In Merton’s poetry, the ‘Word percolates deep’

By  Michael Higgins
  • November 19, 2007
Thomas Merton and the Dalai LamaLast October Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, sponsored a conference on the poetry of Thomas Merton called “In The Dark Before Dawn: Thomas Merton, Poet.” I was invited to give the keynote address at the conference and my paper actually embraced more than Merton in that I considered two other parson poets — Pier Giorgio Di Cicco (a regular contributor to the pages of The Catholic Register and currently poet laureate of the City of Toronto) and Roderick J. MacSween, the founder of the Antigonish Review and a professor of English at St. Francis Xavier University who died in 1996.

Around the time that I was putting the final touches to the paper I received in the mail a copy of Poetry as Liturgy: An Anthology by Canadian Poets edited by Margo Swiss and published by the St. Thomas Poetry Series in Toronto. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Poetry as Liturgy is a splendid volume drawing widely on various poets working in Canada and representing, as it were, various denominations within the Christian faith. The volume has, in addition, a splendid introduction on the nature of poetry and liturgy that I found of inestimable help in my own thinking about my three priest-poets.

Swiss rightly notes that “Christ is (we may say) the perfect poet of the perfect poem. Poets who express a Christian ethos are therefore performing their version of a Liturgy of the Word.”

{amazon id='081120586X' align='right'}If this is true of all Christian poets, it is especially true, in my opinion, of the contemplative poet, Thomas Merton. In fact, in a provocative passage from his one published novel, My Argument with the Gestapo, Merton observes with unnerving prescience, given the evolution of his thinking as a poet and sapiential thinker, when he writes:

I think suddenly of Blake, filling paper with words,
so that the words flew about the room for the angels
to read, and after that, what if the paper was lost or

That is the only reason for wanting to write,
Blake’s reason.

For Merton, the Christian poet, especially the monk-poet, takes his cue from the precursor of the Incarnate Word, John the Baptist, who represents the primordial hermit, “the first Cistercian and greatest Trappist.” He is the Herald of the Word, “Name him and vanish like a proclamation,” and he seeks in solitude the strength to speak the word:

I went into the desert to receive
The keys of my deliverance
From image and from concept and from desire.

The paradox of John’s life and mission, receiving in silence the grace to announce in the desert the “Clean rock water” that “dies in rings,” clearly marks the pattern of Merton’s own vocation. John the Baptist is Advent’s noble herald, the Prophet, and the man of hope. He is “the desert-dweller,” the Lamb’s most eloquent spokesman and he knows “the solitudes that lie beyond anxiety and doubt.” Like St. Paul the Hermit in Merton’s “Two Desert Fathers,”

You died to the world of concept
Upon the cross of your humility.

In “The Quickening of St. John the Baptist,” Merton explores the conception of a contemplative vocation. The life of a contemplative, he suggests, is similar to the bearing of young life in the womb. Elizabeth carries the unborn John:

You need no eloquence, wild bairn,
Exulting in your hermitage.
Your ecstasy is your apostolate,
For whom to kick is contemplata tradere.

For Merton the “small anchorite” singing in his cell is the prototype of the Christian contemplative, both

exiles in the far end of solitude
listening as listeners.

For the unborn John and the reborn Merton, “night is our diocese and silence is our ministry,” and they are “cooled in the flame of God’s dark fire.” The Baptist’s relationship to the Word imparts new meaning to the language of a poet who sees his life as a living celebration of the Baptist’s vocation.

The instrument of a poet’s vision is language. The talent of the poet is to be tested by the word, and yet how shall he speak of the Word when silence is his grace and joy? “Now can we have Your Word and in Him rest.”

As Swiss rightly notes in her introduction, “Through the liturgy of writing, the Christian poet performs the priestly role sacramentalizing human experience.” The Christian poet who happens to be a priest can appreciate these words for the special resonance they surely generate. It is not a bad idea to keep in mind during the Advent season that Christian poets — presbyteral or otherwise — “mediate reality to their audience by employing words for their fully redeemed worth. Through poetry words are given flesh, rendered incarnate.”

Both Swiss and Merton have it right: the word/Word percolates deep.

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