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

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