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I began reading a book called Thomas Merton—Evil and Why We Suffer: From Purified Soul Theodicy to Zen. The author, David Oberson, explores the evolution of Merton’s view of good and evil throughout his adult life, framed, first, through a mystical and monastic Christian view and, then, a growing interest in Zen Buddhism towards the end of his life.

I have always been fascinated with Merton’s wide ranging relationships, nurtured through letter writing. Some I knew about from previous readings e.g., Thich Nhat Hanh, Dororthy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. Today, I found another one of his relationships; this one with the poet Czeslaw Milosz who lived under Nazi and  Soviet oppressors in Poland before moving to the US. Merton and Milosz shared concerns about totaliarianism, scientism, racism, etc., which I can only imagine would be intensified in today’s global climate.

Milosz wrote a beautiful poem called Gift to remind me suffering that emerges from life is impermanent. In this poem, he reminds me their is always something beautiful and good, as he alludes to nature and creation that emerges to replace the suffering.

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

I took this picture in BC about two years ago. As I walked on this morning, I reached a higher spot on the path and saw the lake in the distance fog covered. Like the fog, the suffering lifts with time and a warming sun. I let go of the envy, anger, grasping to be present when I work in the garden that is nature.


About ivonprefontaine

In keeping with bell hooks and Noam Chomsky, I consider myself a public and dissident intellectual. Part of my work is to move beyond (transcend) institutional dogmas that bind me to defend freedom, raising my voice to be heard on behalf of those who seek equity and justice in all their forms. I completed my PhD in Philosophy of Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA. My dissertation and research was how teachers experience becoming teachers and their role as leaders. I focus on leading, communicating, and innovating in organizations. This includes mindfuful servant-leadership, World Cafe events, Appreciative Inquiry, and expressing one's self through creativity. I offer retreats, workshops, and presentations that can be tailored to your organzations specific needs. I published peer reviewed articles about schools as learning organizations, currere as an ethical pursuit, and hope as an essential element of adult eductaion. I published three poems and am currently preparing my poetry to publish as an anthology of poetry. I present on mindful leadership, servant leadership, schools as learning organizations, how teachers experience becoming teachers, assessement, and critical thinking. I facilitate mindfulness, hospitality retreats. and World Cafe Events using Appreciative Inquiry. I am writing and researching about various forms of leadership, how teachers inform and form their identity as a particular teacher, schools as learning organizations, hope and its anticipatory relationship with the future, and hope as an essential element in learning.

18 responses »

  1. This is a serious question that no one has been able to answer in a way that has made sense, especially my philosophy teachers, all those years ago. What is the definition of evil? What IS evil? If you have any explanation or thoughts I would appreciate them. To me evil has to have intent. If it doesn’t have intent, then it’s a force of nature, or something that’s natural to this place. To me evil is priests raping innocent children, slavery, sexism, etc., but is there more to it than that? How do you define it for yourself? If you don’t have time, or the inclination to answer, I understand. I just thought, after reading your blog for so long, that you may have some answers. Thank you either way. 🙂

    • The book I am reading about Thomas Merton’s views (evolving over a lifetime) points out the concept of good and evil have been explored extensively throughout history without resolution. At the heart of much of the exploring is whether good can exist without evil.

      • I believe that it can. It wouldn’t be called good, it would be accepted as normal behavior, that is life affirming.

        The answer then, is that there is no answer to the question. It’s personal, like everything else, I guess.

      • I think there are norms that are universal in nature. Jurgen Habermas distinguishes between those and man-made laws using Law for the former and law for the latter. There is something universal about the “Golden Rule.” I found my argument around being opposed to war is better received when I say I am opposed to killing in general. Even neo-cons seem to get that.

      • Thank you for taking time to answer.

      • No problem. I enjoy it when people take the time to leave a comment. It gets us closer to a conversation.

  2. I agree. For it to be evil, there must be intent, but also an understanding that the action causes grief, pain, discomfort, whatever.
    There is far too much evil in the world.

  3. Lovely sentiments and wonderful poem, Ivon. A theme that seems to be a propos, these days. Be well. 🌈

    • Thank you Bela. We live in troubling times. I had a conversation yesterday about understanding one another as opposed to coming to agreement, beginning with the premise we have more in common than separates. I think we can bring about change one conversation at a time.

  4. The poem was great the whole post was fascinating. I well study much more Merton and the book about him. I thought it was very interesting to explore what you said in the comment I hit LIKE, whether good can exist without evil. I have to explore that myself.
    Out of my mind right now it comes the time I was in the army. Killing is evil yet it served a greater purpose for little kids specially girls to go to the school we build them. But first you had to commit evil for something good to happen. Just came to mind, it´s a very extreme example so much more to learn. Thanks for making my mind work and give me an objective for this week to explore that theme.

    • I love your example. How do we reconcile the fight against evil e.g. Nazis, Soviets, terrorism, and colonialism? It is not easy.

      Merton is/was a complex person (each of us is) who did not write about good and evil per se, but it emerged in all his writings. This is like his writing on the environment. He had great letter writing relationships with those I mentioned in the post and Wendell Berry who lives in Kentucky and is one of the key thinkers used in deep ecology.

  5. Nature’s laws, organic and natural, just are. Manmade laws are there to control others. Those laws are made without the input or consent of those who will be forced to abide by them. Laws made by MEN do not take into account the wants/needs of the people. They are there to protect the rich and powerful against the masses. Those laws keep people poor, uneducated and hungry. They are not fair or life affirming but made from greed and power over others.

    • I agree. Billionaires have an ideology of increasing their material wealth without concerning themselves with each person out there. I lump the billionaires, for the most part, into one large group who are served by political minions.

  6. poetical
    illumination 🙂


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