January 31st 2015, tomorrow, marks the one hundredth anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth. I have not read much of Merton, and his much acclaimed autobiography The Seven Story Mountain has been on my to read list for a while. I was surprised to read in his Wikipedia entry that he had published “more than 70 books.” Given he lived to only 53, that’s impressive. A Catholic convert, a mystic, a proponent for interfaith discourse, an advocate for social justice, poet, writer, and of course Trappist Monk, he led an interesting life to say the least. In surveying some of his poetry, I particularly thought highly of this one. Let this be in commemoration of tomorrow.
After the Night Office – Gethsemani Abbey
By Thomas Merton
It is not yet the grey and frosty time
When barns ride out of the night like ships:
We do not see the Brothers, bearing lanterns,
Sink in the quiet mist,
As various as the spirits who, with lamps, are sent
To search our souls’ Jerusalems
Until our houses are at rest
And minds enfold the Word, our Guest.
Praises and canticles anticipate
Each day the singing bells that wake the sun,
But now our psalmody is done,
Our hasting souls outstrip the day:
Now, before dawn, they have their noon.
The Truth that transubstantiates the body’s night
Has made our minds His temple-tent:
Open the secret eye of faith
And drink these deeps of invisible light.
The weak walls
Of the world fall
And heaven, in floods, comes pouring in:
Sink from your shallows, soul, into eternity,
And slake your wonder at their deep lake spring.
We touch the rays we cannot see,
We feel the light that seems to sing.
Go back to bed, red sun, you are too late,
And hide behind Mount Olivet—
For like the flying moon, held prisoner,
Within the branches of the juniper,
So in the cages of consciousness
The Dove of God is prisoner yet:
Unruly sun, go back to bed.
But now the lances of the morning
Fire all their gold against the steeple and the water-tower.
Returning to the windows of our deep abode of peace,
Emerging at our conscious doors
We find our souls all soaked in grace, like Gideon’s fleece.
Without too much analysis let me highlight that he captures that moment after evening prayer, but it’s what the prayer has done that is the focus of the poem. It has opened his mind (“The Truth that transubstantiates the body’s night/Has made our minds His temple-tent”) so that “The weak walls/Of the world fall/And heaven, in floods, comes pouring in.” Every stanza has a reference to mind or consciousness either to set up that flood from heaven or to describe the effect, especially the “Dove of God” that becomes trapped in the conscious. That is a really engaging poem.