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to the panoply of social and historical reference that is connected however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,
Thomas Merton. The literary essays of Thomas Merton. Edited by Patrick Hart. New Directions, 1981