Chapter 2: Reflection 16 – Steeled by Closeness to Death

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254) is a figure with whom TM seems to have identified. 1 And such a sense of affinity can be understood, for while there are certainly differences between to these two Christian men, there are tender points of connection. Indeed, the lives of each were marked by early exposure to intense loss and the visceral truth of our mortal nature. Both experienced the devasting death of their fathers at the same age. In the case of the Alexandrian, his father, Leonides, is said to have adored his child, “as if a divine spirit were enshrined” within him. 2 But the physical manifestation of such tender and faithful paternal love would be violently ripped from the brilliant young man’s life:

Between May 200 and the middle of 203, Laetus, the Augustal Prefect of Egypt, rounded up a group of Christians from Alexandria and from Egypt proper. The father of Origen had been among them. Origen was sixteen or seventeen at the time, the eldest son of a family of seven. His mother hid his clothes, lest he should rush out to join his father by presenting himself to the authorities. ‘It was,’ wrote Eusebius of Caesarea a century later, ‘an ambition extraordinary in one so young.’ Origen entered adulthood steeled by closeness to death. 3

The impact of Leonides’ death was significant for his son, steering him to invest himself even deeper in things and actions which affirmed a reality that underlay the myriad changes and vicissitudes of daily human existence and the world of unstable and shifting appearances:

The young man’s loyalty to his father who had expected so much from him had been wrenched out of its normal course by the brutal blow of execution. All the continuity, all the loyalty that Origen now wished for lay in finer, more enduring links of soul to soul, created between a teacher and his disciples within the Christian church. 4

While Origen would never become – at least according to the canonically authorized definition of the word – a “martyr,” he lived his life as one prepared and willing to give away his body and his life to become one, out of love for Christ and as a witness for the Church. His father’s example clearly occupied his heart, his mind, and his sense of personal responsibility, as he confesses in his Homilies on Ezekiel: “Having a father who was a martyr does me no good, if I do not live well myself and adorn the nobility of my descent. That is, I must adorn his testimony and confession by which he was illustrious in Christ.” 5

For TM, the loss of his father Owen, when he was on the eve of his adulthood, had its own powerful effect. TM clearly felt a deep love and sense of longing for his father. He also admired his father’s commitment to his “vocation” as an artist. In a chapter of his autobiography entitled, “The Harrowing of Hell,” the Trappist recounts his final encounters with his father in a London Hospital. And although illness robbed Owen Merton of his capacity to speak, something of the man’s artistic sensitivities continued to express themselves as TM recalls:

One day I found his bed covered with little sheets of blue note-paper on which he had been drawing. And the drawings were real drawings. But they were unlike anything he had ever done before – pictures of little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos. 6

These images would seem to have planted something in TM which would manifest later. As he artfully narrates, TM’s conversion took place in stages, not necessarily in a perfectly paced linear process, but one more circular in motion, deepening – slowly, slowly – with each revolution. And one of the pivotal moments in that transformation took place during a 1932 trip to Rome about a year his father’s death. Of all the art, culture, and history that the Eternal City had to offer, TM was progressively surprised by the extent to which his heart and mind were “fascinated” by “Byzantine mosaics,” and by his own admission: “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found.” 7 Alone one night, “trying to record in his journal his thoughts about Byzantine icons,” TM had a powerful spiritual experience: 8

I was in my room. It was night. The light was on. Suddenly it seemed to me that Father, who had now been dead more than a year, was there with me. The sense of his presence was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me. The whole thing passed in a flash, but in that flash, instantly, I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery of my own soul, and I was pierced deeply with a light that made me realize something of the condition I was in, and I was filled with a horror at what I saw, and my whole being rose up in revolt against what was within me, and my soul desired escape and liberation and freedom from all this with an intensity and an urgency unlike anything I had ever known before. And now I think for the first time in my whole life I really began to pray – praying not with my lips and with my intellect and my imagination, but praying out of the very roots of my life and of my being, and praying to the God I had never known, to reach down towards me out of His darkness and to help me to get free of the thousand terrible things that held my will in their slavery. 9


  1. While there are aspects of Origen’s life and experience within the Church with which TM could have identified, there seems to have been at least some sense of hesitation on the part of the Trappist toward the Alexandrian. In a journal entry dated, “August 14, 1956. Vigil of the Assumption,” TM writes: “The Treatise on Prayer is the first thing of Origen’s that I have really liked except perhaps the Homilies on Exodus and Numbers. It is simple and great. He really is a tremendous mind, although he often looks ordinary and stuffy. But no, The Treatise on Prayer is great. One of the best things ever written on prayer – by its wholeness, objectivity. It is catholic and clear and close to the Gospel – Christ talks and speaks in it.” (Emphasis mine. Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude: Pursuing a Monk’s Life. The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Three 1952-1960. Edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, page 64.) TM’s later poem, “Origen,” composed in the mid-1960’s, unmistakably conveys the strident tone of one defending someone who had been wrongly condemned and unjustly treated by Church leaders.
  2. Taking up the words of the ancient historian, Eusebius (260 –265), Professor Rowan Greer writes: ‘We first meet Origen in the pages of Eusebius’ History at the age seventeen. He had been born into a Christian family in Alexandria and had already demonstrated his gifts as a Christian thinker to his father, Leonides. Eusebius reports that ‘it is said that many a time he [Leonides] would stand over his sleeping boy and uncover his breast, as if a divine spirit were enshrined therein, and kissing it with reverence count himself happy in his goodly offspring. (Rowan A. Greer, “Introduction.” Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom; Prayer; First Principles: Book IV; Prologue to the Commentary on The Song of Songs; Homily XXVII on Numbers. Translation and Introduction by Rowan A. Greer. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1979, page 3.)
  3. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, page 160.
  4. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, page 160-161.
  5. Quoted by Thomas P. Scheck in his “Translator’s Introduction,” in Origen, Homilies on Numbers. Edited by Christopher A. Hall. Ancient Christian Texts. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2009, xix. Henry Chadwick writes: “Origen always writes as a member of a martyr church …” (Henry Chadwick. The Early Church. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1967, page 101.)
  6. Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, page 91. Directly after sharing that’s day discovery, TM leverages its momentum to pay homage to his father’s spirit: “Of all of us, Father was the only one who really had any kind of a faith. And I do not doubt that he had very much of it, and that behind the walls of his isolation, his intelligence and his will, unimpaired, and not hampered in any essential way by the partial obstruction of some of his senses, were turned to God, and communed with God Who was with him and in him … [His] was a great soul, large, full of natural charity. He was a man of exceptional honesty and sincerity and purity of understanding.” (Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, page 91-92.)
  7. Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, page 120. TM writes: “I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and, as an indirect consequence, all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. And thus without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim. I was unconsciously and unintentionally visiting all the great shrines of Rome, and seeking out their sanctuaries with some of the eagerness and avidity and desire of a true pilgrim, though not quite for the right reason. And yet it was not for a wrong reason either. For these mosaics and frescoes and all the ancient altars and thrones and sanctuaries were designed and built for the instruction of people who were not capable of immediately understanding anything higher …. And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of Who this Person was that men called Christ. It was obscure, but it was true knowledge of Him, in some sense, truer that I knew and truer that I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him …” (Ibid).
  8. Jim Forest, Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991, pages 27. See Mr. Forest’s helpful chapter, “The Christ of the Icons,” (Ibid., 23-28): Internet Archive:
  9. Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, page 123. Image One below is the apse mosaic of Christ in the Church of Saint Cecilia (Santa Cecilia in Trastevere) in Rome, one of the churches which TM visited. The figure to the right of Christ is Saint Peter, and to Christ’s left is Saint Paul. And the 3rd century martyr Saint Cecilia stands to the left of Saint Paul. (“Santa Cecilia in Trastevere altare” retrieved from Wikimedia Commons: File:Santa Cecilia in Trastevere altare.jpg – Wikimedia Commons). In his Asian Journal, TM notes that he “said the Mass of St. Cecilia” in the chapel of Eric Benjamin, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Darjeeling, on Friday, November 22nd, the Feast of Saint Cecilia. The Roman martyr is said to have died from wounds she sustained after her executioner tried to behead her. Striking her three times, and failing in his mission, the executioner departed. The saint lived an additional three days during which she gave all that she had to the poor and preached the faith continually. It would seem that the saint’s way of martyrdom was on TM’s mind as he describes the majestic landscape around Darjeeling in his journal entry on that feast day: “Today the peak of Kanchenjunga was hidden by massive clouds, but the lower attendant peaks stood out all the more beautiful and noble in their own right. If Kanchenjunga were not there they would all be great mountains on their own. At the end of the line I noticed one that seemed to have had its top cut off, and as I had not noticed anything before I concluded that this beheading had taken place during the night.” (“November 22 / Darjeeling,” The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Edited from his original notebooks by Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart & James Laughlin. New York: New Directions Books, 1975, pages 161 and 163). Under Image One is a quotation from TM’s teaching notes for a cycle of 1961 monastic conferences offered at Gethsemani Abbey. These conferences were entitled, “An Introduction to Christian Mysticism.” I am grateful for the work of Professor Patrick O’Connell who highlights this quotation. See Thomas Merton, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism. Initiation into the Monastic Tradition, 3. Edited with an Introduction by Patrick F. O’Connell. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2008, page 48.  

The tradition of the martyrs makes it clear that to attain to perfect union with God, a ‘death’ of the self is necessary … How does one die to self? The martyr’s case is unambiguous. His exterior, bodily self is destroyed in a real death, and his inner self lives in Christ, raised up with Christ … The ascetic and mystical death to self must in some sense reproduce what is most essential in the martyr’s death.

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