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.

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