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
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
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