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 died in
Thailand, before Christmas in 1968. He was 53. Was he ever planning to leave
the Order? Was he moving into a whole new phase of inter-religious
conversation? Was his death an accident, or not? Such questions rivet
biographers, inspire books, and start fan discussions, but they are not really
the questions that Merton himself is asking of us his readers. Prolific is a
common word used to describe Merton and this is true too of his poetry. Not all
of his poetic explorations work, yet exploration is always what’s going on.
Much of his poetic exploration continues to defy easy analysis. He makes
universal his own concerns. He wants us to be in on the conversation and the
experience. He is very interested in our own limits as humans.
Like all other Cistercians
through the ages, he sang the psalms almost every day. His own writing on
Psalms reminds us of their continuous connection with existence and with God,
their daily sustenance whatever the weather. Here he writes ‘A Psalm’. This
psalm is in praise of psalms. It opens with the unexpected analogy of poetry to
rum, though the effects of a good psalm seem to be more lasting than liquor.
Their repetition through the year enlivens his love and awareness of all
creation. Half way through the psalm, however, he moves from ecstasy into a
letting go even of those things that make a psalm happen. In such a state “music
turns to air and the universe dies of excellence.” The psalm is left behind, as
it were, when the true author and receiver of the psalm is all in all. Such is
the visionary state entered into that soon only “God sings by Himself in acres
When psalms surprise me with their music
And antiphons turn to rum
The Spirit sings: the bottom drops out of my soul.
And from the center of my cellar, Love, louder than thunder
Opens a heaven of naked air.
New eyes awaken.
I send Love’s name into the world with wings
And songs grow up around me like a jungle.
Choirs of all creatures sing the tunes
Your Spirit played in Eden.
Zebras and antelopes and birds of paradise
Shine on the face of the abyss
And I am drunk with the great wilderness
Of the sixth day of Genesis.
But sound is never half so fair
As when that music turns to air
And the universe dies of excellence.
Sun, moon and stars
Fall from their heavenly towers.
Joys walk no longer down the blue world’s shore.
Though fires loiter, lights still fly on the air of the gulf,
All fear another wind, another thunder:
Then one more voice
Snuffs all their flares in one gust.
And I go forth with no more wine and no more stars
And no more buds and no more Eden
And no more animals and no more sea:
While God sings by Himself in acres of night
And walls fall down, that guarded Paradise.