04 August 2022, The Tablet

The Word through a lens

The Word through a lens

Thomas Merton with camera
Photo: © University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford


Thomas Merton: A Photographic Exhibition
University Church, Oxford

The image is the enemy. It’s a far from unheard of view within Christianity, especially on the ascetic fringes of Mother Church. Even Thomas Merton – monk-littérateur and spiritual celebrity – subscribed to it. Spirituality is a bid to escape the image, to unpick the dense, rusted layers of falsehood that we accrue from early childhood, forming themselves into a hard, unfeeling carapace.

Images separate us from each other, Merton thought: they split us from our own selves. They keep the ego in, and God out. “Strip your soul of images,” he wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation, “and let Christ form himself in you.”

Photography, a lifelong passion, seemed to clash with his monastic vocation. The cloister and the camera are antonyms, if not enemies. In his later years, however – flush from his success as a spiritual writer, dissatisfied with the apolitical aridity of his order, interested in Eastern religions, Zen Buddhism above all – Merton picked up a camera once again. In the fields and forests surrounding his monastery, he looked through the lenses, and saw God.


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