Thomas Merton: The Poetry of Pain & Perspective

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For many years now I have been very much a fan of the writings of the monk, writer, theologian and mystic, Thomas Merton. His commentaries and insights into ethics, non-violence, social action, the contemplative life, inter-faith dialogue and so much more, have been of great interest, and application, to me on my own very personal faith journey.

As a poet, Merton was enormously talented, each line and stanza beautifully crafted into a message that is brought to life by the spirit of the writer and the imagination of the reader.  His deeply personal poem – ‘For my Brother: Missing in Action 1943’ – is for me at least, one of his best.  Amidst such a tragedy, Merton intertwines that life of suffering, which although unbearable, is transient, with the redemptive truth of a Divine sacrifice which transcends time and space. It is in this context, of paradox and perspective, that Merton finds meaning in the cruelty of war and the deep sense of personal loss he felt so painfully. And so Merton wrote:

‘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’.

You can listen to my reading of ‘For my Brother’ in its entirety below.  If you’re new to Merton’s poetry, I would recommend ‘In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems by Thomas Merton, by Lynn R. Szabo, Kathleen Norris (ISBN: 9780811216135).

‘When I Needed A Neighbour?’

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It often strikes me just how convoluted we make our Christian faith appear, when in reality, at its core, it is relatively straightforward. Granted, the Disciples often misunderstood Jesus and struggled with the countercultural essence of his narrative; and so do we. But in essence, Jesus’ message was clear, especially when we consider the pragmatism of his ethical teachings.  His exhortations to reach out to the marginalised, to love the unlovely and to respect the dignity of the person, were profound. There are many examples in the Gospels where Jesus talks, in strident terms, of the neighbourliness imperative and the demands placed upon us; to embrace the stranger in our midst and to disaffirm restrictive tribal affiliations.

One such example of this is found in Matthew 25:44-45 –

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

And then there are the lyrics of the hymn ‘When I Needed a Neighbour’, sung by so many over the years, the first verse of which is reproduced here:

When I needed a neighbour,
Were you there, were you there?
When I needed a neighbour, were you there?
And the creed and the colour
And the name won’t matter,
Were you there?

Each hour, day, week and lifetime we all experience the situations and circumstances where we can be proactive neighbours. Moreover, how we engage and who we engage with is a very personal task; we all have unique skills that are there to be utilised in the service of others.

I think Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, captured the essence of that uniqueness when he wrote:

 “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

A Call To Service

The concept of self-transcendence and service to others is at the core of Christian belief and practice. Consider as an example Isaiah 58:10 – ‘If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’. Or in the New Testament, 1 Peter 4:10 makes the point very succinctly –  ‘Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received’.

It would be erroneous however to think that religious belief has a monopoly on self-transcendence; it has a rich secular hinterland.  In Viktor Frankl’s classic book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ he addressed his understanding of ‘”the self-transcendence of human existence.”‘ and wrote: ‘It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter’. And crucially, ‘The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”’

The Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was cognizant of the fact that service need not be complicated or restricted to particular occupations; it is open to all of us, regardless of who we are and how we are categorized by society:

 

Understanding Love

In The Art of Loving, the psychoanalyst and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote: “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.” And he is right. Love takes work and can be counter-intuitive in that it requires us to reach beyond the constraints of ego, and travel beyond our comfort zone.

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The best exposition of love though, in my opinion, is to be found in those timeless words written by Paul the Apostle and Sosthenes in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 –

The Gift of Love

“13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Cultivating and applying the gift of love is a life-long endeavour and is always an imperfect process. We make mistakes, we fail, and we hurt each other, but we go on, strengthened by St. Paul’s words of wisdom and the grace of God.

Reflections: Faith & Life

Here are a few of my recent reflections/poems:

BY THE WELL

Sychar in Samaria
by Jacob’s well
A shocking scene
A Samaritan and a Jew
Female and male
Countercultural and perplexing, 
where shame meets perfection.

Jesus does not recoil
He interacts; he listens
A stark reminder that everyone matters
That in the heart of Christ
‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one’.

No-one exists outside the circle of his love
Not the unlovely
Nor the despised
Or the contemptible
Divine love is radically inclusive
Beyond our comprehension

What we turn away from
Jesus embraces
Where we build barriers
Jesus breaks them down
Where we judge
Jesus loves

When we dwell in the simplicity of his message
We are blessed
Our imperfections are contextualised
Our flaws appear universal
But so does God’s overarching grace.

In the light of that grace
We can let go of our guilt
Let our failures rest in the past
Acknowledge our pain
And look forward
To a radiant future
Grounded in hope
Where expectation is infinite
And in the words of Julian of Norwich:
‘All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’

Amen


IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT

As the coolness of the mid-summer night
enshrouds our physical form.
As the serenity of the eventide saturates our souls
God’s tranquility advances in lovingness

He watches over us in the dead of night, in the obscurity of the wee small hours.

When our minds are at rest, or ravaged with torment.

God is at hand
Supremely proficient in protection
Charged with our care
Captivated by our concerns.

‘At night his song is with me’

Amen

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IN THE MIDST OF DESPAIR

The real work of faith begins when we are in the midst of despair; when it is all too easy to give up hope and become spiritually moribund.

To reach out; to cry out when there is nought left to give – that is where we encounter the depth of Christ’s love. Imperceptible at first, in his gentleness…….in his compassion……his presence burns brightly.

It is from that kernel of hope and expectation, the evolution of love dwells in our souls.

‘He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters’.

In the timelessness of these words we are guaranteed never to be lonely…..never to be foresaken… and never to be lost.

Amen


LET US BE THANKFUL

‘May we give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus’

And so let us be thankful for being alive:
Alive to the potential of growth
Alive to receiving and giving love
Alive to grief and its cathartic effect
Alive to grace and transformation

Let our thankfulness underpin our faith:
Faith in the goodness of others
Faith in the power of forgiveness
Faith in the reality of reconciliation
Faith in divine love
Faith in truth

Let our thankfulness allow us to connect:
Connect deeply with each other
Connect meaningfully with God
Connect with, and appreciate the cosmos
Connect with those who despise us
Connect with the pain in our hearts

Loving God, encourage us to be ‘thankful in everything, in all circumstances’.
When life is hard and the future bleak
When life is triumphant and the future glorious
Let us ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his live endures forever’.

Amen

‘The Courage to Suffer….’

As a Logotherapist and Existential Analyst I’m often asked what my favourite Viktor Frankl quote is. Such a difficult question! There are so many profoundly moving and insightful words contained in his writings and now very firmly ensconced in his legacy.

If I had to choose though, it would be a sentence I’ve clung onto many times as I’ve faced adversity, failure and unavoidable suffering:

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” (in Man’s Search for Meaning).

No further comment or exegesis is required…….