The Poetic Contemplation of Thomas Merton: An Exploration of the Relationship between Poetry, Contemplation, and Love
As Professor John Keating, the lovable, inspirational icon of Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, once suggested, poetry inflames the human soul with passion and purpose. He taught:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.1
Throughout the film, the art of poetry is celebrated as a facilitator of spiritual formation, and deep transformation takes place in the lives of many of the boys at the Welton Academy. The implicit argument throughout the film is that aesthetic experience and spirituality are linked. Although Dead Poets Society was not created from a Christian perspective, Christians can concur with Professor Keating that poetry can be a powerful tool for spiritual formation.
Poetry is the earliest recorded literary art form. Its intense and musical language allows for strong emotional impact and easy memorization, and thus it has resonated for centuries with the human soul. Our most ancient literary work, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is a poem which recounts one man’s clamorous quest for eternal life, and the early monumental works of Western civilization are the grandiose epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Perhaps most importantly for Christians, the Bible—itself an ancient literary work—is brimming with poetry. As a result, we see that God has affirmed the use of figurative poetic language such as metaphor, simile, parallelism, hyperbole, and synecdoche to communicate spiritual truth. Poetry also has a long legacy of use in the spiritual life and practice of the post-biblical global church.
But what practical role can poetry play in Christian spiritual formation today? There is perhaps no better real-life spokesperson for the value of poetry to our spiritual lives than the twentieth-century Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Himself a poet, Merton advocates the role of poetry as an invaluable aid to spiritual practice. Merton was particularly convinced that poetry is a helpful aid with regard to the spiritual practice of contemplation. In this essay, I will explore the relationships between poetry, contemplation, and love in Merton’s writing and then propose potential applications of this theopoetic style of contemplation to our daily lives and methods of pastoral care.
Poetry and Contemplation
Contemplation, according to Merton, is “the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life.” It is a kind of spiritual sight that “sees everything transfigured ‘in God,’ coming from God and working for God’s creative and redemptive love and tending to fulfillment in the glory of God.”2 And although the word contemplation does not appear in most translations of the Bible, as a concept it is ubiquitous. For example, Paul prayed “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened [. . .]” (Eph. 1:18-19) and that “[. . .] we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28-29).3 These passages describe experiences of contemplation, instances in which our ordinary human vision becomes divine and sees everything transfigured in God.
Once we experience this kind of contemplative (in)sight, we can also more easily experience supernatural joy in the midst of all circumstances, including the negative ones. This is because all the world and all the ordinary events of our lives become inflamed with the presence and action of God who is sovereign and always working to fulfill his good purposes. Suddenly all the events of our lives—the mundane and the miserable—take on profound significance and meaning. And when this happens, we are filled with an inexpressible, heavenly joy. In his book Happiness and Contemplation, theologian Josef Pieper concurs, describing contemplation as “able to quench man’s thirst more than anything else because it affords a direct perception of the presence of God.” Through contemplation, we “partake of the uttermost degree of happiness which this physical, historical existence of ours is capable of holding.”4 Through contemplation we experience the deep and joyful fulfillment that God intends for us in this life.
Yet, it is crucial to acknowledge that contemplation is not something that we achieve in our own power. The ability to experience the divine presence is always a gift. However, there are steps we can take to become more receptive to the experience of contemplation, and many thinkers have advocated that poetry can facilitate contemplative experience. But how does poetry do this? Merton explains:
No Christian poetry worthy of the name has been written by anyone who was not in some degree a contemplative [. . .] the true poet is always akin to the mystic because of the “prophetic” intuition by which he sees the spiritual reality, the inner meaning of the object he contemplates [. . .] All good Christian poets are then contemplatives in the sense that they see God everywhere in His creation and in His mysteries, and behold the created world as filled with signs and symbols of God. To the true Christian poet, the whole world and all the incidents of life tend to be sacraments—signs of God, signs of His love working in the world.5
Merton is arguing here that good poets must be contemplatives—they must be able to see “the spiritual reality, the inner meaning of the object” they contemplate. This, therefore, is precisely why poetry is valuable for the facilitation of contemplative experience. Through the reading and writing of poetry, we undergo an aesthetic experience evoked by the poet which is in some ways similar to contemplation.6 This aesthetic experience “reaches out to grasp the inner reality”7 and “reveals the glory within an otherwise unexceptional experience,” charging the familiar with mystery.8 In this way, both the reading and writing of poetry can cultivate a deep attentiveness within us that is helpful for the reception of contemplative experience.
Contemplation and Love
Even if poetry can help us to experience divine contemplation, what is the point? Does contemplation help us to achieve the great commandments—to love God and others? (Matt. 22:37-40). Merton would argue that the answer here is yes. He adamantly insisted that contemplation is critical for the expression of love and justice, for “he who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others.”9 Moreover, the Apostle John suggests that fear is one of the main obstacles to love (1 Jn. 4:18-19), and so contemplation helps us to drive out that fear; through the gift of divine sight we recognize the movement of God in all things and are enabled to generously share that love.
Merton compares poets to prophets, asserting that poets “have the same mission as the prophets [. . .] They have to be the consciousness of the revolutionary man because they have the keys of the subconscious and of the great secrets of real life.” Through our contemplative vision of the new creation which will one day fully emerge, God orients us “toward the future which we ourselves may never see fully realized on earth.”10
Merton’s Contemplative Poetry
I turn now to some samples of Merton’s poetry that might facilitate contemplative understanding and experience.11 I will first examine two poems that can be understood to speak in a theopoetic12 manner on the nature of contemplation. In other words, these first two poems describe aspects of Merton’s theology of contemplation in creative ways. I will then examine five poems that seem to describe Merton’s personal contemplative experience more directly—they show rather than tell and thereby invite the reader to share in Merton’s experience.
In his poem “Grace’s House” (330), Merton expresses his contemplative theology in a theopoetic manner. According to this poem, Grace’s house is “on a fair summit” and is “secure,” but “there is no road to Grace’s house.” We can certainly ask for grace—we can even send Grace “Valentines”—but we cannot arrive at Grace on our own initiative. So how does Grace come to us, then? Merton explains: “Between our world and hers / Runs a sweet river: / (No it is not the road, / It is the uncrossed crystal / Water between our ignorance and her truth.)” Contemplation, is an act of Grace. It can be sought after and prepared for, but it is ultimately a gift of God that pours down us like a divine waterfall.
Second, “Two States of Prayer” (150) can be understood as speaking of the difference between contemplative prayer and non-contemplative prayer. According to Merton, non-contemplative prayer occurs, as in the warmer months of the late summer and early fall, like “marvelous woods [which] spring to their feet / And raid the skies with their red-headed shout.” Perhaps this state of prayer is that which is more verbal, more obvious, more explicable. By contrast, the contemplative prayer is quiet and mysterious. It occurs “by the light of our December mornings” where “words stand frozen in the voice’s well.” To Merton, this wintry prayer of silence is superior to the brazen prayers of summer and fall, as he reveals through this question: “When was there ever greater than this penitential peace / Outshining all the songs of June with radiant silences?” Contemplation, then, is a type of prayer experience that is profound and insightful, which “keeps its treasure like a kingly secret.”
Merton is also concerned with using poetry to speak directly about his own contemplative experience, and the next five poems illustrate this. In his poem, “Song: Contemplation” (157) Merton reveals what the world might look and feel like in the contemplative state. The land is “alive with miracles,” the country is “wild with talent” and constantly “rouse[s] our mind with songs.” The elements of creation “Open us momentary windows, here and there” of the divine, and we see that “Christ and angels walk among us, everywhere.” Somehow, through the veneer of the old creation, we experience the new: “O brilliant wood! / Yours is the voice of a new world; / And all the hills burn with such blinding art.” Through the power of “The huge, unwounding Spirit” we soar up into wonder; we “Trample the white, appalling stratosphere.”
The theme of the new creation that becomes visible through contemplation is also explored in “The Sowing of Meanings” (187). Merton sings, “The quiet air awaits one note, / One light, one ray and it will be the angels’ spring: / One flash, one glance upon the shiny pond, and then / Asperges me! sweet wilderness, and lo! we are redeemed!” He can see this through contemplation because “God plants His undivided power— / Buries his thought too vast for worlds / In seed and root and blade and flower.” Furthermore, in “O Sweet Irrational Worship,” (344) Merton expresses how in contemplation we experience deep fellowship with nature as will be the case more perfectly in the new creation: “By ceasing to question the sun / I have become light, / Bird and wind. / My leaves sing. / I am earth, earth / All these lighted things / Grow from my heart.”
But contemplation can take place indoors too, as Merton suggests “In Silence” (280), a poem about an experience of prayer in the monastery. He writes, “Be still / Listen to the stones of the wall. / Be silent, they try / To speak your / Name.” Furthermore, he senses that “The whole / World is secretly on fire. The stones / even the stones they burn me.” God is omnipresent. He is inside and outside, in the city and the country, in the marketplace and the church—and there is no place or thing that escapes his influence and purpose.
Unfortunately, contemplative experience comes and goes in this imperfect life. Merton illustrates this ebb and flow in his poem “A Psalm” (220). In the first part of the poem, Merton appears to recount an experience of contemplative prayer while reading a psalm. When this happens, “New eyes awaken” and “songs grow up around me like a jungle” in Eden. He finds himself “drunk with the great wilderness / Of the sixth day in Genesis.” But alas, the experience does not last, as we are not yet fully restored to paradise: “And I go forth with no more wine and no more stars / And no more buds and no more Eden / And no more animals and no more sea: / While God sings by Himself in acres of night / And walls fall down, that guarded Paradise.”
This journey through some of Merton’s poetry shows how specific poems can be used to facilitate contemplative understanding and experience. The regular reading or writing of such poetry can prove a fruitful spiritual practice.
Further Applications for Spiritual and Ministerial Practice
And so, what further applications might this link between poetry, contemplation, and love have for spiritual and ministerial practice? I will suggest three such applications in the realms of pastoral care, theological teaching, and evangelism.
First, with regard to pastoral care, pastor and professor M. Craig Barnes has written an exceptionally helpful book entitled, The Pastor as Minor Poet. Barnes explains why pastors need a poetic vision:
Pastors [must] have this poetic vision [. . .] the pastor is [. . .] attentive to the unapparent presence of God among the people of the congregation. One of the reasons that people need pastors is precisely because God is always present but usually not apparent. It takes a poet to find that presence beneath the layers of strategy for coping with the feeling of its absence [. . .] pastors find their deep poetry, not only for the pulpit, but also for making eternal sense out of the ordinary routines of the congregation.13
Pastors can provide better care for their congregants because they penetrate the surface of problems to get at the real issues. As Barnes notes, “Most presenting issues are merely symptomatic of underlying theological issues.”14 Furthermore, the pastor who is a poetic contemplative can help people to identify God’s grace in every situation. Like the priest in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, the contemplative pastor sees grace everywhere.15
One is reminded here of Merton’s idea in “Song: Contemplation” that looking at the world in a certain way will “open us momentary windows, here and there” of the divine and help us to see that “Christ and angels walk among us, everywhere.” This is exactly what pastors need—rather than looking at their parishioners and seeing ordinary people and circumstances, pastors should have the ability to look beneath the surface to see the underlying state of the person as well as the presence and redemptive action of God.
In the same way, Eugene Peteron reminds us in his book The Contemplative Pastor that the special call of the pastor is not to “solve people’s problems and make them happy, but to help them see grace operating in their lives.”16 Noting that “pastors and poets do many things in common,” Peterson suggests that pastors read poetry in order to become better contemplatives.17
Poetry can also be helpful in pastoral care in another way. Pastors may be able to apply principles from the nascent field of poetry therapy into their counseling practice.18 Poetry therapy is a type of expressive therapy that involves “the intentional application of the written and the spoken word to growth and healing.”19 Like the other expressive therapies,20 poetry therapy can prove helpful in personal growth and healing because of its facilitation of self-expression, active participation, imagination, and mind-body connection.21 A pastor could use poetry therapy in a counseling practice, for example, by encouraging certain counselees to compose poetry between sessions to express thoughts and feelings about certain painful events in their lives. These poetic creations could serve as a springboard for conversation in the next counseling session.
Second, the emerging field of theopoetics also helps to demonstrate that poetry is valuable for theological teaching. Theopoetics has been defined as a “theological stance, an artful way of working with language and worldview. The theo-poet uses the occasion of the poem to creatively suggest, ambiguously hint, generously intimate in ways that create space for the reader or the public to face the unknown, engage Mystery, to dream and be transformed.”22 In his book Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination, theologian and professor Amos Niven Wilder makes the following plea:
Religious communication generally must overcome a long addiction to the discursive, the rationalistic, and the prosaic. [. . .] My plea for a theopoetic means doing more justice to the role of the symbolic and the prerational in the way we deal with experience. We should recognize that human nature and human societies are more deeply motivated by images and fabulations than by ideas. This is where power lies and the future is shaped. This plea therefore means according a greater role to the imagination in all aspects of religious life.23
Thus, theopoetic language can be an important tool for us today in preaching, teaching, and theologizing, particularly because of its ability to delight in an interactive and imaginative way. Theopoetic teaching appeals not only to the mind, but also to the heart and soul.
Jesus himself used theopoetic means for interaction in his preaching and teaching. He frequently “used poetic devices to draw his listeners into a process of understanding that transcended prosaic exposition.”24 To be most effective in their teaching, pastors should use language creatively and poetically to engage truth, goodness, and beauty.
Finally, poetry can be used effectively for evangelistic outreach and dialogue. Many people are surprised to learn that Paul intentionally quoted non-Christian poets in his sermons and epistles. For example, in Acts 17:28, Paul was probably quoting Aratus’s poem “Phainomena.” Paul may have understood that poetry can uniquely crystallize our deepest held desires and convictions, thus allowing the well-versed evangelist to better connect with human hearts and speak to the source of infinite truth, goodness, and beauty.
In his book Evangelism Outside the Box, Rick Richardson emphasizes the importance of reaching today’s postmodern generation with the help of the arts:
A transformation has taken place in the way people become convinced about moral and spiritual choices. In modernity, people were convinced by compelling, rational, logical arguments. In a postmodern world, the battle for allegiance is a battle for the spiritual and moral imagination of people. The arts have become the key arena for moral and spiritual discussion and exploration in our world.25
But how exactly do we strategically utilize the arts in evangelism? The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism has put out a helpful clarifying the role of the arts in evangelism. Poetry and the other arts are not necessarily the best tools for direct explanation of the gospel, but they nonetheless serve the important purpose of indirectly making interpersonal connections and pointing toward transcendent realities:
Understanding the nature and purpose of the arts is vital for evangelism and missions because of the strategic role they play in every culture [. . . yet] art is not a good preacher—it is by nature allusive, indirect. The arts should therefore not attempt to evangelize per se, but they can “bear witness” to truth. For example, stories, contemporary parables, and allegories are very creative, art-friendly, and meaningful ways to engage the imagination, highlight the human condition, and allow the Holy Spirit to “point” people toward transcendent realities.26
Churches and ministries can be much more creative about how they utilize poetry and other arts in sermons and in evangelistic outreach events. Not only will this be one way of facilitating fellowship among believers in the fulfillment of the biblical command to speak to one another with “psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit,” (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), but it may also attract outsiders to join the surpassingly beautiful kingdom of God.27
Merton teaches us that “the Christian’s vision of the world ought, by its very nature, to have in it something of poetic inspiration. Our faith ought to be capable of filling our hearts with a wonder and wisdom which see beyond the surface of things and events.”28 As we respond to this invitation to engage in poetic contemplation, we will be able to more successfully build flourishing communities of wonder and love.
Michelle Sanchez, MDiv, is currently completing a ThM at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in historical theology with a focus on the history and practice of spiritual formation. She is also Co-Director of Christian Formation with her husband Mickey at Highrock Evangelical Covenant Church in Arlington, Massachusetts.