I’m queuing up a list of my favourite ‘Trickster’ characters while I’m away in Italy… Hoping to hear some new ones when I return, and encourage more ‘dangerous speech’ in these troubled times.
First up and top of my pile is Thomas Merton. If you haven’t read The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, the excellent biography by Michael Mott, I highly recommend it.
Merton’s journey to becoming a monk is an extraordinary one in itself, but what I love about him, which is wonderfully retold in Mott’s book, is the way he continued to challenge boundaries even from within the monastry. Merton was a huge jazz fan, and would sneak out of his hermitage late at night, catch lifts into town and swing with the best of them in clubs… returning just in time to get a couple of hours sleep before Matins. Late in life he fell head-over-heels for a nurse who was attending him while recovering from an operation and kept up secret phone conversations, picnics and meetings while living the monastic life. He also explored the connections between his own spiritual practices and that of the Zen mystics – a passion that led to his untimely death: electrocuted by a dodgy lamp in Asia while on attending a conference. Having campaigned so fiercely against the war, the final irony of his extraordinary life was having his body repatriated by a US military flight from Viet Nam.
For me, Merton was a great Trickster because he challenged so many boundaries, prompting his Order to reconsider what being a monk should be about, prompting his huge readership to reconsider what the Christian life should be about, constantly asking questions about what was devout, what was ‘religious’, what was faithful…and all the while retaining his zest for life, his love of music and his raw, vulnerable, emotional core. He truly conducted energy between heaven and earth, appeared as an outsider to both, but moved both on to be better, truer, stronger.
As he wrote at the end of his autobiography, the spiritual classic ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’:
"That morning when I was lying on my face on the floor in the middle of the church, with Father Abbot praying over me, I began to laugh, with my mouth in the dust, because without knowing how or why, I had actually done the right thing, and even an astounding thing. But what was astounding was not my work, but the work You worked in me.’