Monday, August 25, 2014

William Blake's Influence (Merton's Love of Books - part 6)

William Blake

Part of his enticement was likely the nostalgia of his father who introduced him to Blake’s writing when he was ten, but by the time he was sixteen Merton “liked Blake immensely” and “read him with more patience and attention than any other poet.”[1]  He was moved by the depth and power of Blake’s words, especially because he could not quite figure him out. 

Something about Merton was drawn to the mystery of Blake, and I think that is carried on through his drive towards the monastic life and Scripture in and of itself. He later acknowledged his debt to him in The Seven Storey Mountain, stating “through Blake I would one day come, in a round-about way, to the only true Church, and to the One Living God, through His Son, Jesus Christ.”[2]  God utilized his appreciation for literature – secular or Christian – to draw him nearer to Him. 

His love for Blake did not cease throughout his childhood, but rather held strong as he entered adulthood.  While studying at Columbia, Merton decided to write his thesis on Blake’s poems and fondly recalled “what a thing it was to live in contact with the genius and the holiness of William Blake that year, that summer, writing the thesis!”[3]  Merton appreciated Blake’s deepness in thought and verse, acknowledging his imperfections as characteristics of his talent. 

Through his studies, he came to the revelation that Blake “had developed a moral insight that cut through all the false distinctions of a worldly and interested morality.”[4]  He consistently discovered new meanings behind Blake’s words.  In his earlier secular journals, Merton wrote how Blake once told someone his poems were dictated by the angels.  He responds by stating that “we have to be very careful and guard our position against anything above that – angels, or God.”[5]  Though this was before his conversion, Merton still wrestled with such thoughts of writers he appreciated, attempting to come to a conclusion himself.

"The Poet's Dream" - William Blake
As he did with Gerard Manley Hopkins, Merton attempted to figure out the man behind the words.  He wanted to figure out what he believed and preached and how that was applicable to his own life.  “The key to Merton’s attraction to and treatment of William Blake lies in identifying in the life of Blake.”[6]  Because Blake was drawn to Catholicism through Dante’s writings, recognizing it as “the only religion that really taught the love of God,”[7] Merton recognized that truth that could be found through literature.  Studying Blake’s life also allowed him to see a change in his demeanor after conversion where he died with “great songs of joy bursting from his heart.”[8]  Such a strong desire burned within Merton as well, who became more aware of the need for faith in his own life.  Of him, Merton states, “I think my love for William Blake had something in it of God’s grace.  It is a love that has never died, and which has entered very deeply into the development of my life.”[9]  Pieces of Blake’s writing is even scattered throughout The Seven Storey Mountain, further exemplifying how much of an influence he had on Merton. 

[1] Merton, Seven Storey, 95.
[2] Merton, Seven Storey, 97.
[3] Ibid, 207.
[4] Ibid, 222.
[5] Thomas Merton, Secular Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1960), 5.
[6] David D. Cooper, Thomas Merton's Art of Denial: the Evolution of a Radical Humanist (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008), 100.
[7] Merton, Seven Storey, 208.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid, 94.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Thomas Merton & Gerard Manley Hopkins (Merton's Love of Books - part 5)

Thomas Merton not only enjoyed the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet from the mid-nineteenth century, but also held a number of similarities to the man.  Hopkins, like Merton, converted to Catholicism during his time in college and focused his efforts primarily on writing.  He utilized complicated rhythms within his poetry and focused upon the beauty found in nature. 

Merton was first introduced to his poetry through his Headmaster.  Though he had never heard of the man up until this point, Merton recalled how his poetry “was original and had a lot of vitality and music and depth.”[1]  Years later he found himself picking up more of Hopkins writing, absorbed not only in his verse but also in his life as a Jesuit, which prompted questions of what priests’ lives consisted of.  This writing sparked an interest in the faith and Merton was actually “reading a biography of Hopkins when he made the decision to become a Catholic.”[2]  The similarities found between their lives actually prompted Merton’s conversion. 

As he read more and more of Hopkins, his appreciation for the man prompted his own attempts at writing verse and his intention to “write a Ph.D. dissertation on Hopkins” while living in New York.[3]  Merton was influenced not only by his writing but also by his life as a devout man of faith. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins struggled with the effects writing could have on his faith.  He was “concerned that his poetry was preventing him from concentrating fully on his faith,” and therefore “burned his poems and stopped writing poetry entirely for seven years.”[4]  It was not until he was asked to write a poem by his superior that he picked his pen back up to commemorate those who died for their faith.  Similarly, when Merton “first entered the monastery he expected he would not be allowed to write.”[5]  He did not think it was a viable option for someone called to be a contemplative. 

However, his superiors recognized this gift within him and ordered him to write.  Merton was able to “see his writing as a help to his contemplation instead of its rival.”[6]  He found strength through it, which empowered his readers as well.  Hopkins’ poetry “captures the beauty of ordinary things and helps us to see them in a new way, a way that gives glory both to God and to creation.”[7]  Both Hopkins and Merton were willing to give up their love of writing for the sake of the gospel, but they were rewarded by their faithfulness and utilized these gifts for the empowerment of the kingdom. 

[1] Merton, Seven Storey, 110.
[2] Julia L. Roller, ed., 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 274.
[3] Merton, Seven Storey, 257.
[4] Roller, 273.
[5] Shannon, 35.
[6] Shannon, 35.
[7] Roller, 275.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Thomas Merton & James Joyce (Merton's Love of Books - part 4)

Merton was first introduced to the writings of the novelist and poet James Joyce through his book Ulysses.  Though this book had been read a few times in his young life, Merton recalled the impact Portrait of an Artist had on him. 

Originally he had found the parts on Joyce’s spiritual crisis depressing, but later he was drawn to “the expertness of the sermon” on hell which “stimulated and edified”[1] Merton.  Through this knowledge of Joyce’s writings, he found himself “naturally making mental comparisons”[2] with what Joyce wrote and what the priests taught in mass.  Apparently there was more influence on him than he even realized.  He recalled how “there was something eminently satisfying in the thought that these Catholics knew what they believed, and knew what to teach, and all taught the same thing, and taught it with coordination and purpose and great effect.”[3] 

It was through this appreciation of the subject matter that his fascination grew and James Joyce became a prominent influence on Thomas Merton’s own beliefs in the Catholic life.  In fact, years later Merton told a priest “that reading Joyce had contributed something to [his] conversion.[4]  It certainly helped fuel his interest in the Jesuits and what they had to offer the faith he was now considering.

[1] Merton, Seven Storey, 231.
[2] Ibid, 238.
[3] Merton, Seven Storey, 231-2.
[4] Ibid, 425.