St. Augustine’s “Sheets of Sound”

John Coltrane icon

One of saxophonist John Coltrane’s trademarks was his so-called “sheets of sound” technique. It’s a sound that attracts the non-jazz-listener with its virtuosity, a sound that beginning sax players will try to emulate in their own early solos, and a sound that comes full circle with mature horn players and listeners hearing that beneath what sounds like pure flash is miles of depth. At least when Coltrane did it.


One of Augustine’s techniques also had a “sheets of sound” quality to it. He had the Scriptures and a host of other texts virtually memorized, and at times he would pull out all the stops (to mix musical metaphors), with results like this from De Trinitate, Bk.1, Ch.4:

In the form of God, all things were made by him (Jn 1:3); in the form of a servant he himself was made of woman, made under the law (Gal 4:4). In the form of God, he and the Father are one (Jn 10:30); in the form of a servant, he did not come to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him (Jn 6:38). In the form of God, as the Father has life in himself, so he gave the Son also to have life in himself (Jn 5:26); in the form of a servant, his soul is sorrowful to the point of death, and Father, he said, if it can be, let this cup pass by (Mt 26:38). In the form of God, he is true God and life eternal (1 Jn 5:20); in the form of a servant, he became obedient to the point of death, the death even of the cross (Phil 2:8).

In the form of God, everything that the Father has is his (Jn 16:15), and all yours is mine, he says, and mine yours (Jn 17:10); in the form of a servant, his doctrine is not his own, but his who sent him (Jn 7:16).


Owen’s Child

I knew nothing of Thomas Merton’s relationship with his father Owen beyond what Thomas himself wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain until I recently read “Thomas Merton and the Search for Owen Merton” by Robert E. Daggy. Daggy, the longtime director of the Thomas Merton Center, had at least considered writing a full-length biography of Owen Merton before Daggy himself died in 1997.

Daggy writes:

After 1925, Owen withdrew into self-imposed solitude. He wanted, again, to devote himself to his painting. He wrote to Evelyn [Scott], “I think I had better stay quietly by myself for a long time.” It is at this point that we can see parallels between Owen’s life and Tom’s life as he related it in his writings. Father and son had both engaged in “illicit” (did they believe “sordid”?) sexual escapades. Both came to see such involvement as detrimental to themselves, their spirits, and their vocations. Both came to see sexual abstinence as necessary to their lives. Both withdrew to the fringes of society–Owen to the French countryside, Tom to the knobs of Kentucky. Owen called the house which he started to build at St. Antonin his “hermitage.” Tom was to call at least two places at Gethsemani his “hermitage.”

…Anthony T. Padowan put it this way: “Merton’s entire adult life is a search for artistic and spiritual excellence, one sustaining the other, both converging into a striking unity, each initiated by his father.”

By Daggy’s read, Thomas carried a longing to understand and be loved by his father (a man who seemed to be far more devoted to his art than to Thomas or any other person or personal commitment in his life) to his grave, going so far as to try to track down and collect Owen’s paintings and letters in the 1960s.

I believe at least two myths about the saints that I rarely recognize as false: 1) The saints are those whom God has pulled out and apart and separate from life, and 2) The saints are those who have arrived.

Thomas Merton is teaching me yet again. Against the first myth stands the reality of his own pain in wanting to know and be known by his father. His conversion and transformation did not remove his father’s impact–good and ill–on him. Against the second myth stands the fact that this pain was not something he needed to “beat” or have erased from him in order to become the saint he was. In fact, that kind of lifelong longing was most likely his teacher in learning to long for God.

Merton reads and smiles

Courageous Faith

A Christological Reading of Genesis 12:1-4
from March 16, 2014 (Lent 2A) at New Horizon UMC, Champaign, IL

Genesis 12:1-4 (NRSV)
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.