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.

 

Sources

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.

 

 

Sources

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.

 

Sources

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