Thomas Merton's Poetry: Emblems of a Saced Season.

Alan Altany

I. Introduction: A Heaven of Naked Air

        The entire body of Thomas Merton's poetry can be thought of as a poetics; of disappearance: the disappearance of the old, corrupt world in favor of an apocalyptic vision of a new world; the disappearance of the false self in favor of discovering the true self in God; the disappearance of traditional religious imagery in favor of montage impressions and anti-poetry; the disappearance of a supernatural category of the sacred in favor of a direct, humanized and intimate experience of the sacred in the center of the profane. Merton was a man and poet of transformation.

        In his early monastic years the sacred for Merton tended towards a super-essential conception of a divine reality that was beyond the :reaches of this world and would sooner or later fully burst into the world and bring about an apocalyptic reversal of existence. The poetry of the 1940s and 1950s is filled with images of a theological dualism between the natural and the supernatural, between the sacred and the profane. It is a prophetic view looking towards the future for consummation:

And every burning morning is a prophecy of Christ

coming to raise and vindicate

Even our sorry flesh.

        "The Trappist Cemetery--Gethsemani"

Merton tended to condemn the profane and praise the sacred without acknowledging the need of the one for the other. But if anything, Merton was not to be a person locked into one point of view for the rest of his life. He was steadily changing and reacting against earlier Mertonian perspectives.

        As a poet, how to speak of this sacred was a problem for Merton. He believed the mystical experience directed him towards silence, but the poetic vision compelled him to speak: "Words and silence, standing face to face / Weigh life and death ..." ("A Responsory, 1953”). The old and the new, beings and Being, self and God, profane and sacred affected each other:

We must receive new seeds from an old harvest

Old truths out of a time newborn ...

    "A Responsory"

        The sacred was not to simply destroy or annihilate the profane, but was itself to be emptied of itself. The opposites would be transforming each other. The view of an original paradise as the goal would be displaced by a view of the sacred in a process of intimate interaction with the profane towards the synthesis of a new creation or union of both that could be spoken of in terms of the union of flesh and Spirit. Merton as a poet of paradise turned his sight towards the world and the daily affairs of humanity and, while remaining a cloistered monk, came to have great compassion for all peoples.

        By 1957 he was experiencing his faith in Christ in a more pluralistic way. At the same time his new imagery was based upon Christ as the true image of God and the true image of humanity. Therefore, the sacred was changing Merton's anthropology. Christ disclosed not only the awful depths to which the human, spirit could sink, but also the great heights to which it could aspire. In Christ Merton found both the sacred and the profane. Athanasius had said that God had become human so that humans could become divine. The sacred was "profaned" and by so doing, the profane disclosed the sacred.

        There were more crises ahead for Merton after 1957. The heavy work load, the unrest about solitude and his physical problems continued. These earlier years gave Merton the geography from which his pilgrimage could begin. The path was not smooth, nor an arcing ascent ever upwards. Words from "Rites for the Extrusion of a Leper" can be applied to the Merton of the late 1950s and early 1960s:

        ... It is true you are

now alone in your adversity in the company of Christ

only, but the people of God shall also remember that

your misgivings have become Sacred ...


        Your uncertainty

has become certain, a source of sacred dread to others,

but to you a kind of hell in which absurdity itself is

an earnest of salvation.

One of the tests of the mystical life has always been a growth in love. Even in the darkness the mystic loves. In "A Psalm" Merton writes:

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.

II. An Incarnational Transformation

In the 1960s Thomas Merton, the mystic poet, became more pronounced in his prophetic voice and more diffuse in his lifelong pilgrimage to the sacred.

The mystery of Christ is at work in all human events,

and our comprehension of secular events works itself

out and expresses itself in that sacred history, the

history of salvation, which the Holy Spirit teaches us

to perceive in events that appear to be purely secular.

The world was not just to be forsaken and prayed for, but the very ground for the experience of the sacred. It was this emphasis upon experience that is key to Merton's later poetry. The continued transformation of the mystical vision moved away from the old danger of its becoming extremely individualistic and isolationist: and towards a new sense of responsibility for embracing and becoming involved with the world, even if from behind the monastic enclosure. The boundaries of his experience merged with the experience of others as more of his religious conceptual idols were smashed.

The 20th century had lost touch with meaningful symbolism and thus floundered in meaninglessness. Poets were among those most sensitive to this situation and they frequently turned to private mythologies or excesses of personal experience in order to counter the sense of absurdity or impending abyss. Merton blamed not only the process of societal secularization for this destructive condition, but also the religious institutions for abandoning this vital aspect of continuity with cultural and spiritual traditions. In his poem, "The Lion," Merton addresses this loss of symbolism, imagination, enchantment and the sacred:

All classic shapes have vanished

From alien heavens

Where there are no fabled beasts

No friendly histories

And passion has no heraldry.


I have nothing left to translate

Into the figures of night

Or the pale geometry

Of the fire-birds.

If I once had a wagon of lights to ride in

The axle is broken

The horses are shot.

Can good poetry even be written under such cultural conditions where a shared symbolism and mythology have atrophied?

        Merton's poetry in the 1960s was a continual experimentation. with forms and content. Some of it has been called anti-poetry because it seems to defy the traditional view of what poetry should be. He included prose in the poetry, "found" poems, surrealistic imagery that moved swiftly from one impression to another, Zen paradox and metaphysical lyrics. Little of this was completely original with Merton as he belatedly tried poetic approaches that had been used decades earlier in American poetry. But his mystical perspective and monastic life gave his work a unique point of view that enables others to see in Merton a paradigm of Christians and other people of the dangers, distortions; and discoveries involved in the experience of the sacred in this century. He would have agreed with Henry Rago that "the true poet is willing to give up poetry in order to find poetry." (1) One approach was to push the language far beyond any clear representational meaning. The poem may thus end in silence, the contemplative goal of the aesthetic work. Merton "in one of his taped lectures ... took the view that a good poem was 50 percent silence and what was not said in a literary work was just as important as what was made explicit, if not more important.” (2) What he tried to do in his later work was to give words to his experience of love in the darkness for "Only in the Void / Are all ways one...," ("The Night of Destiny"). This was an area where he felt the influence of T. S. Elliot's "ability to combine a sense of the past with a highly modern, experimental attitude toward form, a combination which he tried to achieve in his own writing." (3) It can be assumed, based upon the whole of his life, that he would have continued to experiment in his .poetry, perhaps in even more radical directions than before.

        Important to understanding the mystical perspectives of the later poetry as well as the changing form of the sacred for Merton is the fact that his theology became deeply incarnational and apophatic. In the traditional mystical literature the image of "ascent" is used to describe the movement from the self to union with Ultimate Reality. Neoplatonic sources are evident in such a scheme that passes through the stages of mystical ascent: purification, illumination and union. (4) It would be more accurate in Merton's case to portray his development as a spiraling inward and outward simultaneously where the contemplative, liturgical experience of God was the ground for the experience of God horizontally in the world. In his Christ-mysticism God is found in the center of the self because "God the Word became flesh (Verbum care factum est)" and disclosed the real nature of being human and the real nature of God.

        It was the view of Christ as the human face of God and the divine face of humanity that expanded Merton's poetic vision to encompass the totality of human experience. He believed that in Christ God emptied himself and took on the weakness and ordinariness of a human being, but "not only 'this' man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, 'every man’.” (5)  Even more directly, he said that "if we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of Christ." (6) By casting "our awful solemnity to the winds." (7) In a prose poem, "Hagia Sophia," Merton tells of Sophia (Wisdom, Mother of all) crowning the Logos with his human nature, thus

She crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with what

is greater than glory: the one thing greater than

glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.

It is an image of Christ disappearing into humanity, of thesacred emptying itself of itself and becoming as nothing, with the mission to love unto death. The poem concludes with an image of this incarnational hiddenness in humanity:

The shadows fall. The stars appear. The birds begin

to sleep. Night embraces the silent half of the earth.

A vagrant, a destitute wanderer with dusty feet, finds

his way down a new road. A homeless God, lost in the

night, without papers, without identification, without

even a number, a frail expendable exile lies down in

desolation under the sweet stars of the world and

entrusts Himself to sleep.

        The image of Jesus for Merton had ranged from the Son of God, the King, the cosmic Logos to the universal man and hidden center of human existence. The form of this Christ-image became more humanized in Merton's poetry until it was itself hidden within the political, social, spiritual vortex of life in the world. The eschatological, universal work of Christ was to be found in this historical situation of human beings. The incarnation was seen more as a present involvement of God in the world and not only as a one-time historical engagement. The geography of Merton's poetry became more worldly as his idea of the sacred (including the image of Christ) became more humanized and pluralistic. He recognized the danger, especially in an age of scientism and withered symbolism, that focus only on personal experience could turn people into subjectivist islands and send "some of the best poets of our time ... running wild among the tombs in the moonlit cemeteries of surrealism,” (8) that without any awareness of the sacred this radical variety of experience can lead to an individualism which makes poetry obscure and isolationist. Altizer believes that this western individualism

has wholly isolated the individual from both God and the

cosmos, an isolation which has produced the most secular

culture in history, resulted in an unparalleled form of

society in which individuals are hopelessly alienated from

one another, and created a unique interior experience

revolving around a solitary subjectivity. (9)

Merton believed that religion has a share in the responsibility for this condition because of the theological idols it perpetuated that were obstacles to the real experience of the sacred. In fact it was such idols that helped pave the way for the atheistic tendencies of the modern world. That is one reason why Merton felt a special bond with those atheists who refused to accept the image or idea of a God that seemed to deny the full integrity of human life.

        As the image of Christ became less direct in his poetry, the sacred became more dialectical for Merton. He appreciated the poetry of Edwin Muir and quoted one of his poems about this desire of a poet to reach an intimate ontological apprehension of life:

It is not any thing

And yet all being it is;

Being, being, being

Its burden and its bliss.

        How can I ever prove

        What it is I love? (10)

The poet becomes one with the contemplative. In a play Christopher Fry wrote what could have been a motto hanging over the entrance of Merton's hermitage in the Kentucky woods in the 1960s:

… there is nothing on the earth

Which doesn't happen in your own hearts. (11)

        Merton had been educated in the Scholastic theology that was standard for the Catholicism of his time, but as he became more open to other attitudes, he found it necessary to face not only Being, but the modern awareness of Nothingness or Non-Being. It was a central theme in modern art. The traditional hero figure was replaced by an anti-hero. The awe, dread, reverence before the sacred seemed lost in the Nothingness from which there was not exit (Sartre) and from which only nothing ever came (cf. Samuel Becketts' play Waiting for Godot). Nietzsche's "death of God" looms in the background of all this as does the subsequent loss of belief in a personal existence after death. Existentialist philosophers, even the Christian ones, were very aware of the Angst in this self-consciousness about death and the problem of meaning. The word "absurdity" was frequently used to label this fundamental situation. Merton wrote a number of essays on the work and thought of Albert Camus and felt closeness with the French atheist because of Camus' fierce desire to seek the truth. Camus dismissed the idea of God "as irrelevant because it is inaccessible to the mind and experience of so many modern people.” (12) Merton believed Camus failed to realize that love for God and love for people were the same love, that love of God did not negate the value or dignity of human life. Merton focused upon Camus' novels and upon his depiction of the mythical figure of Sisyphus. Camus had said that for moderns the only real philosophical question is whether to commit suicide. The background for this is that when one is content to justify one's life by reference to a murderous society with its dehumanizing values, one "is in complicity with the absurd, with death, with the Plague," (13) with what Gerard Manley Hopkins called "the death dance in our blood." (14) Camus' Sisyphus, the "hero of the absurd," faces an impossible task symbolized in his being condemned to roll the stone up the hill over and over again because it rolls back down just as he reaches the top. Merton sees Camus' Myth of Sisyphus as a statement against suicide as the response to the absurd. Sisyphus faces his impossible situation and "having finally elected to give it meaning by freely embracing its absurdity, he has overcome absurdity." (15) Merton admired Camus' courage and commitment to facing the absurd and death in the name of freely choosing to live his own life. In the 1960s the sacred could not be viable if the absurd was ignored.

        Merton had passed through much of his spiritual dark night into a union with God that gave him the love for humanity that characterizes his work in the last decade of his life. Mystics describe it as the discipline of love, the transition from separateness or multiplicity to union with God. This awful sense of being a victim of love is nevertheless welcomed by the mystic for as Merton said, "love is the epiphany of God in our poverty.” (16) The old ways, ideas, "idols" and desires are to be left behind as the person travels the darkness of faith (i.e., dark to the discursive understanding) towards God. Merton saw that darkness as the agony of truth gradually being disclosed, not as in a correct intellectual judgment, but in the ancient sense of a-letheia, or un-hiddenness. (17) In his journal he wrote

It is precisely anguish and inner crisis that compel us

to seek truth, because it is these things that make

clear to us that we are sunk in the hell of our own untruth. (18)

        In the 1940s Merton had written that Christmas was the beginning of God's planned fire that would "melt all our sufferings ..." because Christ had appeared in the world to "conquer the winter" because his "small Heart bleeds with infinite fire," ("A Christmas Card"). David Steindl-Rast makes the argument that fire is central for understanding Merton and his mystical vision. The fire of Easter when at the liturgy of the Easter Vigil a fire is struck in the darkness symbolizing that the light has come into the world after a long and dark night, the fire of Pentecost, the fire of the rising sun in the East or the dawn of a new creation, the whole world on fire and the secret Easter at the heart of that world, all of these meanings are associated with fire as "the great archetypal symbol" (19) of the inner journey of transformation. For Merton fire was unity and an image of the sacred's power to burn away illusion and disclose the real self as a living flame in the image of God. In The Wisdom of the Desert Merton includes an anecdote about two of the abbots in the desert. Abbot Lot went to Abbot Joseph and asked what more he should do since he fasted, prayed, meditated, obeyed the rule and observed contemplative silence. Abbot Joseph stood up and "stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: ‘Why not be totally changed into fire?’" (20) By a systematic examination of Merton's later poetry it will be seen that for him this "Fire (sacred) is emptiness and fullness," ("The Legacy of Herakleitos").

III. Nothingness and Paper Cranes

        Whether it be judged poetry, prose or a prose-poem, "Original Child Bomb" was published in 1962. It is Merton against atomic war and the threat of such devastation and a movement away from moralizing or polemics and towards what has been called "anti-poetry." The very accounts of an event can be so overwhelming that Merton feels little need to interject himself or his rage into the work. "Original Child" was the name the Japanese gave to the atomic bomb dropped on Japan in 1945 since it was the first of its kind. There is a matter-of-fact presentation of the events and decision leading up to the actual dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. In discussions with President Truman, "One of those present added, in a reverent tone, that the new explosive might eventually destroy the whole world." Others thought using the bomb on one or two cities would end the war: "They believed the new bomb would produce eternal peace." The decision was made: "So it was decided Hiroshima was the most opportune target, as it had not yet been bombed at all. Lucky Hiroshima!" The bomb would be tested in the New Mexico desert at a place ironically called "Trinity." For the Desert Fathers the desert was the last and most threatening outpost for the demonic.

        "Many who saw the experiment expressed their satisfaction in religious terms .... There was an atmosphere of devotion. It was a great act of faith." A group of atomic scientists petitioned that the bomb should not be used without a warning that would be convincing and an opportunity to surrender. But the plan proceeded. "Those who handled the bomb referred to it as 'Little Boy."' The bomber pilot named his plane after his mother, "Enola Gay."

31: At 3:09 they reached Hiroshima and started the

bomb run. The city was full of sun. The fliers could

see the green grass in the gardens. No fighters rose

up to meet them. There was no flak. No one in the

city bothered to take cover.


32: The bomb exploded within 100 feet of the aiming

point. The fireball was 18,000 feet across. The

temperature at the center of the fireball was

100,000,000. The people who were near the center

became nothing. The whole city was blown to bits and

the ruins caught fire instantly everywhere, burning

briskly. 70,000 people were killed right away or died

within a few hours. Those who did not die at once

suffered great pain. Few of them were soldiers.


33: The men in the plane perceived that the raid had

been successful, but they thought of the people in the

city and they were not perfectly happy. Some felt they

had done wrong. But in any case they had obeyed

orders. "It was war."


34: Over the radio went the code message that the bomb

had been successful: "Visible effects greater than

Trinity ... Proceeding to Papacy." Papacy was the code

name for Tinian.


36: Then the military governor of the Prefecture of

Hiroshima issued a proclamation full of martial spirit.

To all the people without hands, without feet, with

their faces falling off, with their intestines hanging

out, with their whole bodies full of radiation, he

declared: "We must not rest a single day in our war

effort ... We must bear in mind that the annihilation of

the stubborn enemy is our road to revenge." He was a

professional soldier.

Then, "On August 9th another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, / though Hiroshima was still burning." The "Original Child ... was now born ... (and) Since that summer many other bombs have been / 'found.' What is going to happen?..."

        Merton relied upon the bare presentation of the decision to drop the bomb and the actual results to carry the weight of the work and the emotions, or lack of them. Merton is implicitly saying that this power, for all its enormity and fiery energy, is in utterly stark contrast to the inner poverty of modern humanity. The bomb discloses the awful fragility of human existence and the Nothingness hidden just beneath the impressive technological surface. Without the power of the sacred with which to handle the bomb (and all it symbolizes), all the "original childs" will depress the human spirit and possibly destroy the planet. There is not much here that is redemptive or mystical. What it does indicate is that Merton was saying that by limiting ourselves to the outer self and the domination of nature, we risk self-destruction.

        Many of Merton's early readers questioned his social issues involvement. Where was the silent mystic? He felt it was his duty to speak from his special perspective as a monk. It was an unsettled time for him and one that was paradoxically filled with his enduring desire to become a hermit. The mystic is one of the few who can remind the world of its deadly inertia as Merton says in "Prologo:"

Now it is reversed. In the Kingdom of Death the poet is

condemned to sing that in the midst of death, he, the

unsuccessful, remains in the midst of life. All the others

are embalmed in the vast whispering perfumed cybernetic

silence of the millennium of death (Death the millionaire,

Death the dictator, Death the engineer) ...


Poet, here is your sentence: you are condemned to eat atomic

ashes without antidote and remain alive ...


For the huge chrome idol: worship: power: the atomic


Thus, in Merton's view contemplation was to issue in compassion for such a precarious existence. The contemporary world endures a dark night of spirit that the mystic can address because of the inner darkness or emptiness that she or he experiences. The big difference is that the societal dying is seen by the mystic as sterile, while the mystical death is known to be regenerative. Merton believed that the bringers of death were not alien beasts, but people who in many ways were indistinguishable from the mass of humanity. They had simply allowed death to become their way of life as he says in "Epitaph for a Public Servant," about Adolf Eichmann:

A man without reason

To hate his fellow citizen

Swallowed up by death

Without previous decision

A believer

This kind of evil is presented as even more terrifying than the acts of violent and obvious psychopaths. It implies that anyone is capable of such atrocity.

        At this juncture, Merton's contemplative life gave him a critical interpretation of current events based upon the frequent failure of people to recognize themselves in God's image. The modern tendency for abstractness and keeping life at arm's length is crucial to the problem. The real self is lost and the passion for truth extinguished, resulting in what Merton sees as idolatries:

Some cannot bear the weight of being men.

They give their manhood to the corporation

Or political idol. They and the race alike

Suffer from this intemperance.


Man's home-made image is his enemy. This must

be destroyed

With straight words and paradox.

        "The Moment of Truth"

It may seem a paradox that a mystical monk is telling the world how to live together when he has personally chosen to live apart. But that separateness was for Merton key to his being able to have something to say to others.

        For his solitude was his desert where he had to face death and Nothingness. As he explored the Asian religious traditions in the 1960s, he sought to integrate this Nothingness into his Christian theology. Buddhism and Taoism had long found in Nothingness or the Void a creative, even joyful, reality that was in harmony with Being. But Western thought only recently began to face the challenge of Non-being. The fact of its being unprepared is shown by the resultant negative view of Non-being known as nihilism. The metaphysical meaning and aesthetic peace frequently found in Asian thought and art as regards Non-being were largely absent in the modern West. Ernest Hemingway tried to talk about the reality of Non-being or Nothingness in modern life in a story called "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" from the early 1930s. Towards the end of it the main character has an interior monologue:

Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself ... what did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada, who are in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. (21)

This "nada" presses in upon the modern mind and often takes the form of whams seems to be purely profane, a complete loss of the sacred. Since Merton's mysticism is Christocentric and finds God at the center of the self, the experience of Nothingness by the self and in the self is part of the dying to the egocentric life and of the union with God. Eckhart could speak of the Godhead as though it were a desert of Nothingness by which he meant that it was not contained within the epistemological categories of being and existence.

    Merton does not advocate an attempt to defy Nothingness by brave will power as if it were just another "thing," but to embrace that Nothingness the way Christ felt the necessity to embrace death. In "An Elegy for Ernest Hemingway" Merton contrasts the monastic life that he is living with Hemingway's failed effort to face the Void as an enemy without uniting with it;

How slowly this bell tolls in a monastery tower for a whole

age, and for the quick death of an unready dynasty, and for

the brave illusion: the adventurous self!

The modern hubris of denying the inner Nothingness in the name of reason and the active ego is, for Merton, a path to individual and collective suicide. It is a failure to recognize and accept the dark aspects of the human unconscious which modern depth psychology has described. Ever since the Enlightenment this suppression of the "Furies" has been assumed to be necessary. But those goddesses of night and earth are symbols of an ancient wisdom about not denying any aspect of human life. T. S. Elliot said that humanity cannot bear very much reality and therefore seeks to escape from the full depths of the self. Dostoevski's Grand Inquisitor in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, is a classic example of the abdication by people of real freedom and their real selves in favor of an imposed authority and outer stability. William Barrett finds in the ancient Greek tragedy, Oresteia, by Aeschylus, a reminder to moderns that the Furies or the forces of darkness and Nothingness are ignored or suppressed at our own peril. In a similar way the mystic life finds the passage through the realm of the Furies a necessary path to union with God. This is Barrett's warning:

The solution proposed by Greek tragic wisdom through the drama of Aeschylus may not ... be as frightening as we imagine: in giving the Furies their place, we may come to recognize that they are not such alien presences as we think in our moments of evading them. In fact, far from being alien, they are part of ourselves ...

The conspiracy to forget them, or to deny that they exist, thus turns out to be only one more contrivance in that vast and organized effort by modern society to flee from the self. (22)

It is precisely here that Merton the mystic is a pathfinder and paradigm for those who seek to experience the God of Nothingness (or the Nothingness of God) in the self stripped of layer after layer of self-absorption, distractions and illusions. Is the sacred as present in Nothingness as in Being? Is it love in the darkness where the whole of Merton's mysticism and poetic vision rests?

        A poem written several years after "Original Child Bomb," probably in early 1964, is entitled "Paper Cranes." It is as a counterpoint to the earlier poem and is based upon the Japanese symbol for peace. In fact, one of the victims of Hiroshima visited Merton at Gethsemani in May, 1964, and later was to translate the poem into Japanese. Merton was deeply affected when a silent woman who was part of the peace group who visited him that day smilingly placed a folded paper crane on his table. (23) The image of the bird made out of paper is put up against the ravenous might of the weapons of war and especially the "bomb." This eighteen line poem is itself like a poem made of paper, delicate but strong. The paper bird is free from the self-hatred and cravings and illusions of those who make war. A child makes the bird and the love with which the bird is formed is ultimately more lasting and powerful than the demons or beasts. The innocent love is life-giving and bears the fire of transformation.

How can we tell a paper bird

Is stronger than a hawk

When it has no metal for talons?

It needs no power to kill

Because it is not hungry.


Wilder and wiser than eagles

It ranges round the world

Without enemies

And free of cravings.


The child's hand

Folding these wings

Wins no wars and ends them all.


Thoughts of a child's heart

Without care, without weapons!

So the child's eye

Gives life to what it loves

Kind as the innocent sun

And lovelier than all dragons!

In seeming weakness Merton finds a symbol of regenerative love.

IV. Emblems for a Pilgrim

        The next collection of poetry to be published was Emblems of a Season of Fury in 1963. The Second Vatican Council was in its second year. Merton was still Master of Novices. Late that year President John Kennedy was assassinated. It is a varied collection of poems of social protest and poems clearly influenced by Merton's study of Zen. The previous year Merton had been ordered by the superior of his religious order not to publish anything further on the issues of war and peace. The conflict within him as to his desire for solitude continued. In 1960 a building was constructed on the monastery's land which Merton was allowed to use for a few hours each day for solitude. His abbot in the 1950s and 1960s was frequently in conflict with Merton over this issue and discouraged Merton's ideas about joining another, more eremitic, order such as the Carthusians and the Camoldoli. His apophatic orientation continued, but a long suppressed openness to the world had begun in the late 1950s and can be found in the social protest poems in Emblems of a Season of Fury. The very word "fury" is not too strong for the emotions released within Merton at this time. He not only protested war and racism, but his own illusions. In a real sense it was a time of crisis for Merton. His inner dark night was not only about solitude and contemplation, but about love. In 1958 he had written that "my worst and inmost sickness is the despair of ever being able truly to love, because I despair of ever being worthy of love." (24) Being a gregarious person by nature, it was not without pain that he hungered for solitude. The paradox is that the more solitude he was to have, the greater became his interest in the state of the world and his compassion for others.

        As a published poet and writer Merton had to deal with the public perception of himself. This "Mertonism" could distract him into writing what he thought his audience wanted and expected from him instead of the truth he felt. In 1963 he wrote in a letter about the image people had of him and how distorted it was. Father M. Louis Merton, O.C.S.O., was not the serene and detached mystic of light that the early image may indicate. He said that those who believe in such an image

do not know how unwilling I would be to have anyone repeat in his own life the miseries of mine. That would be flatly, a mortal sin against charity. I thought I have never done anything to obscure the lack of anything that a monk might conceive to be a desirable quality. Surely this lack is public knowledge, and anyone who imitates me does so at his own risk. I can promise him some fine moments of naked despair. (25)

"Naked despair" is an appropriate way to describe the mystic night where knowledge seems to have been lost or forgotten and love is more dreadful than consoling. Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called "Of Modern Poetry" in which he addresses the weakening of'traditional faith and the ascribing to poetry and literature an almost religious role left in the wake of that weakening. Stevens spoke of "The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice." Merton's own life bears a resemblance to what Stevens says later in the poem:

        It had not always had

To find: the scene was set, it repeated what

Was in the script.

        Then the theatre was changed

To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

For over fifteen years Merton lived a script that developed deeper lines, but had not broken off into radically new scenes. The last decade of his life was new theater for him and his poetry clearly is the voice of a man wrestling with the angel/demon of the night as Jacob did. Poetry marks his inner longing for only that which will suffice.

    Merton's interests included reading Pasternak, Camus, Suzuki, Weil, Russian mystics, central and South American poets, Islamic Sufis as well as about nuclear war, racial equality, Asian religions, modern monasticism, and fourteenth century mystics. In 1961 he wrote

I am still a 14th century man: the century of Eckhart, Ruysbroeck, Tauler, the English recluses, the author of "The Cloud," Langland and Chaucer--more an independent and a hermit than a community man, by no means an ascetic, interested in psychology, a lover of the dark Cloud in which God is found by love. This is what I am: I must consent to be it and not be ashamed that I am not something more fashionable. (26)

Merton never did stop writing about himself and it was the way he seemed compelled to write. Yet, as his poetry became more simple, objective, "flattened," freer of meter, poetic diction and imagery, he worked to allow the words, the semantic associations, to speak for themselves. Sometimes the result was more didactic than poetic vision, but Emblems is a collection that tries to hold together Merton's far-reaching sides. The mystical lyrics are found with the satires and protests. It is the emergence of Merton's dialectical, synthesis of mystical and social, monastic and worldly, poetic and religious, sacred and profane.

        Emblems of a Season of Fury opens with "Why Some Look Up to Planets and Heroes." For Merton the real voyage is into the fathomless reaches of the true self where God is found. He saw space exploration as a diversion of resources and attention away from human needs on earth. His critical attitude towards the uses of technology sees it as a modern pseudo-religion where “... the computers are convinced / Fed full of numbers by the True Believers." Just as he saw the use of drugs as a futile attempt at instant mysticism, so too he saw the idolizing of technology as a modern form of magic that seeks a mechanical solution to spiritual questions. Merton did not live to see humans actually land on the moon in 1969, but he tended to see space as symbolic of the mystic's darkness, cold and forbidding, but also beautiful and revealing. Space was more a theological and poetic reality for Merton than a scientific one. There is irony in the first two lines of the poem in light of the explosion of the space shuttle in January, 1986, in which seven astronauts were killed: "Brooding and seated at the summit / Of a well-engineered explosion ..." In that tragedy Merton would have seen the reminder that not only a well-engineered space vehicle can go bad, but that there is even greater danger in ignoring the inner cosmos. In such times Merton finds the death of humor:

Humor is now totally abolished.

The great dogs of nineteen sixty-one

Are nothing to laugh at.


Leave us, good friend. Leave our awful celebration

With pity and relief.

You are not called to solemnize with us

Our final madness.

        "Elegy for James Thurber"

In such a world "Your own ill-will / ... Peoples the world with specters," ("Macarius and the Pony").  

        Yet there are also poems which manifest a sense of the sacred in the experience of silence and emptiness. The incarnation of Christ meant for Merton a progressive incarnating of the sacred in the profane where each was transformed. As the sacred was described in terms of silence or darkness or emptiness, it lost its previous conceptual limitation for Merton. Thus, the dark night of the mystic's way was not just a purgative one, but was a necessary way of doubt and dread that opened out into the experience of God himself. Thus the night was an essential sickness prior to union with the divine. He also believed Zen could enliven the heart of the Christian faith which for him was not "doctrinal formulas, juridical order and ritual exactitude ... (but) a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations. (27) As he emerged from his spiritual dark night, his apophatic heritage merged with Zen in recognizing the need for direct experience of the sacred in all aspects of life.

        "Song for Nobody" is a brief poem where a flower is a concrete image for existence itself, where words cannot say what the flower "says" simply by being what it is. One is reminded of Eckhart saying that if one understood something as simple as a flower and how it has its existence in God, one would know more than the world. By not turning the flower into a "thing" as in Tennyson's "Flower in a Crannied Wall" where the flower is picked, and thus killed, Merton sees that the flower is empty of the ego-attachment which limits human awareness.

A yellow flower

(Light and spirit)

Sings by itself

For nobody.


A golden spirit

(Light and emptiness)

Sings without a word

By itself.


Let no one touch this gentle sun

In whose dark eyes

Someone is awake.


(No light, no gold, no name, no color

And no thought;

O, wide awake!)


A golden heaven

Sings by itself

A song to nobody.

The little flower is not thought and not possessed. It simply is. It is a symbol for the sacred and the way the sacred is more than an idea of sacred. The Zen influence is apparent in the sense of wordless oneness. A little flower can lead to insight as much as anything else for "the ordinary experience of everyday life is the 'place' where enlightenment is to be sought.” (28) Quoting D. T. Suzuki, Merton emphasized the need for the little flower to be left alone by the grasping mind and simply-to be seen as, of all things, a little flower:

Zen always aims at grasping the central fact of life, which can never be brought to the dissecting table of the intellect. To grasp the central fact of life, Zen is forced to propose a series of negations. Mere negation however is not the spirit of Zen ... When the spirit of Zen is grasped in its purity, it will be seen what a real thing that (in this case a flower) is. For here is no negation, no affirmation, but a plain fact, a pure experience, the very foundation of our being and thought. All the quietness and emptiness one might desire in the midst of most active meditation lies therein ... Zen must be seized with bare hands, with no gloves on. (29)

The flower is to be seen in its suchness, i.e., emptiness from all conceptual bifurcations, in its original innocence with the "bare hands" of pure consciousness in the immediate moment, with what Christian contemplative tradition calls "purity of heart."

        In this poem and in others to be discussed such as "Song: If You Seek ...," "O Sweet Irrational Worship," "Night Flowering Cactus," "Love Winter When the Plant Says Nothing," and "The Fall," Merton is not only revealing the influence of Zen upon his mysticism and poetry, but is reacting against a centuries-long tradition in the West that went from medieval universalism to modern nihilism.     In the medieval world the eternal and the sacred were usually felt to be close at hand, along with the demonic. The cosmos was a living vine of symbolic truths about God and reality. There was reason for fear and awe in the very nature of things. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the rise of science, with the Protestant Reformation and with the new focus on individuality and the universe as a mechanical system of matter, symbols lost their power and reality was no longer able to be interpreted through them.

        Where was the place for the divine in such a scheme of things? Initially it had seemed like a great liberation from old systems and the world could be seen in a fresh, uncluttered way. But the loss of the power of the symbol (and sacramental vision) came at a high cost. Erich Heller in "The Hazard of Modern Poetry" portrays the change this way:

Reality, freed from its commitments to the symbol, became more really real than before. The hand of man, reaching out for his reality, was no longer unsteadied by the awe and fear of the symbolic mystery. He acquired the surgeon's hygienic dexterity. And reality, pressed the mechanic way, yielded ample nourishment real if not divine. As reality became more real, so the symbol, became more symbolic and art more artistic ...

But there were also signs of uneasiness. They mounted to a climax of tension in the seventeenth century. What was first felt to be a liberation appeared more and more as a robbery. Robbed of its real significance, what did the symbol signify? Robbed of its symbolic meaning, what did reality mean? What was the State on earth? A Leviathan. What was God? More and more a deus absconditus, an infinitely remote and impenetrably veiled God. (30)

By the eighteenth century reason was the great promise and if the sacred was not rational, it was not real. The universe was no longer a symbolic revelation of the divine, but a great mechanical clock or machine operating under indifferent principles of physics.

        In the nineteenth century the biological theories of evolution were transferred into cultural and sociological theories. The earlier America of the Puritans was no longer the place for the new garden of Eden, but the place for "progress" and the utopian world of logic, reason and science. By the twentieth century analytic philosophy was saying that the traditional questions of religion and philosophy, such as whether God exists or if there is a human soul or meaning beyond sense experience, refer to nothing real, i.e., "verifiable" by empirical investigation. They were only illusory language games and thus, "non-sense."

        But such a focus upon "fact" and science and technology did not bring the societal or psychological progress that had been expected. God can become another object, even if the highest object. And the more God is seen as an object, the more readily he is distanced from the world and is no longer intimately present in nature or the self. J. Hillis Miller thinks that this situation was carried even further in the late nineteenth and in the twentieth centuries:

God seems to Tennyson, to Arnold, or to the early Hopkins to have withdrawn beyond the physical world. For such poets God still exists, but he is no longer present in nature ...

Another way of thinking grows up side by side with that of the mid-nineteenth-century poets. A God who has disappeared from nature and from the human heart can come to be seen not as invisible but as nonexistent. The unseen God of Arnold or Tennyson becomes the dead God of Nietzsche. If the disappearance of God is presupposed by much Victorian poetry, the death of God is the starting point for may twentieth—century writers. (31)

God is objectified and as problematic as any other object. The autonomous ego becomes everything and God and the world nothing. The result could then be a nihilism where the center was lost.

        It was Merton's personal vision of the sacred that informed and formed his poetry. And it was in the Zen poems that he expressed an alternative to the nothingness of nihilism by and through the experience of darkness, emptiness and the void. This was radically different from Cartesian dualism for "what comes first is the unifying intuition of the basic unity of subject and object in being or a deep 'grasp of life' in its existential concreteness 'at the base of consciousness. "' (32) As a Christian, Merton found that "God Himself, the personal God, is the deepest center of consciousness and unification," (33) but that God was No-thing, not an object as other objects that exist. God was empty and void of "God," God was dark to the human intellect and empty of all images and concepts that could limit him and void of the dualisms which humans construct. Merton came to embrace Eckhart's words that "there is something in the soul so closely akin to God that is already one with him and need never be united to him.” (34) This is in the mystical tradition of theosis, of believing that the real self is identified with God because it is in the image of God.

        Merton in the 1960s began to speak in terms that came from the apophatic tradition and his increased study of Zen. The Zen influenced poems in Emblems are evidence that the dreadful darkness of Merton's spiritual night had begun to be the darkness and emptiness of a changing view of the sacred. Zen greatly helped Merton to a deeper understanding and experience of the sacred by pointing him towards direct, unitive experience that is empty of abstractions and religious "verbalism." Merton was speaking in his poetry of what Stace called the core of mysticism, "an ultimate nonsensous unity in all things, a oneness or a one to which neither the senses not the reason can penetrate ... an undifferentiated unity." (35) This unity is experienced as an emptiness of ego and as a darkness to thought, yet it is reported as an experience of joy and truth. The paradox is that "the emptiness is the fullness, the fullness the emptiness; the darkness is the light, the light the darkness.” (36) Suzuki says that "as Buddhists would say, the realization of Emptiness is no more, no less than seeing into the nonexistence of the thingish ego-substance ... (and that) to be absolutely nothing is to be everything," (37) for to seize upon something as an object is to limit the experience of all else. For Suzuki the ­void or zero is a creative womb and source of all good. He puts it this way:

        zero = infinity, and infinity = zero

Merton sees this as being close to John of the Cross's todo y nada and himself talks of the "being-void."

The infinite emptiness is then infinite totality and fullness. The ground of this void is sunyata, but the pure void is also pure light, because it is void of all (limited) mind: and the light of the pure void manifests itself in act. But since this can be translated into positive terms, pure void is pure Being. (38)

Though Merton's incomplete understanding of Zen was by a westerner from a distance, nevertheless he did make a contribution to the religious dialogue and it can only be wondered what further transformations he would have undergone in his thinking had he lived longer and perhaps even lived for an extended time in Asia.

        Merton the poet absorbed the Zen saying that "Zen is your everyday mind" where enlightenment or what Merton called "metaphysical intuition of the ground of being" (thus revealing himself still grounded in western thought) is to be "found" in the midst of concepts and contradictions, anywhere and everywhere because "you, cannot find it anywhere at all, because in fact it is nowhere in the first place.” (39) No theories are necessary about the divine or sacred in order for the divine to exist or for it to be experienced.

    In "Song: If You Seek ..." solitude is portrayed as the teacher who leads into emptiness, "Opening the windows / Of your innermost apartment." It is the "now" that "cuts / Time like a blade" and is the silence beyond distinctions which enables God to be heard. If solitude is followed, it will lead to "golden­ haired suns, / Logos and music; blameless joys, / Innocent of questions / And beyond answers..." The closing lines identify the solitude as the person's real self where nothingness and all are one. Silence has the final word because it encompasses all that can be said:

For I, Solitude, am thine own self:

I, Nothingness, am thy All.

I, Silence, am thy Amen!

It is a vision of union with God with the only unlimited praise possible being silence.

        "O Sweet Irrational Worship" shows the change from Merton's early analogical dualism between the natural and the supernatural. As far back as Ascent to Truth (1951) Merton was saying that "in mystical experience, God is 'apprehended' as unknown ... He becomes present not in a finite concept but in His infinite reality which overflows every analogical notion we can utter of Him.” (40) In the poem Merton speaks of a union of the self with nature:

By ceasing to question the sun

I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth ...

Nature is not a natural thing here, but a reality that gives spontaneous, non-rational worship to God. The result is that the world become more real in the union of natural and supernatural. It is no longer simply analogous of the sacred, but is the sacred in its profane identity. Thus, Merton proclaims

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 ...

There is a sense of joy here as the poet sings in simple imagery of oneness with all existence. Out of the poet's being comes the foolish worship that is really wise: "Out of my nameless weeds / His foolish worship." There is no pantheism here, but a portrait of praise in the tradition of Francis of Assisi's "Canticle."

        The transformation of the self which is so key to Merton's transformed idea of the sacred is given mystical expression in "Night-Flowering Cactus." The usually thorny, thus perilous, cactus blooms suddenly during the night, in the darkness. Just as mystical experience is often characterized as momentary and ineffable, so too is this flowering: "I know my time, which is obscure, silent and brief / For I am present without warning one night only." In the dark the real flower appears, a symbol for the true self which is empty of all the ego-serpents of the daylight, or discursive consciousness. The flowering is "my timeless moment of void" which Lentfoehr sees as reflecting both Zen consciousness and

the Eckhartian concept of "perfect poverty" that occurs only when there is no self left as a "place" for Cod to act in, and hence He acts purely in Himself. It is only then that one comes to his true "self" or, in the Zen terms, the "no­-self," in which one achieves his true identity which consists in "the birth of Christ in us." (41)

The transformed self is innocent and "As a white cavern without explanation" that speaks with a silent voice:

When I open once for all my impeccable bell

No one questions my silence:

The all-knowing bird of night flies out of my mouth.

The entire experience is one where the self is touched by the beauty and truth of the flowering darkness which is also the silent, soaring bird. The mystic vision not only startles, but starts a change in all who experience it:

You live forever in its echo:

You will never be the same again.

Merton uses the bird as an image for both the human spirit and for God. In 1968 at the end of "Le Secret" Merton writes

Je suis un oiseau



Amour que Dieu

A invente.

And in an untitled poem the concluding sentence is as follows:

        They have

followed the Great Bird who has no nest.

The bird can be the spirit of Christ or the human spirit in union with Christ which is at the center of Merton's mysticism.

        "Love Winter When the Plant Says Nothing" is about the emptiness, silence, ineffability and creative darkness of the mystical experience. The scene is winter. There seems to be no life, no words to speak. Yet there is something here that is full of life even though it is hidden by the snow and barrenness. The seeming death is an image of the dark night which Merton interpreted as "the necessary condition of the soul prior to union with God.” (42) Without such darkness, light (spring) would not come. It is a matter of "waiting upon God in darkness.” (43) Inside of nature and more specifically, inside the human spirit, Merton finds the fire of the sacred at "a burly infant spot," and calls upon silence to "love this growth." The self grows in the fertile darkness of the sacred which is likened to "golden zero / unsetting sun." What seems to all appearances to be purely profane is in reality for the poet and mystic a womb for the sacred teeming with unlimited light / life. The poem ends with "Love winter when the plant says nothing." The cold and dark winter is really the mystical darkness which Merton understands as the fire that destroys false paths so that the true self can fulfill its destiny.

        Another of these mystical lyrics is "A Messenger from the Horizon." Merton himself can be likened to such a messenger who comes from the horizon of the monastic and contemplative life which is considered at the edge or margin of things by most people. The poem begins with the messenger-prophet, bearing the wounds of the sacred (stigmata?), coming onto the scene in silence and obscurity and amazement:

Look, a naked runner

A messenger,

Following the wind

From budding hills.


By sweet sunstroke

Wounded and signed,

(He is therefore sacred)

Silence is his way.


Rain is his own

Most private weather.

Amazement is his star.

This messenger will shake up lost and forgotten hopes, being "A friend of hurricanes, / Lightning in your bones!" who arrives without warning. It is an image of Christ and secondarily of those who "run" with Christ with their seemingly incredible truths. The poem ends with a call for compassion for such a strange and wild holiness.

Pardon all runners,

All speechless, alien winds,

All mad waters.


Pardon their impulses,

Their wild attitudes,

Their young flights, their reticence.


When a message has no clothes on

How can it be spoken?

Here the sacred has been emptied of its clothing, its expected covering of: concepts, and appears in stark nakedness. It can appear anywhere, anytime, not just in the appointed places. Again it is; silence that is Merton's poetic image for direct experience of the sacred because the sacred has become void of itself and is as a Zen koan, a paradox, a "wild attitude," which for him means being incarnated into the profane. No objective pilgrimage can be made to automatically effect an experience of that sacred.

        In "Grace's House" Merton writes about the drawing of a house on a hill by a four-year old girl. He sees her world as "0 paradise, 0 child's world!" which is separated from our world by an uncrossed river, a "crystal / Water between our ignorance and her truth." It is a picture of the house as the sacred center of the child's world, on the holy mountain as in some transformed world where the sacred and the profane have become one:

No blade of grass is not blessed

On this archetypal hill,

This womb of mysteries.

But the last line tells of the absence of a road or map to Grace's house. For Merton the pilgrimage is inward, for the real self is his geography where the house can be reached. If Grace's house was a symbol for a new world, Merton thought it could only be discovered by the true self, not the imagined ego. Such pilgrims are the messengers from the horizon in Merton's scheme of things.

Who would dare to go nameless in so secure a universe?

Yet, to tell the truth, only the nameless are at home in it.


They bear with them in the center of nowhere the unborn flower of nothing:

This is the paradise tree. It must remain unseen

until worlds end and arguments are silent.

        "The Fall"

V. The Pilgrimage Goes Public and Profane

        Merton came to see the role of the poet as united with that of the prophet. The aesthetic and the mystical were to serve each other in acting against what was to Merton the murderous mentality of the age. His poetry loses its detachment and becomes "flattened," the theological imagery replaced by realistic reporting. There are several poems in Emblems which illustrate this low-toned approach to what Merton saw as evil.

        "Chant to be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces" is a droning poem spoken by the commander of a Nazi death camp in Europe. The matter-of-fact tone, the quotations, the obsession with cleanliness amidst the extermination of people, the mechanical recitation of events all make a powerful impact.

How we perfectly cleaned up the people and worked a big heater


I was the commander I made improvements and

installed a guaranteed system taking account of

human weakness I purified and I remained decent ...


I made cleaning appointments and then I made the

travellers sleep and after that I made soap ...


When trains arrived the soiled passengers received

appointments for fun in the bathroom they did not

guess ...


Another improvement I made was I built the chambers

for two thousand invitations at a time the naked

votaries were disinfected with Zyklon B ...


I guaranteed the chamber and it was sealed you could

see through portholes ...


How I could tell by their cries that love came to a

full stop I found the ones I had made clean after

about a half hour ...


How I commanded and made soap 12 lbs fat 10

quarts water 8 oz to a lb of caustic soda but it was

hard to find any fat ...


"For transporting the customers we suggest using

light carts on wheels a drawing is submitted"


"We acknowledge four steady furnaces and an

emergency guarantee ..."


Their love was fully stopped by our perfected ovens

but the love rings were salvaged ...


All the while I had obeyed perfectly


So I was hanged in a commanding position with a

full view of the site plant and grounds


You smile at my career but you would do as I did if

you, knew yourself and dared


In my day we worked hard we saw what we did our

self-sacrifice was conscientious and complete

our work was faultless and detailed


Do not think yourself better because you burn up

friends and enemies with long-range missiles without

ever seeing what you have done

For Merton this is the result of a world without the sacred to reveal the value of the profane. All becomes mechanistic and death-bound. Merton uses irony and a kind of black humor to speak of a horror beyond words. The murderers are not from a different species than humanity and that is the startling thing for Merton. They seem so sane in many ways, they can appreciate music, love their families and dogs and then go to work where they antiseptically commit genocide all in a day's labor. Merton saw such "sanity" without love as a threat to human survival and that truth demanded less, not more, of such sanity.

        The more Merton's incarnational transformation continued, the more his image of Christ embodied the sufferings of people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a view of God as suffering with people:

God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the Cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us ... The Bible directs man to God's powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world's coming of age ... which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness. This will probably be the starting-point for our "secular interpretation." (44)

Bonhoeffer wants to take the world in all seriousness. The sacred for him is not transcendent or a religious hypothesis, but an experience of the world in its "religionless" suffering. Twenty years after Bonhoeffer's death Merton was himself engaged in such a dialectical process with the world. He didn't use the language of Bonhoeffer or the "death of God" theologians, but he did appreciate their meaning. He chose to portray Christ in more theological terms. In a letter in 1959 he had talked about Christ being "profaned" in the suffering of the death camps:

I think the reason why we cannot see Providence at work in our world is that it is much too simple. Our notions of Providence are too complicated and too human: a question of ends and means, and why this means to this end? ... Whatever the mystery of Providence may be I think it is more direct and brutal in a way. But that is never evident as long as we think God apart from the people in the concentration camp, "permitting them to be there for their own good" (time out while I vomit.) Actually it is God Himself who is in the concentration camp. That is, of course, it is Christ. Not in the collective sense, but especially in the defilement and destruction of each individual soul, there is a renewal of the Crucifixion ... The thing is then not to struggle to work out the "laws" of a mysterious force alien to us and utterly outside us, but to come to terms with what is inmost in our own selves, the very depth of our own being. (45)

This Christ is for Merton not only sympathetic with human suffering, but utterly empathetic with it. Again he emphasizes that it is in the self that the Christ is found, the self that lives in the world. Contemplation as a willed escape from the vortex of the world no longer has its appeal for Merton. Even as a cloistered monk he would agree with Erich Auerbach's assessment of the Christian's need to have a lover's struggle with the world:

What presumption to strive for theoretical serenity when Christ himself lived in continuous conflict! Inner tension was insuperable, and, like acceptance of earthly destiny, a necessary consequence of the story of Christ... all social and aesthetic limits have been effaced. On the stage there is room for all human diversity. (46)

This view meant for Merton an acceptance of the profane as both real and necessary for the kenosis or emptying (humiliation) of the sacred. He wrote that God was not a working hypothesis or stop-gap for holes in the scientific world view, but present here and now in the self and world. (47)

        "And the Children of Birmingham" is about the children of Birmingham, Alabama, facing policemen's dogs, hateful mobs and fire hoses.

And the children of Birmingham

Walked into the fury

Of Grandma's hug:

Her friendly cells

("Better to love you with.")

Her friendly officers

And "dooms of love."

After that poem had been written, four black children were killed by a bomb during Sunday school. Merton's response is found in "Picture of a Black Child with a White Doll" that is not part of Emblems. That September, 1963, bombing was an agonizing manifestation of the need to know love: "(Yet how deep the wound and the need / And how far down our hell ..." The poem is addressed to one of the little children murdered, Carole Denise McNair, a victim of those she was so far beyond because she knew the need for love "... without malice / And by a better instinct ..." Merton indicts not just individuals, but a society so structured that such a thing could happen.

        In "A Picture of Lee Ying" his irony continues. The poetic line is prosaic. Lee Ying was a young Chinese refugee who tried to flee to Hong Kong but was stopped. Merton evidently saw the newspaper photograph of the girl kneeling in tears and begging to be allowed into the city. The authorities speak in platitudes with a flatness similar to the concentration camp commander.

We know all about the sorrow of Lee Ying one

glance is enough we look at something else

She must go back where she came from no more

need be said ...


We too know all about sorrow we have seen it in the



You have our sympathy Miss Lee Ying you must go

where we are sorry for your future ...


Please do not look only at the dark side in private

life these are kind men


They are only obeying orders ...


You have the sympathy of millions


As a tribute to your sorrow we resolve to spend more

money on nuclear weapons there is always a bright



If this were only a movie a boat would be available

have you ever seen our movies they end happily ...


You would not want the authorities to neglect duty


How do you like the image of the free world sorry

you cannot stay


This is the first and last time we, will see you in our



When you are back home remember us we will be

having a good time

        Emblems of a Season of Fury was a pivotal work written at a pivotal time in Merton's life. His mystical awareness became united with a greater personal involvement with the events of the world. His own dark night had begun to find some degree of resolution in a conscious union with a God who was more radically incarnational than ever before to Merton and a union with the experiences of people all over the world, past and present. He came to see that the sacred was beyond conceptualization and was to be found in the center of history and the profane. As a poet of the sacred, Merton came to see the sacred, not as an object or idea, but a relationship and an interpretation of human experience in any and all seasons.


1. "Faith and the Literary Imagination," Scott's Adversity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 248.

2. Ross Labrie, The Art of Thomas Merton (Fort Worth, Texas: Texas Christian University Press, 1979), p. 21.

3. Ibid., p. 17.

4. "For much of the vocabulary of mysticism, even as employed in devotion to the person of Jesus, has come from Neoplatonic sources ... traced back to Proclus, the great systematizer of Neoplatonism in the fifth century C.E.; and through him much of it goes back to Plotinus, and ultimately even to Plato himself. Although both Plotinus and Proclus were critics of Christianity, they also owed much to it; and, in turn, their Christian opponents shared much of their Neoplatonism with them, especially these very elements (purification, illumination, union) of the mystical vision ...

"Whatever may have been the status of Jesus in the Christian Neoplatonic mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius,. however, the subsequent history of the Christ-mysticism inspired by it manifests a complex and subtle synthesis between Neoplatonic and biblical elements..," Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 123-125.

5. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1962), pp. 294-95.

6. Ibid., p. 269.

7. Ibid., p. 297.

8. Merton, "Poetry, Symbol and Typology," The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, Patrick Hart, ed. (New York: New Directions, 1981), p. 333.

9. Cited in Merton's "Blake and the New Theology," ibid., p. 10.

10. From a poem not identified and cited in Merton's essay, "The True Legendary Sound: The Poetry and Criticism of Edwin Muir," Literary Essays, p. 30. In the twentieth century Martin Heidegger claimed that the forgetting of Being leads to becoming suffocated by the maze of beings.

11. The Dark is Light Enough (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 74. George Thomas says that "though the poet's vision of reality is personal in its form, it is often, if not always, universal in its content," Poetry, Religion, and the Spiritual Life (Houston: Elsevier Press, 1951), p. 63, emphasizing and dual movement between the poet and the whole of human experience.

12. Merton, "Terror and the Absurd: Violence and Nonviolence in Albert Camus," Literary Essays, p. 248.

13. Merton, "The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and Introduction," Literary Essays, p. 198.

14. Ibid., p. 181. Merton says that "Camus cites with approval Simone Weil's remark that official history is a matter of believing the self-justifications of murderers. Simone Weil was for him an example of 'authentic Christianity' (she refused to join the Church) and, in fact, of a genuine Rebel in her integrity, her solitude, and her capacity for renunciation," "Terror and the Absurd," ibid., p.247.

15. Merton, "Three Saviors in Camus: Lucidity and the Absurd," Literary Essays, p. 286.

16. "As Man to Man," Cistercian Studies, IV (1969), pp. 93-94.

17. William Barrett, Irrational Man (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1958), p. 205.

18. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 183.

19. David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B., "Destination: East; Destiny: Fire --- Thomas Merton's Real Journey," Gerald Twoney, ed., Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 155.

20. p. 50.

21. From Winner Take Nothing (1933) as cited in William Barrett's Irrational Man (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1958), p. 251. He also quoted Samuel Beckett: "Nothing is more real than nothing."

22. Irrational Man, p. 248.

23. Sr. Therese Lentfoehr, Words and Silence: On the Poetry of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1979), pp. 64-65.

24. From an unpublished journal, March 30, 1958, cited in Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984), p. 317. The unpublished journals from 1956-68 were not allowed to be published until twenty-five years after Merton's death according to the terms of the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust set up by Merton in 1967.

25. Merton to Father Chrysogonus Waddell, January 26, 1963, cited in Mott's Seven Mountains, p. 393.

26. From the unpublished journals, March 11, 1961, cited by Mott, p. 362.

27. Merton, Zen and Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968), p. 39.

28. Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York: Dell, 1969), p. 223.

29. D. T. Suzuki, Introduction of Zen Buddhism (London, 1960), p. 51, cited in Mystics and Zen Masters, p. 49.

30. Published by Bowes and Bowes (Cambridge, England, 1953) and included in Literature and Religion, ed. Giles Gunn (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 172-73.

31. From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth Century Writers (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965) as cited in Gunn, pp. 178-79.

32. Merton, Zen and Birds of Appetite, p. 68.

33. Ibid., p. 69.

34. Ibid., p. 11. "'In this likeness or identity God takes such delight that he pours his whole nature and being into it. His pleasure is as great, to take a simile, as that of a horse, let loose over a green heath, where the ground is level and smooth, to gallop as a horse will, as fast as he can over the greensward--for this is a horse's pleasure and nature. It is so with God. It is his pleasure and rapture to discover identity, because he can always put his whole nature into it--for he is the identity itself.' (Blakney, Meister Eckhart, p. 205)"

35. Walter Stace, The Teaching of the Mystics (New York: New American Library, 19560), pp. 15, 21. "The entire contents of our sensory-intellectual consciousness is gone, what is left is 'pure' consciousness. It is not a consciousness of anything. It has no objects (not even itself as object to itself) for all objects have disappeared with the suppression of sensations, images, and thoughts. This consciousness is therefore pure emptiness, or nothingness," p.237.

36. Ibid., p. 237.

37. Zen and Birds of Appetite, p. 109.

38. Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, p. 39.

39. Ibid., p. 33.

40. The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 83.

41. Words and Silence, p. 61.

42. John Teahan, "A Dark and Empty Way: Thomas Merton and the Apophatic Tradition," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 3 (July 1978): 271.

43. Merton, What is Contemplation? (Holy Cross, Indiana: St. Mary's College, 1948), p. 24.

44. Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillian, 1953), pp. 360-61. This passage is from July 16, 1944.

45. Merton to Czeslaw Milosz, May 21, 1959, as cited in Mott, Seven Mountains, pp. 358-59.

46. "The Idea of Man in Literature," Religion and Literature, ed., Gunn, p. 118. Merton said that "to be truly Catholic is not merely to be correct according to an abstractly universal standard of truth, but also and above all to be able to enter into the problems and the joys of all, to understand all, to be all things to all men," Conjectures, p.185.

47. Conjectures, p. 320.

[© Alan Altany and used with permission.]

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