To Know Living Things

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From the journals of Thomas Merton

Yesterday I was sitting in the woodshed reading and a little Carolina wren suddenly hopped on to my shoulder and then on to the corner of the book I was read- ing and paused a second to take a look at me before flying away.

Same wren just came back and is singing and investigating busily in the blocks of the wall over there.

Here is what I think.

Man can know all about God’s creation by examining its phenomena, by dissecting and experimenting and this is all good. But it is misleading, because with this kind of knowledge you do not really know the beings you know. You only know about them. That is to say you create for yourself a knowledge based on your observations. What you observe is really as much the product of your knowledge as its cause. You take the thing not as it is, but as you want to investigate it. Your investigation is valid, but artificial.

There is something you cannot know about a wren by cutting it up in a laboratory and which you can only know if it remains fully and completely a wren, itself, and hops on your shoulder if it feels like it.

A tame animal is already invested with a certain falsity by its tameness. By becoming what we want it to be, it takes a disguise which we have decided to impose upon it.

Even a wild animal, merely “observed,” is not seen as it really is, but rather in the light of our investigation (color changed by fluorescent lighting).

But people who watch birds and animals are already wise in their way.

I want not only to observe but to know living things, and this implies a dimension of primordial familiarity which is simple and primitive and religious and poor.

This is the reality I need, the vestige of God in His creatures.

And the light of God in my own soul.

And God in man’s history and culture (but so mysteriously hidden there and so strangely involved in the Passion which He must suffer to redeem us from evil).

The wren either hops on your shoulder or doesn’t.

What he does—this he is. Hoc est [That it is].

And our ideas of Nature etc.? All very well, but non est hoc; non est hoc [it is not this, it is not this]. Neti, Neti [Neither this nor that].

Do no violence to things, to manipulate them with my ideas—to track them, to strip them, to pick something out of them my mind wants to nibble at….


Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was an American Trappist monk, social activist and writer.

From When the Trees Say Nothing by Thomas Merton; edited by Kathleen Deignan. Copyright © 2003 by Ave Maria Press, P.O. Box 428, Notre Dame, IN 46556. Used by permission of the publisher.

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