Mark: Tell us about your newest collaboration with CAC core faculty, James Finley.
Alana: In December 2016, I set out to work on a musical album centered around James Finley’s acclaimed book, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere. After long discussions with Jim about Thomas Merton, I decided to plunge into the deep waters of Merton’s own works. I had read Seven Storey Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation and credit Merton with drawing me into contemplative Christianity, but I soon realized that I had not gone deep into Merton’s person. It took nearly a year of daily sitting with Merton’s work and listening to Finley’s audio teaching, Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere (from Sounds True), to get to the place where I felt I could unleash the creative process of composition.
Mark: The title of the album is Point Vierge. What does this phrase refer to?
Alana: Point vierge, French for the “virgin point,” or as Jim calls it, “zero variance,” is a term Merton used to get at the mystical metaphor for the door that is everywhere and nowhere. This is so far the calling of my life: to poetically engage with that which cannot be created or uncreated, that “point of nothingness that belongs entirely to God.” In order to have a starting point, I decided to marry story with this idea, to convey the search and intuition Merton had for this point vierge.
I am interested in not separating this point of nothingness from Thomas Merton’s humanity. To me, it seems that people connected and resonated with Merton because he engaged with real life in the flesh and was wary of hiding behind a false letting go of one’s story. He showed us that fully living one’s story is part of how we let go of previous notions of our story. So, I attempt to reach that point of nothingness through the tangible ordinariness of narrative. I share Jim recollecting his own time in the monastery, speaking of how Merton taught and led him as he lived out his own story.
Mark: Having spent over a year diving deeply into Thomas Merton’s works, what are some insights or particular passages that have impacted you the most?
Alana: I was profoundly impacted by his poetry, but I mostly used the brilliant compilation The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals. Also, the passages that Kathleen Deignan compiled in A Book of Hours were very helpful. There is a reason why certain passages became famous, such as the account of Merton’s experience at the corner of 4th and Walnut where he realizes that he loves all people and none of them could ever be alien to him. Or, the “Join in the General Dance” passage from New Seeds of Contemplation that James Finley has been reading at the start of his Merton retreats since 1980.
I was also profoundly impacted by Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and by Merton’s audio teachings to the novices (you can listen through Now You Know Media).
In the last talk Merton ever gave, he “dropped the mic” with remarkable statements about what monasticism is and isn’t, and the echoes of this wisdom reverberate throughout the future of contemplation. Without his commitment to seeking, without his work, and without that last talk, I don’t know if we would all be where we are today as seekers and growers inside traditions, in dialogue and in the lineage of looking for the Beautiful One in the “inner secret of ordinary life.”
Mark: This is your second album with James Finley. What can you tell us about the collaborative process with someone who has known, lived, and breathed Merton’s wisdom so deeply, as Finley has?
Alana: Without Jim carrying on the lineage of this place inside that cannot be destroyed, without his fidelity to the humility and poverty of the practice of meditation and prayer, and without I think, his sincere love for his teacher, we would be missing a dimension of Merton amongst all the other voices who dearly love him. All the voices belong, but I like that Jim is not scholarly about Merton and that he holds onto the line or thread left to be picked up. He hears the nuance and subtlety resonating at that deepest center. Thanks to Merton’s gift of wisdom to Jim, many more people have experienced healing on their journey, discovering that part of themselves that was not violated, that inner integrity that is one with God. Jim doesn’t lose the sense of humor Merton had for the whole matter of monasticism and contemplation. How easily we are entrapped by our own sense of who we are as “contemplatives.” We dearly need the ability to not take everything so seriously as we move forward into the future.
I would not have been able to make this project without stepping into the lineage myself, through the eyes of Jim. I will be always grateful for his way of seeing.
Mark: What role did the Living School play in your vocation as a contemplative songwriter?
Alana: Many factors led me back to the work of composing and recording music again. Part of what drew me to the Living School was that I had let go of my identity as a recording artist. Through the deep discernment process for my “integration project,” I was surprised to gingerly pick up the work of writing and recording music again. I was also greatly surprised that the music would be spiritual in its tone and breadth, something I had vehemently stayed away from as a folk/roots songwriter. This was in part because the thought of writing and singing anything that would lead folks to the God I had been familiar with—the punitive God who couldn’t look at me—made me feel disintegrated in my spiritual search. The Living School helped me find the courage to step into a spacious place for growth and renewal and take off some of the damaging lenses through which I was looking at God and reality. I suppose I could say that what I write now is more about that inner integrity at the heart of the universe—a benevolent universe that is “on the journey, too,” as Teresa of Avila would say.
Or as James Finley says in our new album, reflecting on Merton’s beautiful poem about his brother:
Merton was living in the monastery. It was the second World War, and his brother died at sea. But instead of seeing his monastic enclosure as a refuge from the violence of his brother’s death, poetically he sees that in not being able to sleep at night, his eyes become flowers for his brother’s tomb. That is, he’s beginning to intuit that we’re woven into a fabric, that God and the suffering of the world are inseparably interwoven. Once, when I went in to complain about something, Merton said to me: “You didn’t come here to breathe a rarified air beyond the suffering of this world. You were brought here by God to experience the suffering of the whole world in your heart. Otherwise, there’s no justification in living in a place like this.”
The Living School challenges those of us who would escape, either too much into our identity as justice seekers (hiding behind our identity as the sole owners of an issue) or into the esoteric realm that would have us leave the challenges that face us in real life. I believe this school was deeply influenced by Thomas Merton’s life and work and that is another reason why I wanted to make this album.
Learn more about Alana Levandoski and James Finley’s album at alanalevandoski.com.