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