Facilitating the leap towards the transcendent?

In the light of Pope Francis’s exhortation in Laudato si’ to ‘facilitate the leap towards the transcendent’, Elizabeth Rainsford-McMahon reflects on Thomas Merton’s prose as a potential response to the papal plea.

­­­­­­­Working in the Modern Languages department of a French university is to belong to a system of higher education where, due to the early twentieth-century French law on secularism in the public domain, only two public universities have a theology department. Even the Faculty for Catholic Theology at the University of Strasbourg argues for its legitimacy through the cultural or historical importance of the discipline, and as a result, theology finds a voice through other disciplines. When designing a module on the climate crisis as projected through literary texts, I wished to focus on the neglect of the spiritual dimension within ecological reflection. Among the texts explored I chose a selection of prose passages from Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Each example was a watershed in the flow of the text, where the attention to Merton’s meandering observations is interrupted and forced to linger in an alternative space. One striking example is physically set apart from the flow of prose, by being enframed by rows of asterisms. It is 4 a.m., the time of Prime. Merton stands out of doors and describes what he sees:

Cold stars. Steam coming up out of the kitchens into the freezing night (4:00 A.M.) Frost on the side of the coal pile outside the furnace room. Dirty bread lying in the gravel, frozen, for birds. Creak of the frosty wooden steps down to the infirmary. Flamingos on the Standard Oil calendar in the kitchen. Hot tea.1

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