Typically, I’m way less about the angelic and much more about the mistakes. But I’ve been reading more about art lately, little of which really grabs me. Last week I checked this book, Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton, out of the library, and I know I’m going to have a hard time giving it back. Merton was best known, of course, as a Trappist monk who wrote extensively on the contemplative life. His work has been important to Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, and plenty of people like me, who are neither.
Throughout his life, though, he also made art–sketches and political cartoons as a young man, somewhat conventional religious-themed art as a young monk, and, in the last years of his life, prints and paintings strongly influenced by zen brush paintings and calligraphy (towards what turned out to be the end of his too-short life, Merton’s thinking was strongly influenced by zen, which he explored in his travels, his readings, and his discussions with the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, D. T. Suzuki, and others). Art historian and writer Roger Lipsey does a wonderful job of pairing the art with his own lengthy discussion of Merton as artist, liberally quoting from Merton’s essays and letters.
Merton’s paintings and prints, though they take up the lesser part of the book in terms of overall numbers of pages, are powerful and astonishing. 34 of them are collected in this book (along with a number of sketches and studies), and none of the words in the book, save perhaps a few of Merton’s own, do them justice. Each one is complete in itself. Merton’s journals and letters indicate that he was often conflicted about devoting himself to this art (and, at times, about the form it ought to take). At one point he wrote to a friend, “This stuff is very abstract, I warn you.” Abstract, yes. But completely authentic.
Buy it, borrow it, check it out from the library. But if you live in my neck of the woods, you’re going to have to wait a while for me to give it back.