made a fruitful pilgrimage. That is why pilgrimage is necessary, in some shape or other. Mere sitting at home and meditating on the divine presence is not enough for our time. We have to come to the end of a long journey and see that the stranger we meet there is no other than ourselves - which is the same as saying that we find Christ in him.
"For if the Lord is risen as He said, He is actually or potentially alive in every man. Our pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre is our pilgrimage to the stranger who is Christ our fellow-pilgrim and our brother. There is no lost island merely for the individual. We are all pieces of the paradise island, and we can find our Brendan's island only when we all realize ourselves together as the paradise which is Christ and His bride, God, man and church." (38)


(1) Merton. T, A Vow of Conversation. Ed. Stone, Naomi Burton. (Basingstoke. 1988.) p64.
(2) Merton, T. The School of Charity. Ed. Hart, P. (New York. 1990.) p223.
(3) Merton, T. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Ed. Burton, N., Hart, P., and Laughlin, J. (London. 1974.) pp312/3. (Abbreviated to AJ.)
(4) Merton, T. Mystics and Zen Masters. (New York. 1988.) p92. (Abbreviated to MZM.)
(5) Mackey, James P. Ed. An Introduction to Celtic Christianity. (Edinburgh. 1989.) p103. (Abbreviated to ICC.)
(6) Chadwick, Nora. The Age of the Saints in the Early Celtic Church. (London. 1961.) p82. (Abbreviated to Age.)
(7) Age. p83.
(8) Merton, T. Life and Prayer: Journey in Christ. Electronic Paperbacks. (New York.)
(9) Merton, T. The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. (London. 1978.) p201.
(10) Merton, T. Life and Prayer: Journey in Christ.
(11) Hughes, Kathleen. "The Changing Theory and Practice of Irish Pilgrimage." Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 11. (1960.) p143.
(12) Bray, Dorothy Anne. "A Note on the Life of St. Brendan." Cistercian Studies. 20. (1985.) p20.
(13) O'Meara, J.J. Ed. The Voyage of St. Brendan. (Portlaoise. 1981.) pXVII. (Abbreviated to Voyage.)
(14) Bourgeault, Cynthia. "The Monastic Archetype in the Navigatio of St. Brendan." Monastic Studies. 14. (1983.) p112. (Abbreviated to MA.)
(15) Ibid. p113.
(16) Ibid.
(17) Voyage. p4.
(18) MA. pp113/4.
(19) Ibid. p114.
(20) Ibid. p115.
(21) Panikkar, R. Blessed Simplicity. (New York. 1982.) p39. (Abbreviated to BS.)
(22) MA. p116.
(23) Ibid.
(24) BS. p65.
(25) Ibid. pp65/6.
(26) MA. p116.
(27) Ibid. p119.
(28) Ibid.
(29) Ibid. p120.
(30) MZM. p93.
(31) Ibid. p97.
(32) AJ. p4 and p236.
(33) MA. p120.
(34) ICC. p91.
(35) Hawkins, A.H. Archetypes of Conversion. (London. 1985.) p119.
(36) Ibid. p125.
(37) Merton, T. Contemplation in a World of Action. (London. 1971.) p109.
(38) MZM. p112.

[ Paul M Pearson and used with permission.]

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