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Seminal Conjectures

john heid
On Seeds (November 2023)
Inward Light

Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Sower at Sunset” imprinted within me at first glance. As if the Sower had walked right off the canvas into my soul. Scattering seed. The Gospel story was up on its feet. The Sower and I were one. We met in an art appreciation class in the seminary where I was a fledgling Franciscan. Ever since, the Sower has never left me, even though my life’s path has gone off into other fields, beyond the Franciscans, beyond Catholicism.

The Sower and I converged in the autumn of 1968, that tumultuous year of assassinations and escalating war. Seeds of violence were being sown wildly around the world. December finally came, and I sighed in relief, but too soon.

Word, like lightening, flashed across our community – Father Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and opponent of nuclear weapons, was dead. At the time, his death was attributed to an electrical accident, but some believe he was murdered. (See: Hugh Turley and David Martin, 2018.)

I didn’t think much about Father Merton for several years after his death, until he slipped back into my life in another seminary class – American Literature. Only two books were required for the course: Denise Levertov’s Relearning the Alphabet and Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. The book was, in Merton’s own words, his “personal version of the world in the 1960s, an implicit dialogue with other minds, a dialogue in which questions are raised. But do not expect to find ‘my answers.’”

There are only four books that I have kept from those seminary years and have carried through nearly a dozen major address changes: my family Bible, my Seventh Edition Webster’s Dictionary, my father’s copy of Field Guide to the Birds by Roger Tory Peterson, and Father Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

Merton was a prolific writer of both prose and poetry. His “Seeds” books are terra firma in the world of contemplation and engaged spirituality: Seeds of Contemplation, New Seeds of Contemplation, and Seeds of Destruction. They are at once timeless and acutely current. Ironically, his monastic environs and years of solitude nurtured Merton’s sense of activism. He came to see contemplation and activism as a woven fabric.

Today’s climate of divisiveness would not be unfamiliar to Merton, whose life spanned the Second World War, the Cold War, and Vietnam. The factionalism and flagrant hate rhetoric that currently dominate our press, our politics, our streets, our psyches, are the harvest of hateful seeds sown and nurtured across decades and lifetimes. Merton’s insights into the seeds of faith and destruction offer us some guidance for navigating our times faithfully.

The year before he died, Merton met another sower of spiritual seeds by chance in a hotel lobby, the Tibetan monk Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. The two men immediately became true friends.

The year before he died, Merton met another sower of spiritual seeds by chance in a hotel lobby, the Tibetan monk Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. The two men immediately became true friends, and started planning to a write a book together, to compare and possibly reconcile Christian and Buddhist views of spirituality.

Forced to leave his native Tibet as a young man, due to the Chinese backlash toward the Tibetan uprising of 1959, Rinpoche was well qualified to reflect on the violence that seems to be ingrained in human culture and to offer insights from his experience:

When we engage the world in a material way, or worldly way, it’s like looking through a window – we’re looking outside ourselves and seeing everything going on outside of us. We have opinions and judgments and likes and dislikes, and when we act on those, we plant seeds. However, if we are doing our spiritual practice, it’s like we’re looking into a mirror. We allow whatever arises in our experience to reflect back to us. We’re aware of the mind that’s judging, that’s attached or averse, rather than being lost in attachment, aversion, or judgment.

Every single act we perform, every thought we generate, plants a seed. We need to ask ourselves whether our everyday activities plant seeds that are beneficial or toxic.

Some years back, my partner and I moved to a neighborhood across the street from Tucson’s largest community garden, Las Milpitas. We learned very quickly that community is the main crop at Las Milpitas. Its gardeners have come from various continents. All meetings are bilingual. Side-by-side we are sowing seeds, interpersonal and garden-variety. Las Milpitas is one small example of hope for humanity, during this time when hope within the human family seems threadbare.

Jesus, another sower of community seeds, reminded us that the smallest of seeds can produce the most bountiful fruit. He wasn’t just talking about mustard.

As Quakers, we are in a unique position to appreciate Thomas Merton, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, and others of their ilk. Of all Western religions, the Religious Society of Friends might be the most contemplative. Our Silence speaks for itself. Our history is rife with social action. We understand the intrinsic spiritual power of reflection during worship and of engagement with the world at large when we leave the meetinghouse. The fields await us. We are all sowers, like the one who walks off van Gogh’s canvas. And our walking papers, if you will, are our Faith and Practice. The seeds of our Testimonies are perpetually fertile. Scatter good, dear Friends. ~~~

john heid is a sojourning member of Pima Monthly Meeting (IMYM).

Photo of Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Sower at Sunset” is by Szilas and is in the public domain.

engaged spirituality Thomas Merton

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