Sugar maple tree torches the mottled sky.

Trickster winds nudge a single leaf from its mooring.

Like a gymnast, it sworls, down, down, down.

Then sticks to the glistening pavement,

its stem upright,

its hairy veins deplete of nutrients.

Musk saturates the air.

Crows gawk.

Yet decay rejuvenates the cycle of life.

Spring will whisper again under dove-gray skies.

1945 saw the publishing of The Seven Storey Mountain written by the very young Thomas Merton, at the behest of his Abbot at the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. He recognized his exceptional gifts as a writer and wanted his story of conversion told.

Its title references the Purgatorio, the seven-tiered mountain in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, a course Merton followed when a student at Clare College, Cambridge. Although he was still enmeshed in riotous living, he did glimpse Dante’s poetic synthesis of scholastic philosophy, critical for his later conversion to Catholicism.

And An Autobiography of Faith, the book’s subtitle, frames Merton’s unique approach to his material. Its beginnings suggest the components of memoir: lush descriptions, dialogue, humor, and honesty that carry his formative influences, all the while surrounded by sparring partners, intelligent beyond description.

Always a voracious reader, Merton later stumbles upon significant philosophers, Aldous Huxley, Etienne Gilson, Leon Bloy, Jacques Maritain; upon British poets, William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins: upon Eastern and western mystics and many others. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton coalesces their teachings like autobiographical stepping-stones that eventually lead him to enter Gethsemani—Such that it mirrors Augustine’s Confessions in importance.

By the time of his final profession as a Trappist, 1944, he wrote: I decided that I no longer knew what a contemplative was, or what the contemplative vocation was. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and after that I was expected to follow along with the others and do what I was told and things would begin to come clear.

Upon such radical surrender to God, Merton revisioned the practice of contemplative prayer, worldwide. He continues to teach, despite his 1968 untimely death.

At 7:25 A.M., I awoke to this jarring dream:

It is early morning. I’m barefoot and wear a hospital gown on an indigent women’s 12-bed ward. A radio plays. Other patients receive help with their daily care. On my way to the bathroom, I feel wetness between my legs. I’m hemorrhaging; pools of blood splatter the floor. Too weak to clean it up or ask for help, I continue to the bathroom. Later, I notice someone had mopped up the blood. Hemorrhaging occurs later in the day, but I vaguely remember it. That evening, the head nurse restores my ring of belonging, but instead of it being round, she presents me with a square one.

I still shudder with the implications of this dream. I’m alone, impoverished, in dire straights in the hands of my caregivers. Excessive hemorrhaging has enervated me and seems to be an ongoing problem. No longer can I tend to most of my needs.I see no way out of this morass. Nor does death seem imminent—just worsening of my symptoms.

The number twelve as in 12-bed ward suggests a fullness, a complementarity that corresponds to twelve months of the year, to the twelve apostles, and to the twelve Knights of the Round Table, and other groupings of twelve. In the dream 12 indigent women, I among them, occupy the ward: their circumstances could not be more wretched.

To keep her charges compliant within the rules and regulations, the head nurse, the sole authority on the ward, uses cheap trinkets—No matter that I preferred the round ring that I’d been given, when admitted to the ward, to the ill-fitting square one I placed on my finger.

As Monster Passivity licks its jowls and tears into what remains of my afflicted body, I cry out for help. It will come.

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