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).

Celebrating Robert Burns: The People’s Poet

“Is There for Honest Poverty”, frequently referred to as “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, is a Scots song published in 1795 by Robert Burns, Scotland’s pre-eminent poet and lyricist.  It is a classic, and timeless expression of egalitarianism. It has long been one of my favourite pieces; its critique of pretentiousness is clear, as is its reminder of the innate worth of each individual, regardless of ‘class’ or any other labels we may burden them with.
Tonight is Burn’s Night, celebrated all over the world in memory of Burns’ life and contribution to poetry.
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave – we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hodden grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

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If you’re struggling to work out what Burns is saying and the wider meaning, have a look at https://allpoetry.com/A-Man’s-A-Man-For-A’-That, where you’ll find a synopsis……in English! There are many other sites too that provide line by line translations – just google it……..

I would also recommend this short article by Patrick J Walsh entitled ‘Robert Burns – Winter’s Poet of the People’; it provides a Christian perspective on Burns’ poetry and song: http://www.thechristianreview.com/robert-burns-winters-poet-of-the-people/

Walsh finishes his article with these words with which I concur: ‘There is a mystery and eternal element to poetry. Burns needs no defense. Poetry defends itself by surviving. Listening at my window. I hear winter still whispering in its own white way as it did in Burns’s time. And in a fallen world such as ours, mankind will continue to seek the echoes of their own fallen greatness in his rhymes’.

Thinking Poetry: St. Brendan

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This is the first of a regular posting focusing on spiritual poetry/reflective writing of note. Today I will be reading ‘The Questions’, attributed to St. Brendan.

There is very little concrete biographical information concerning the life of Brendan, but he was a contemporary of St. Columba of Iona.

A printed version of the poem can be found in: ‘The Wisdom of Saint Columba of Iona’ by Murray Watts.

‘But The Silence In The Mind’

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R.S. Thomas was a welsh clergyman and talented poet. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful and evocative poem on silence.  ‘But the silence in the mind’ is, in my opinion, one of his best:

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean.
We launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?

Note: This poem, and several others of Thomas’ can be found in Roger Housden’s ‘For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems Of The Christian Mystics’

‘It Is Still A Beautiful World’

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Amidst the turmoil of life, the triumphs and the frustrations, the laughter and the pain, we are called to introspection.  Such self-examination takes many forms, and occurs at different points in our journey; it is a reflection the growing awareness of the truth of Carl Jung’s insightful observation: ‘who looks outside dreams who looks inside awakes’.

Desiderata, a wonderful poem by Max Ehrmann, is a beautiful expression of that reality; I personally find the first and the last verses, reproduced here, as being especially meaningful:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

‘I Am The Master Of My Fate’

A favourite short poem of mine was written during the Victorian era by William Ernest Henley. ‘Invictus’ is a classic blend of Stoicism, cultural and a biblical reference.  With respect to the latter, in the fourth stanza Henley alludes to Matthew 7:14, ‘Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’ 

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Here is a poem that was written by a defiant Henley – he had a leg amputated and was fighting Tuberculosis.  He knew hardship and he knew how to make a defiant stance against ‘fate’.  This stance was a measure of a man who lived in a challenging world, accepted that to be the case, but through his words, demonstrating the power of free will Anyway, here is the full poem:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul

Such has been the impact of this poem over the years, it has been quoted by Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, among others.

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