It is doubtful if anyone short of Pope John XXIII did as much for the public image of the Catholic Church in the latter half of the 20th century as did the convert writer Thomas Merton.

Looking back on that period, one realizes that Merton had his own public image as a major literary ascetic and “mystic” after he had become a Trappist monk.  But the then-private reality was that as a monk, he had problems with alcohol, problems with romance, problems with his ecclesiastical “superiors,” and, paradoxically, some rather major problems with basic Catholic doctrine.  In his first and most popular (and somewhat bowdlerized) major work, The Seven Story Mountain, he seems to cheerfully ignore or leap over Catholic doctrine in his enthusiasm for the ascetic, contemplative life in monasticism, which paradoxically he never actually lived.  In this and in his ideal “mysticism,” Merton, Like the pseudo-Zen writer Alan Watts, was great at presenting a public image that was all facade, image without substance.

 Suffice it to say that the Thomas Merton one saw in the writings of the 20th century is not the Thomas Merton of the revealing biographies of the 21st.

All of this is just a lead-in to the subject of “religious” poetry.  It is a category that, for appreciation, requires one to put one’s own belief system, or absence of belief system, on hold.  

What is probably Merton’s finest composition is an overtly religious poem on the death of his brother in war.  To appreciate it requires that we put on, for the moment, the odd notion that the intentional privations and self-denials of the living can benefit the dead.

Merton begins in excellent form:

Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

All very good so far, both rhythmic and effective in simple imagery.

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Also good — no straying from the theme of concern.

Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed–
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.

With that, Merton introduces an awkward note, and the segment is not quite up to what preceded it.

When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.

With that, unfortunately, Merton has lost the grace of his beginning completely, and simplicity becomes simplisticism in the rhythm and message of those unpleasing sing-song lines.  One wishes the quatrain had been omitted before publication — but too late.

Fortunately, Merton does not continue on this downhill course, but returns once more to the grace of the beginning:

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:
The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.

With those lines we are again back to the smooth-flowing speech of the beginning, the theme of the dead benefitting from the sacrifices of others — a kind of Catholic version of the Buddhist “transfer of merits,” but through asceticism rather than active good deeds.

Of course non-Christians find all this talk of Christ a bit nonessential, which is why, to appreciate the poem, one must put one’s own beliefs aside  to understand the spirit behind the work — the desire to benefit the departed, to see our suffering and the suffering of others — the world’s suffering — in a larger context.  It is only by doing so that we can feel the beauty of these lines:

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:

Wreckage and death, smoke and ruins — very effective in evoking the suffering of war.  Add these to the simple images of flowers, water, bread, willows, and tears, and one has a very good poem indeed — with the exception of that awkward quatrain, which seems foreign and inserted and out of place in the ascetic simplicity of the rest.

Merton is saying to his brother, “Through my asceticism and self-denial, I wish to buy you comfort and peace and rest.”  Thus the notion of “buying” in the verse, and the equation of tears and money.

Merton, in his writings, talked much about the “ascetic” life, but as we have seen, that was an idealized image for public consumption.  Suffice it to say that the impression given by the poem does not fit the reality of his condition.  We should, then, just go with the spirit of the moment and expression of sincere love for a lost brother that we find in the poem.  If we were to judge the worth of poems by the lives of the poets who wrote them, we would find precious little left in the history of literature to appreciate.

There is an unusual and rather remarkable book by Paul Hourihan titled The Death of Thomas Merton (Vedantic Shores press, 2003).  Presented as a novel, it is actually a detailed and thoughtful meditation on, and examination of, the failure of Merton to become the mystic-ascetic figure he presented himself as (and his readers thought he was) in his books.

The other great English-language “religious” poet of Catholicism — also a convert, and an even more unhappy one —  is of course Gerard Manley Hopkins, and we can only say of him that as a poet, a greater than Merton is here.  Still, we find some similarity in the imagery of the beginning of Merton’s verse when placed beside the simplicity of Hopkins’ Heaven Haven:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

The poem bears the superscription “A nun takes the veil”

One would like to think that Hopkins himself found the simple peace and satisfaction expressed in the verse, but his biography tells us otherwise.  Again we have the contrast between poetic idealism and harsh reality.

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