Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Thomas Merton Poetry 6. Hermit. Poem: ‘Oh Sweet Irrational Worship’

On the 17th of March Philip Harvey conducted a Spiritual Reading Group on Thomas Merton. Pursuing a biographical line, poems were read and discussed that identified nine different aspects of Merton’s life, self, and work. Each aspect was illustrated by one of his photographs. Here is the text, with comments from the group about the poetry. 

Merton’s desire to live an even more isolated and more creative life at one stage drove him to want to swap orders and become a Capuchin monk. It seems that one way to resolve this need was for Merton to go and live in a hermitage on the estate of the Cistercian monastery. It can be concluded that the abbot therefore gave Merton enough freedom to get more work done, more prayer, and a life of self-subsistence within the abbey community.

Going there meant going further into the desert. He would write that “It is truly God who is calling me into the desert. But this desert is not necessarily a geographical one.” (Moses 40-2 ff.) He could say, “I don’t need to take a long journey in order to find the desert: the desert is myself.” By which he was saying, “the real desert is this: to face the limitations of one’s own existence and knowledge and not try to manipulate them or disguise them.” But it also led him to ask, “What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily. It shall become a pool, it shall bud forth and blossom and rejoice with joy. It is the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water, that the poor possess all things.”  

Hermitage life expanded the creative possibilities for Merton. He started making Eastern calligraphy. He cultivated the practice of what he called Zen photography. His writing increased in scale and variety to reach new audiences and meet his own needs and answer his imaginative capacities. Writers know that their lives are hermit-like when it comes to the actual demands of time and thought necessary to complete their writing. Merton took this simple reality to a practical level by becoming literally a hermit. So much of his contemplative writing was informed and shaped by the poetic discoveries he made in the actual poetry.

It is the Merton of this period who can write as follows: “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” This is the learning that Merton gives to others. It is the learning that informs his own life as he lives an isolated basic existence in the woodlands of Kentucky.

Here is a poem that comes out of this newfound place in his own life. Bobwhites are native quail that live in the forests nearby. The poem lets go of any formal signposts as it declaims the ecstatic oneness of self and nature. He has even let go of his name.

Oh Sweet Irrational Worship


Wind and a bobwhite

And the afternoon sun.

By ceasing to question the sun

I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth

All these lighted things

Grow from my heart.

A tall, spare pine

Stands like the initial of my first

Name when I had one.

When I had a spirit,

When I was on fire

When this valley was

Made out of fresh air

You spoke my name

In naming Your silence:

O sweet, irrational worship!

I am earth, earth

My heart’s love

Bursts with hay and flowers.

I am a lake of blue air

In which my own appointed place

Field and valley

Stand reflected.

I am earth, earth

Out of my grass heart

Rises the bobwhite.

Out of my nameless weeds

His foolish worship.



Thomas Merton. The collected poems of  Thomas Merton. New Directions, 1977

John Moses (editor). The art of Thomas Merton : a divine passion in word and vision. Franciscan Media, 2017

Thomas Merton Poetry 5. Social Activist. Poem: ‘The Great Men of Former Times’

On the 17th of March Philip Harvey conducted a Spiritual Reading Group on Thomas Merton. Pursuing a biographical line, poems were read and discussed that identified nine different aspects of Merton’s life, self, and work. Each aspect was illustrated by one of his photographs. Here is the text, with comments from the group about the poetry. 

The monastic town of New Norcia in Western Australia has at least five libraries. I have visited all of the main ones, including the actual abbey library used by the monks every day. My most profound discovery was to find that they read all the latest magazines, newspapers, and social commentary. They are amongst the most well-informed people in Australia. I say this because we can say the same of the Cistercians at Gethsemani: they knew everything that was going on outside the walls, if they needed to. This is good to remember when we read anything Merton wrote on social and political activism, and there is a lot.

His protest poetry, if that’s a way of naming it, stems from realism, a desire to say things as they are, and justice, a desire to call out injustice and right that which is wrong. Look closely enough and again we find Christ as the original inspiration of the words, the maker of change from within, stepping into the dangerous places where violence begins. The 11-page prose poem ‘Original Child Bomb’ (1962) is a strategic takedown of the making and use of the atomic bomb. That poem is too long to read here today on zoom, and likewise the book-length poem ‘The Geography of Lograire’ (1968), a remarkable exploration of the spirit through time that, amongst other things, defuses the concepts of racial and religious divides throughout history.

Instead, I will read one of Merton’s short anti-war poems, a deadpan view of warmongers that exposes their cynicism while reminding us that there is a future while the voice of hope rejects their oppressive power. We may take it as given that Von Clausewitz, Napoleon et al, these representatives of war theorists, war mongers and practitioners, will be found at the Stock Exchange. Where else? A parade ground? Seriously? Their names are interchangeable and we will meet them again in the same location. At first we may regard the poem as cynical or despairing. This cycle will never end. But hope and opposition is present around the corners. In fact the poet Merton grows weary of their conversation. Unlike them he has other places to go. Ominously, some would say, he indicates that that they have the power to kill him too. The future is unwritten and unknown. He will go where he will. The priorities of those with power to wage war are demonstrated by naming boulevards after them, as we in Melbourne know who recognise a couple of the names. The poet stands as a witness to the wrongs being perpetuated by those he talks with. The poem shows its time period with the word “deter”, a relatively new concept in global military strategy at the time, but one that is still with us today. On a literary note, the poem seems to me to be possibly influenced by Merton’s reading of James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’, a book he had been familiar with since university days. Wellington, Napoleon and the rest play parts in that novel, as archetypes of the sort of thing Merton is saying in simplified form in this poem.    

The Great Men of Former Times 


Today I met Von Clausewitz

At the Stock Exchange

And said to him: “You’re dead, man,

What are you doing here?”

And he replied

“I have nowhere else to go

Nowhere else to go.”


I also saw Lord Nelson

The Duke of Wellington,

Napoleon and his Marshals

And many others with the names of Boulevards.

They all said the same.


And I said to Clausewitz

At the Stock Exchange:

“Don’t you know, men,

That all the wars are over?

We fight no more:

It is sufficient to ‘deter’.”

And they replied:

“You are wrong, and we will prove it

By killing you:

We will prove it by killing you.”


Lord Nelson,

The Duke of Wellington

Napoleon and his Marshals

And many others with the names of Boulevards,

They all said the same.


Then I grew weary

Of my conversation

With these great men of former times,

And quickly leaving them

Went far from the Exchange

But I know that tomorrow

Or the next day

Or indeed next year, if I return,

I will find Von Clausewitz again

I will find him there again.


With Lord Nelson

The Duke of Wellington

Napoleon and his Marshals

And many others with the names of Boulevards

I will find them again.




Thomas Merton. The collected poems of  Thomas Merton. New Directions, 1977

Monday, 5 April 2021

Thomas Merton Poetry 4. Poet-Theologian. Poem: ‘St. Thomas Aquinas’

 On the 17th of March Philip Harvey conducted a Spiritual Reading Group on Thomas Merton. Pursuing a biographical line, poems were read and discussed that identified nine different aspects of Merton’s life, self, and work. Each aspect was illustrated by one of his photographs. Here is the text, with comments from the group about the poetry. 


In 1951, ten years after entering the monastery, Father Louis became the novice master. Although he produced many books during his life, his writings on the monastic life given to the novices are still only being published now. Much of what he writes in poetic form is a distillation, a playing with and dramatizing of the theology he is spelling out during other parts of his day.

Christian poetry is poetry in Christ. Merton makes this breakthrough realisation early in his time at the abbey. If Christ is for you the centre of creation, then Christ is the centre of the creative act. Everything is ultimately coming from that source. I have to say that this is not always what we think when we encounter so-called Christian poetry, which covers a multitude of forms and subjects. We are used to the panoply of social and historical reference that is connected however directly or tenuously with Christianity. But for Merton, the poetry happens because of attention to Christ, Christ is the centre, even in poetry where Christ is not named by name. 

Reading his essays on poetry is to find someone who questions his own motives all the time, and the purpose of writing. He is fiercely critical of art as production, as a product, as an end for capitalist gain, as the vehicle for cults of the artistic ego and fulfilment of false illusions of the self. He mistrusts words for their own sake; he rejects what he calls “word-magic” as “an impurity of language.”

Merton says “Poetry is the flowering of ordinary possibilities. It is the fruit of ordinary and natural choice. This is its innocence and dignity.” (Hart 373) We find the same tendency towards purification and simplicity of language in many of his great works of contemplation and the spiritual life.

When we think of  Merton teaching the novices, it is easy to imagine the in-depth coverage he gave to Thomas Aquinas. At first we may see the following poem as a complicated set of Thomist terms requiring a lexicon. However, I see the poem as treating these terms, e.g. Person, Presence, Pure Act, and so forth is a playful fashion to illustrate how Thomas explained the world. The poem is a kind of humorous sketch, serving as an introduction to these high-sounding concepts. The line “His intellect His Bethlehem” explains in four words the start of the theologian’s quest for understanding and the abiding peace that he speaks through his writngs. Saint Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican. He died at the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova south-east of Rome, on his way to the Second Council of Lyon, in March 1274. In verse 4 we find mention of Fossanova, realising that we are present (at least in the poem) at the funeral of the great saint. The poem is, we suddenly become aware, a eulogy.  

St. Thomas Aquinas


The stars put out their pale opinions, one by one,

While the black-friar breaks the Truth, his Host,

Among his friends the simple Substances:

For thus he fathered minds to reason’s peace,

And fed the children of the Kingdom

With the Person in the intellectual Bread.


His mind had never smarted with the bitter reek

Of the world’s night; the flesh’s smoke:

His eyes were always cradles for the Word of God:

His intellect His Bethlehem.


Better than Jacob’s dream,

He saw how all created essences go up and down

Upon their Jacob’s ladder.

Finding their own degree of likeness

To the Pure Act and Perfect Essence.


When matter lay as light as snow

On the strong Apennine of form,

And morning rose upon the church of Fossanova,

All creation lay transparent, as serene as water,

Full of the Child Who consecrates the universe,

Informing all with power and meaning, like a Sacrament.


But oh, the day that sings upon the ridge

Steals from the stars the brittle fire of their analogies:

They vanish in the single intuition

Of the rising sun:

And the grey monks’ Cistercian “Subvenite”

Follows Aquinas in his ransomed flight,

And loses him amid the cheering cherubim.



Thomas Merton. The collected poems of  Thomas Merton. New Directions, 1977

Thomas Merton. The literary essays of  Thomas Merton. Edited by Patrick Hart. New Directions, 1981






Thursday, 18 March 2021

Thomas Merton Poetry 3. Monk. Poem: ‘Two States of Prayer’

On the 17th of March Philip Harvey conducted a Spiritual Reading Group on Thomas Merton. Pursuing a biographical line, poems were read and discussed that identified nine different aspects of Merton’s life, self, and work. Each aspect was illustrated by one of his photographs. Here is the text, with comments from the group about the poetry. 

Thomas Merton was an artist, photographer, and poet. When he entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, around the time of Pearl Harbour, he was leaving the secular world of his upbringing. He was addressing the outbreak of war by committing himself to a lifetime’s dedication to peacemaking. 

One thing he was not leaving behind was his own creative drives. “If God wants me to write, I can write anywhere,” (Rice 64) he wrote with relief at the time, as if this was something he feared would be refused him in the monastery. Creativity as a means to the spiritual life was vital to Merton. In his early spiritual autobiography, the book that made him famous overnight, Thomas Merton says that he wants “to write all about God in a new witty and pertinent way.” (Rice 61) His first poem as a monk was published in The New Yorker within a year. 

That is not the poem we are going to read now. ‘Two States of Prayer’ could only have been written by someone who has become immersed in the prayer life of a community like the one he had joined. It must have been written about five years after his entry to Gethsemani. As the title says, it describes two states of prayer by analogy with the natural world that Merton had come to know. The first is autumn in Kentucky, the second is winter, so the words are tracking the change of the seasons. The poem encourages us to think of prayer life as happening always in the world where we find ourselves now. It cannot be defined in abstract terms without the risk of missing something essential. Always when we pray we are in our own found physical and geographic place.    

The autumnal first half uses the analogous imagery of a sports stadium to describe the changing appearance of the trees. This is Merton remembering life on the outside, where large crowds congregate to witness competition and afterwards everyone goes home again. His world now is on the inside of the monastery, brought out later in the snowy winter landscape being “like a white Cistercian.” The poem is a work of eco-spirituality, we would say, where the inner life of the individual at prayer goes through the changes of the seasons. Is, indeed, at peace with these natural phenomena. Contrasts of sound and silence, exultation and withdrawal, affirm the experience of different states of being and of present prayer. The excellences of each season are put into perspective through comparison, where winter may even outshine “all the songs of June with radiant silences.” Merton may be thinking of the singing of the hours in the abbey, but he is also noticing the sounds of nature in and around the place where he lives. The natural year and the liturgical year weave together as everything heads into Christmas. The poem invites reflection on these rhythms wherever we may live, as we pray in our own places and by our own seasonal experiences.     

Two States of Prayer


In wild October when the low hills lie

With open eye

And own the land like lions,


Our prayer is like the thousands in the far, forgotten stadiums,

Building its exultation like a tower of fire,

Until the marvellous woods spring to their feet

And raid the skies with their red-headed shout:


This is the way our hearts take flame

And burn us down, on pyres of prayer, with too much glory.


But when the trees have all torn up their programs,

Scattering the pathos of immense migrations on the open-handed winds,

Clouding and saddening the dusky valley,

Sorrow begins to bully the bare bars

Of those forsaken cages

As thought lies slaughtered in the broken doors.


But by the light of our December mornings,

Though words stand frozen in the voice’s well

And all the country pumps are dumb,

Look where the landscape, like a white Cistercian,

Puts on the ample winter like a cowl

And so conceals, beneath the drifts as deep as quietude,

The ragged fences and the ravaged field.


The hills lie still, the woods their Sabbath keep,

The farms, half buried in their winter coats

Are warm as sheep.

When was there ever greater than this penitential peace

Outshining all the songs of June with radiant silences?


November analyzed our bankruptcies, but now

His observations lie knee-deep beneath our Christmas mercies,

While folded in the buried seed

The virtual summer lives and sleeps;

And every acre keeps its treasure like a kingly secret.



Edward Rice. The man in the sycamore tree : the good times and hard life of Thomas Merton. Image Books, 1972

Thomas Merton. The collected poems of Thomas Merton . New Directions, 1977


Thomas Merton Poetry 2. Student. Poems from ‘Cables to the Ace’

On the 17th of March Philip Harvey conducted a Spiritual Reading Group on Thomas Merton. Pursuing a biographical line, poems were read and discussed that identified nine different aspects of Merton’s life, self, and work. Each aspect was illustrated by one of his photographs. Here is the text, with comments from the group about the poetry. 

“Every minute life begins all over again.” (Moses 88) We are only ever beginners. There is no point in thinking you have won; you have already lost. These and similar recurrent sentiments tell of Merton’s Christian understanding of human limitation. They also retell his awareness of being always a student, someone open to learning new things, and getting others to get studying. 

Merton studied in the forties at Oxford and Columbia. He lived a fairly typical wild existence in those places, combined with an intense study of things that interested him. He and his friends engaged in competitions. For example, they challenged each other to write a novel in a week. He edited the university magazine. These games of meeting crazy deadlines and entertaining others are training for what Merton did the rest of his life in a very different setting from a university. 

The ultimate result of the crazy language games he played with his friend Robert Lax and others are the book-length poems written towards the end of his life, ‘The Geography of Lograire’ and ‘Cables to the Ace.’ The cables of that title are 88 poems about the relationship we have with God, who is the ace. It is a work of theopoetics. Here are four of those 88 poems. 

8 shows its age with the verb ‘to dig’, a sign Merton was listening to the Beats, while questioning the world of artificial intelligence and the computer at large, a world we now live with in ways Merton could only have imagined. The poem hints at the ever-present danger of turning manmade things into idols. It is saying that prayer is human and will have a human voice; our relationship with God can never be other than personal. 53 seems to be saying that poetry, like prayer, is always available. Yet he repeats the need that it must be available. He uses a favourite image of the cellar, a word we will meet again today, as the source of all this activity. We don’t always think of a dark night of the soul happening in a cellar. The influence of Saint John of the Cross is evident throughout these poems and we hear this in 80. Although Christ is present in the whole sequence, this is the first time we meet him by name, close to the end. The places where we meet him are reminiscent of those gardens of the Spanish mystic, though we may meet him in any place. We smile at “the lost disciple … too literate to believe words,” with its implication of language being a trap that can separate us from God, as well as knowledge that can hinder rather than enhance growth. Learning how and when to use silence and language is an issue that tests everyone, whether or not they are poets. 84 opens with a German word for serenity. The words set up Taoist conundrums. That which we name God cannot be the true God. The words to-and-fro in an attempt to reduce preconceptions, our ‘baggage’, to the place where only God may be.     


Write a prayer to a computer? But first of all you have to find out how It thinks. Does It dig prayer? More important still, does It dig me, and father, mother, etc., etc.? How does one begin: “O Thou great unalarmed and humorless electric sense…”? Start out wrong and you give instant offense. You may find yourself shipped off to the camps in a freight car. Prayer is a virtue. But don’t begin with the wrong number. 


I think poetry must

I think it must

Stay open all night

In beautiful cellars



Slowly slowly

Comes Christ through the garden

Speaking to the sacred trees

Their branches bear his light

Without harm


Slowly slowly

Comes Christ through the ruins

Seeking the lost disciple

A timid one

Too literate

To believe words

So he hides


Slowly slowly

Christ rises on the cornfields

It is only the harvest moon

The disciple

Turns over in his sleep

And murmurs:
“My regret!”


The disciple will awaken

When he knows history

But slowly slowly

The Lord of History

Weeps into the fire.




Desert and void. The Uncreated is waste and emptiness to the creature. Not even sand. Not even stone. Not even darkness and night. A burning wilderness would at least be “something.” It burns and is wild. But the Uncreated is no something. Waste. Emptiness. Total poverty of the Creator: yet from this poverty springs everything. The waste is inexhaustible. Infinite Zero. Everything comes from this desert Nothing. Everything wants to return to it and cannot. For who can return “nowhere”? But for each of us there is a point of nowhereness in the middle of movement; a point of nothingness in the midst of being; the incomparable point, not to be discovered by insight. If you seek it you do not find it. If you stop seeking, it is there. But you must not turn to it. Once you become aware of yourself as seeker, you are lost. But if you are content to be lost you will be found without knowing it, precisely because you are lost, for you are, at last, nowhere. 


Edward Rice. The man in the sycamore tree : the good times and hard life of Thomas Merton. Image Books, 1972

Thomas Merton. The collected poems of Thomas Merton . New Directions, 1977

Thomas Merton & John Moses (editor). The art of Thomas Merton : a divine passion in word and vision. Franciscan Media, 2017




Thomas Merton Poetry 1. Child. Poem -- ‘Macarius and the Pony’

 On the 17th of March Philip Harvey conducted a Spiritual Reading Group on Thomas Merton. Pursuing a biographical line, poems were read and discussed that identified nine different aspects of Merton’s life, self, and work. Each aspect was illustrated by one of his photographs. Here is the text, with comments from the group about the poetry. 

Today we are going to read some poems by a man whose parents were artists. People, indeed, who met in Paris and lived a bohemian life in France, often with little money and moving about from place to place. They were intellectuals from different parts of the world. His mother was American and his father was a New Zealander. They were creative individuals with an outward looking attitude to the world. “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” he was going to say many years later. 

These things had a lifelong effect on the child. French culture is found everywhere in his writing: experimental poetry, interest in new storytelling techniques, and a prolific production of theology that looks and sounds like French ressourcement, only from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. All of the early moving about may well have created in him a need to live securely in the one place, for example in a monastery. And it is not hard to imagine this child, full of curiosity about the world and his own place in it, relating to the story he retells in our first poem today. It is a story he will have read, very possibly in French translation, of the fourth-century Egyptian desert father of the early church, Saint Macarius.    

In zoom discussion there was attention paid to the crucial moment in the story when the saint blesses the child. This is different from magic or illusion, it is the confirmation of the human reality of the child. The story confronts the false projections we place on others, whether due to our own limited perception of them, or because we want to see in others our own problems. The saint affirms the intrinsic humanity of the girl, which even her parents are incapable of seeing. The parents have a superstitious belief that the holy man can change their child back into someone, indeed something, they recognise. He turns the whole encounter around. It is they who cannot recognise their own child. It is they who must change, not their daughter. 

Macarius and the Pony


People in a village

At the desert’s edge

Had a daughter

Who was changed (they thought)

By magic arts

Into a pony.


At first they berated her

“Why do you have to be a horse?”

She could think of no reply.


So they led her out with a halter

Into the hot waste land

Where there was a saint

Called Macarius

Living in a cell.


“Father” they said

“This young mare here

Is, or was, our daughter.

Enemies, wicked men,

Magicians, have made her

The animal you see.

Now by your prayers to God

Change her back

Into the girl she used to be.”


“My prayers” said Macarius,

“Will change nothing,

For I see no mare.

Why do you call this good child

An animal?”


But he led her into his cell

With her parents:

There he spoke to God

Anointing the girl with oil;

And when they saw with what love

He placed his hand upon her head

They realized, at once.

She was no animal.

She had never changed.

She had been a girl from the beginning.


“Your own eyes

(Said Macarius)

Are your enemies.

Your own crooked thoughts

(Said the anchorite)

Change people around you

Into birds and animals.

Your own ill-will

(Said the clear-eyed one)

Peoples the world with specters.”



Thomas Merton. The collected poems of Thomas Merton . New Directions, 1977

Thomas Merton and  John Moses (editor). The art of Thomas Merton : a divine passion in word and vision. Franciscan Media, 2017

Monday, 15 February 2021

Connecting the cosmos, earth, body and soul through the music theories of Boethius


Connecting the cosmos, earth, body and soul through the music theories of Boethius. Here is presenter Susan Frykberg’s handout for the first Spiritual Reading Group of 2021, held via Zoom on Wednesday the 17th of February, 10.30am to 12 midday. Susan writes: 

What I want to introduce you to today is a wholistic system of thought that has music at its core. This system of thought begins with the ear, for as Boethius says: ‘the senses are necessary in music, for if it were not for the senses, no sounds whatsoever would have been heard. They are therefore the "first principle" in music, but a first principle in the manner of an "exhortation," exhorting the student to make a reasoned investigation into what is pleasing to the ears. ‘ 

He goes on to say that: there are three types of music in which the power of music is manifested…the first is indeed cosmic, the second human, the third is that which is produced by means of instruments. For Boethius, everything from the universe to the human soul is connected through music: God, the cosmos, the elements (air, water, fire, earth), the seasons, humans and the human soul. Ratio, proportion, harmony, number, all present in music, are also present in all things. The cosmos sings, the eternal soul of the human is knitted together with its impermanent corporeal part through music; even the powers within the soul are kept in balance by music. 

Further, good music can make us better people. Boethius is of course a late antiquity writer and the theories he presents come from Ancient Greek thinking - Pythgoras and Plato, as well as some Roman thinking (Cicero and Augustine) and the later Greek Nichomachus, (60-120 BCE), a mathematician who wrote the (lost) Manual of Harmonics). Boethius’ work De Institutione Musica was originally written in the 6th century, first copied in the 9th and is one of the first music books to be printed in Venice in 1491/2. It became intimately intertwined with Christian thinking and held sway for almost a millennia. We are discussing a kind of thinking that flourished in medieval times, a time very different from our own. There is the famous quote ‘the past is another country, they do things differently there’, so we need to keep that in mind while at the same time being open to the conceptual possibilities such wholistic thinking may offer us today. 

During this presentation, I’d like you to keep in mind the following questions: 1. Can this style of thinking, a style of thought that is rooted in sound, have meaning today? 2. However we choose to think about the nature of the soul today, may there be a role for sound and music? 3. Do you think there are links between reason and the divine? 4. Do you think music has a role in formation of good character? 5. How can sound and listening link to the divine?

Thursday, 4 February 2021

New hours of opening Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday

This year the Library is open three days per week

Tuesday 10 am-4 pm

Wednesday 10 am-4 pm

Thursday 10 am-4 pm

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-eighth: Emotional Classification


Two givens of cataloguing are that cataloguers classify works according to an agreed system of objective reality; and that they do not read the new books in library time. These two tenets, if you like, are given a shake when we consider a shop that arranges the stock according to emotions. 

Oh Hello Again is the name of a new bookshop in Seattle. According to The Seattle Times this month, the manager of the store, Kari Ferguson, practises bibliotherapy, “which posits that reading the right novel at the right time can help to console and guide people through moments of great emotional turbulence.” Presumably such therapy can extend to other literatures well. Kari has taken this concept to a whole new level. After sometimes initial confusion when entering the bookshop, visitors get the gist of this sympathetic shelf arrangement, with satisfying results. It may help if visitors are in touch with their emotions, unless of course it is the shop that alerts you to your mood. 

Emotional classification will have its challenges, especially for the seasoned cataloguer. I’m not sure exactly how it is meant to work. At present I am reading the a-laugh-every-page letters of Finnish storyteller Tove Jansson, and do wonder at the shop’s shelving of her ‘Moominland Midwinter’ under Melancholy. As in all her books, the emotional range varies, so you would have to shelve her titles in different parts of the store. 

This is possibly Melvil Dewey’s worst nightmare. There is no objective ordering of knowledge, whatsoever. Ontological, epistemological, and alphabetical order – the hallmark, benchmark, and bookmark of the tidy mind – are overridden by thematic arrangement. How, for example, do we shelve David Attenborough? Should he go in the Enthusiasm section, or under Wonder, or Sad when things don’t turn out so well between the lion and the gazelle? Such questions spring forth in leaps and bounds, when they are not stopped in their tracks with surprise and confusion. 

To be able to find something specific with this system, the classifier would need to know a lot about the book. A given of bookshops, as with libraries, is that staff not read the stock in work time. This is upended when staff must ascertain the emotion of a book, emotion being of its nature subjective. To arrive at a classification of Sublime for a book, the staff member must have read the book, thereby creasing the item and making it unsaleable. We think of the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, which could go under Confusion, Mirth, or Common Sense, depending on the personal response of the stockist. Emotions are also transitory, they pass through us to be superseded by other emotions. Do we classify our favourite theologian under Infinite Possibilities or Mind Boggle, depending on the day in question? And let’s not begin on our favourite poet. 

Transforming bibliotherapy into a complete book management system is an imaginative and creative move. It addresses one of the guiding factors in our own choice of reading matter, one that is not always named as such, finding something that meets our emotional needs. Our present state of being takes us to places we are sometimes not even conscious of, let alone owning up to ourselves in private.    

Emotional classification is the result of a rethink about how book repositories, whether shops, libraries, or other collections, may be presented for access. It is a response to how we often in reality make our reading choices. It can be how we arrange our private collections, with all the tolerable emotions at the top of the pile. How emotional classification works at the practical level of organisation is another matter. All staff would have to be trained in a sentimental education. Books that defy emotional classification may have to be lumped in the section labelled What The. Perhaps only a Kari Ferguson, attuned to the variations and possibilities, the complete rainbow of emotions, could deliver such a layout effectively. 


‘Seattle’s newest bookstore, Oh Hello Again, has a novel system; categorizing books by emotions,’ in The Seattle Times, 22 January, 2021, written by Paul Constant: https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/books/seattles-newest-bookstore-oh-hello-again-has-a-novel-system-categorizing-books-by-emotions/?fbclid=IwAR0lvC0cluNc_4tIGNNhP9neGQihSq9PoeVRGCZl92okX0wVegIeacsTr-c

Facebook conversations with Elizabeth Wade. A link to the article was set up by The Folio Society’s FB account. 

Photograph by Greg Gilbert of The Seattle Times.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Saint Kassiani the Hymnographer BATA BARDAK

 On Tuesday the 17th of November 2020, Bata Bardak conducted a zoom seminar for Spiritual Reading Group on the 9th-century Byzantine abbess Kassia, or Kassiani the Hymnographer. Here is his introductory paper. 

Kassiani (also known as Kassia) (1) was regarded as the most prominent female melodist of her time and is one of the most famous women of Byzantium. Critics of Greek poetry, both religious and secular, consider her the most distinguished poetess of the Greek Middle Ages (2). Born in Constantinople at the beginning of the ninth century, (almost three centuries before Hildegard of Bingen), she was an abbess, poet, composer and hymnographer, and is one of the first medieval composers whose musical scores are both extant and able to be interpreted by modern scholars. Forty-nine hymns used in the Orthodox Church are attributed to her, of which twenty-three have been established as genuine. In addition to her hymns another 789 secular verses in the form of epigrams and gnomic verse are attributed to her by tradition or manuscript authority. 

Although Kassiani has left such a rich literary and musical legacy, and in spite of her fame, or perhaps because of her fame, her life has unfortunately become shrouded with many myths over the centuries. Early traditions tell of how the strikingly beautiful Kassiani participated in the “bride-show” organized for the young emperor, Theophilos, by his stepmother Euphrosyne. This ceremony involved the parading of eligible young women before the emperor, who was to choose his wife by giving her a golden apple. Dazzled by Kassiani’s beauty, Theophilos approached her only to receive a terse rebuttal. His ego wounded, Theophilos instead chose the more docile Theodora as his wife. Heartbroken and smitten by remorse Kassiani retired to a convent to become a nun. This story also appears in Edward Gibbon’s eighteenth-century history of the decline of the Roman Empire. (3)

Over the years many fictitious stories and novels have been written around the alleged relationship between the two.More recently, Kassiani appeared in the television series Vikings (series 5, 2017) where she was depicted as a beautiful nun who plotted the murder of her faithless lover, the Greek admiral Euphemius, and become the mistress of the Amir Ziyadat Allah. Her most recent appearance was in 2019 when the English singer-songwriter Frank Turner included her in a song on his album No Man’s Land. (4) 

Despite the myths that have accrued around her life it is still possible to form a more realistic portrait of this remarkable woman. Renewed interest in Kassiani’s life in the late nineteenth-century gave rise to serious scholarly research and a deeper appreciation of her character, and she was officially canonized in 1889. 

Several medieval chroniclers record events from her life (5) and three letters from St Theodore the Studite (759-826), one of the most notable spiritual leaders of the time, survive.

Although the biographical evidence does not give us a complete picture of her life, she does emerge as an intelligent woman with emotional sensitivity, a talented poet and an original thinker. Deeply religious, she is also an astute observer of human character and an outspoken and often caustic critic of behaviour she did not approve of. 

Kassiani was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Constantinople between 805 and 810. Her father held the high military rank of Kandidatos at the Imperial Court, a position of honour conferred on members of the aristocratic class. In keeping with her social status Kassiani received a good education. According to Baynes and Moss (6) the Byzantines placed great importance on education and parents educated their children, both sons and daughters, to the best of their means. Kassiani was privately educated and her curriculum featured Greek language, theology, Patristic literature and sacred music, as well as classical philosophy and literature (7). In correspondence between Theodore the Studite and Kassiani when she was still in her early teens, the abbot compliments her on her learning and on the literary skills of the compositions she had sent him (8). 

Kassiani lived during the second iconoclast period which lasted from 814 to 843.Iconoclasm objected to the use of icons and other liturgical images and enforced their removal and destruction. The first iconoclast period, between 726 and 787, is traditionally explained as a reaction to Islamic military successes against the Byzantines. These successes were attributed to Islamic prohibitions against images and motivated the Byzantine Christians to adopt the same position. This however is only a partial explanation. There had long been a school of theological thought within the Church motivated by the Old Covenant interpretation of the Ten Commandments forbidding the making and worshipping of “graven images” (9). This, as well as changes to worship and social and political upheavals contributed to the iconoclast debate. 

In the early ninth century the Byzantine Empire suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Bulgarians in the north. The Arabs had already diminished the empire’s territory in the east and now ruled the three apostolic patriarchates of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch. In the year 800, in the west, Charlemagne (748-814), king of the Franks and Lombards, had been crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III, thus terminating the Pope’s allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor. Emperor Leo V, seeing these events as indicators of divine displeasure, looked back to the past and instituted a second period of iconoclasm in 814, hoping to replicate the military success of Constantine V. 

From the very beginning of the iconoclastic controversy it was the women from all classes of Byzantine society, both lay and monastic, together with the monks, who remained faithful to the Church’s traditions (10). They openly defied the imperial edict in the face of persecution and many were executed. Kassiani participated in this struggle from an early age, aiding imprisoned monks. In his correspondence, Theodore the Studite commends her Orthodox zeal and compassion for imprisoned monks, as well as acknowledging that she had been beaten with a lash for aiding iconodules (11). 

To the modern Christian the question of icon veneration may seem a marginal theological issue, but at the time it reflected and often paralleled the Christological doctrines of the Church as well as addressing related concepts that were open to interpretation and required clarification. (12) Central to the debate was the Incarnation of Christ. Theodore the Studite argued that the “rejection of the veneration of Christian images effectively denied Christ’s Incarnation, which united the spiritual and material worlds, and which made human salvation possible. If Christ could not be portrayed, then he was not truly human, and humanity was not truly united with God in him”.(13) 

John of Damascus (675-749), the other chief opponent to iconoclasm, also addressed the arguments referring to the Ten Commandments’ prohibition of “graven images” by pointing to other Old Testament evidence, for example where God instructed Moses to make two golden statues of cherubim for the lid of the Ark (Exodus 25: 18-22) and to embroider the curtains and the tent of the Tabernacle with cherubim angels (Exodus 26:1). (14)

John declared that he did not worship matter but the creator of matter. He added that he venerated the matter through which salvation came, including the ink in which the Gospels were written, the paint of the icons, along with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The distinction between worship and veneration was key in the arguments for icons. 

Another side-effect of Incarnation theology and its affirmation of the theological body was the question of the natural body and all that it implicates – senses, feelings, spirit, physical form, social behaviour and so on. This had an important influence in the development of Orthodoxy as well as influencing the style of Byzantine art. (15) In her poetry Kassiani employs all aspects of the body, the senses and the feelings, to depict the relationship between humanity and God, and the spiritual growth through faith, love and repentance to salvation. (16) 

The events of the bride-show with Theophilos are accepted by scholars as being historically true (17) and the three medieval chroniclers give similar accounts. The staging of Imperial bride-shows was a well-established practice in the eighth and ninth centuries. Kassiani’s showing took place about 830 and she was one of six semi-finalists. From correspondence with St Theodore it is known that Kassiani had decided to become a nun early in her life, so her participation in the bride-show was probably due to family pressure. She appears to have had no desire to be Empress nor any interest in courtly trappings. 

Theophilos, unlike his more lenient father, Michael II, was a fierce iconoclast and brutal in imposing his will. He succeeded his father as sole emperor in 829. Although well-educated he was ostentatious in many of his actions and spent much of his reign leading his troops into battle against the Bulgars, Serbs and Arabs, with many defeats and some successes. 

According to the chroniclers, Kassiani caught his eye and he approached her with the golden apple and said, “Through woman has come all evil”, obviously alluding to the sin of Eve, but possibly challenging Kassiani by implying that the women opposing iconoclasm were the cause of his own problems and military defeats. Without hesitation Kassiani replied, “But also through woman better things began”, referring to the Virgin Mary. In the Eastern Church Mary is commonly referred to as Theotokos (literally The God-Birther). The role of Theotokos was an integral part of Incarnation theology and many writings by the iconodules were dedicated to the Theotokos. Kassiani’s retort was a clear attack on Theophilos’ iconoclastic views. Such a bold reply to the Emperor, especially from a woman, contravened court conventions and would have left Theophilos stunned and displeased. He passed Kassiani by and presented the apple to Theodora. This account of the verbal exchange between the two is completely consistent with the caustic tone and strong opinions revealed in Kassiani’s epigrams and gnomic verse. For example,

            “I hate one that conforms to all ways” and

            “I hate silence when it is time to speak”.

And the most telling;

            “A stupid person when honoured is arrogant towards everyone,

                        and when praised becomes even more over-confident….

            but if a stupid man is young and in a position of power,

                        alas and woe and what a disaster”. (18)


Far from being heart-broken by Theophilos’ rejection, Kassiani must have been greatly relieved that divine Providence had left her free to pursue the monastic vocation she so desired. 

In 842, following the death of Theophilos, iconoclasm finally came to an end. Unknown to Theophilos, the modest Theodora he had chosen for his Empress, although not as outspoken as Kassiani, was as equally fervent in her opposition to iconoclasm and had raised her five daughters and one son to revere icons. The successor, Michael III, was only two years of age when his father died and Theodora presided over the Regency with her uncle. She worked quickly to restore the icons, replacing her husband’s former advisors and convening a local council in Constantinople that brought a permanent end to the iconoclast controversy in 843. 

That same year, at the age of about thirty-three, Kassiani founded her own convent in the west of Constantinople on a hill near the Constantinian Wall and became its first abbess. In the Byzantine world it was not unusual for individuals, lay or ecclesiastical, to establish monasteries. Finally free from persecution it was here that Kassiani was to spend the remainder of her life, pursuing her literary interests, writing hymns and secular works. Located nearby to the convent was the monastery of Stoudiios, renowned for its creativity in the liturgical arts and which played a central role in re-editing the Byzantine liturgical books in the ninth and tenth centuries. The two communities maintained a close relationship and some scholars attribute this to the survival of Kassiani’s works. (19) 

Kassiani died around 865. There is a tradition that says she travelled briefly to Italy with another nun, Evdokia. From there she went to Crete, finally settling on the island of Kasos where she died and is buried. Scholars however assume that she reposed in her convent in Constantinople. 

Kassiani’s extant writings fall into two distinct and markedly different categories.

Her religious poetry displays an unquestionable faith in God and his ever-present redeeming mercy and love. In contrast to most of her contemporaries whose hymns tend to be verbose and lengthy, hers are short and concise, using simple and poignant vocabulary. She displays an originality of thought that often blends narrative and dramatic elements to produce hymns of vivid imagery and intense religious emotion. (20) While drawing heavily on Biblical references, Kassiani also displays a thorough understanding of Patristic literature as well as reflecting contemporary theological concepts. Her Christmas hymns and those in honour of St John the Baptist, for example, focus primarily on incarnation theology and the kenotic love of Christ. 

Kassiani’s most famous work is the Hymn of the Penitent Woman, commonly referred to simply as the Hymn of Kassiani. It is sung only once a year during Holy Week on Tuesday evening (Wednesday Matins) and refers to the nameless woman in the Gospels who anointed Christ while he was dining in the house of a wealthy man. (Matt.26:6-13, Mk.14:39, Luke 7:36-50) Some Western commentators identify her as Mary Magdalen but the two are separate identities in Orthodox tradition. The hymn begins as a narrative but ends in the first person, leading the listener to identify with the fallen woman. The image of the woman fallen into sin is transferred into the woman who falls down in repentance. Many critics regard it as one of the most moving and vivid examples of Byzantine poetry. 

Kassiani’s original music for this hymn survives. It requires a very wide vocal range and is considered one of the most demanding pieces of Byzantine chant. The music is slow, sorrowful and plaintive. In current practice it may be sung by solo cantors, male or female, or choirs in unison, often with a vocal drone, and lasts from ten to twenty minutes depending on tempo and style of execution. 

In her secular writings we see another side to Kassiani’s personality. Kassiani comments on a variety of subjects from social issues and personal moral concerns to her views on friendship and wealth. While often witty, she can sometimes appear extremely caustic on a first reading. Many of her comments, however, are directed to specific situations and when viewed in their proper context show Kassiani to be a sharp observer of human behaviour and outspoken critic of corruption and social injustice, who combines profane and religious maxims to express her moral views. 

When looking at the early sources relating to Kassiani and at her own writings the image that emerges is of a profound, deeply religious and talented woman. Serious and pious from an early age she developed, through her strength of character and brilliance of mind, to become one of the most respected women of Byzantium and made a lasting contribution to the thought and worship of the Orthodox church. 


1.      There are a number of variants of her name such as Kassia, Kassiani, Eikasia. Sometimes the Latin spelling is used such as Cassia or Cassiani. She was canonized under the Greek name Kassiani, but Kassia may have been the original form of her name .Modern English generally uses Kassia in references to her as a composer and Kassiani in reference to her religious life. Some sources refer to her as Kassia (or Cassia) the Nun. 

2.      Antonia Tripolitis (ed.) – Kassia: The legend, the woman and her works, New York, Garland, 1992. p.xii. 

3.      Edward Gibbon – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1789. chapter 48 

4.      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kassia (30/8/2020)

 5.      The three Byzantine chroniclers are Symeon the Loogothete (or Symeon the Translator), Georgios Amartolos (also known as George the Monk or George the Sinner) and Leon Grammatikos (or Leo the Grammarion). 

6.      N. H. Baynes & H. St. L. B. Moss – Byzantium: An introduction to East Roman Civilisation, Oxford University Press, 1961.


7.      Silvas, Anna M. "Kassia the Nun c.810-c.865: an Appreciation." in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006.


8.      Tripolis. Op. Cit. p.xiv


9.      Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8


10.  Tripolis, Op. Cit. p.xiii-xiv


11.  Silvas, Op. Cit.


12.  Niki Tsironis – “The body and senses in the work of Cassia the Hymnographer: Literary trends in the Iconoclastic Period”, from Symmeikta 16, Institute of Byzantine

Research, Athens, September, 2008, pp.141-151.


13.  St Theodore the Studite – On Holy Icons, Crestwood, NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981 (Translated by Catharine P. Roth)


14.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_Iconoclasm (28/8/2020)


15.  Byzantium was the heir of the Classical world and Byzantine secular art was in the representational tradition of Classical art. Iconography developed as a deliberately stylized or “abstracted” form depicting the spiritual person rather than a lifelike portrait. Ref. David Talbot Rice – Byzantine Art, Penguin, 1962.


16.  Niki Tsironis, Op. Cit. p.141


17.  Tripolis, Op. Cit. p.xv


18.  “Stupidity” translation in Tripolis, p.125.


19.  Kurt Sherry – Kassia the Nun in Context: Religious thought of a Ninth-Century Byzantine Monastic, Pislataway, NJ, Gorgias Press, 2011. p.56


20.  Tripolis, Op. Cit. p.xvi






Antonia Tripolitis (ed.) – Kassia: The legend, the woman and her works, New York, Garland,



Niki Tsironis – “The body and senses in the work of Cassia the Hymnographer: Literary

            trends in the Iconoclastic Period”, from Symmeikta 16, Institute of Byzantine

            Research, Athens, September, 2008, pp.139-157.


Susan Arida – “The theological voice of Kassiani”, in The WHEEL Journal, Issue 9/10, July

            18, 2017,  Arlington, MA.


Dimitris Salapatas – “The Role of women in the Orthodox Church”, from Orthodoxes Forum,

            Institute for Orthodox Theology, University of Munich, Series 29, 2015, Issue 2,



Fr. George D. Konstantopoulos – The Hymn of Kassiani the Nun, 2016





N. H. Baynes & H. St. L. B. Moss – Byzantium: An introduction to East Roman Civilisation,

            Oxford University Press, 1961


Silvas, Anna M. – "Kassia the Nun c.810-c.865: an Appreciation." Byzantine Women:

            Varieties of Experience 800-1200. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006. 17-39. Print.


St Theodore the Studite – On Holy Icons, Crestwood, NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press,

            1981 (Translated by Catharine P. Roth)


Kurt Sherry – Kassia the Nun in Context: Religious thought of a Ninth-Century Byzantine

            Monastic, Pislataway, NJ, Gorgias Press, 2011.






YouTube recordings of The Hymn of Kassiani (The Penitent Woman)


Το τροπάριο της Κασσιανής Πέτρος Γαϊτάνος Petros Gaitanos The hymn of Kassiani - YouTube


Το Τροπάριο της Κασσιανής (Κ.Πρίγγου)-Γρ.Παπαεμμανουήλ, ΕΒΧ Οι Δομέστικοι - YouTube


Tropario of Kassiani part 1/2 Ketsetzis Fotis - YouTube


Τροπάριο Κασσιανής 2011 - Ζάκυνθος - YouTube


English Settings




Hymn of Kassiani the Nun. Byzantine Tone 8 - YouTube


Hymn of Kassiani in English - YouTube


Hymn of St. Kassiani - Boston Byzantine Choir - YouTube


2014 04 15 Hymn of Kassiani chanted in English by S. Comfort, isokratima by B. Comfort - YouTube