Sunday, June 1, 2014

Poetry and Contemplative Life

Photo of Thomas Merton by Eugene Meatyard

An article by Thomas Merton appeared in the July 4, 1947 issue of Commonweal Magazine and was recently republished. The topic: Poetry and Contemplation. This was something that Merton, poet & monk, supposedly knew something about. In fact, Merton struggled with articulating the relationship between art and religion ("... there is an abyss between them ..."). He seems (to me) to slide from one side to the other, never quite recognizing the authentic synthesis of monk & artist that he, himself, embodied so well. As did his friends Robert Lax and Ad Reinhart (see louie post: "Art is Art, Everthing Else is Everything Else"

Below are some excerpts from the 1947 Commonweal article. It is good, but it is still early Merton. He will continue to develop this theme for the rest of his life, both in his writing and his living. Read the whole article  HERE.

"The term “contemplative life" is one that is much mistreated. It is more often used than defined, and that is why arguments about the respective merits of "active" and ''contemplative" orders generally end nowhere. In the present article, I am not talking about the contemplative orders, but about the contemplative life. It is a life that can be led and, in fact, must eventually be led by every good Christian. It is the life for which we were created, and which will eventually be our everlasting joy in heaven. By the grace of Christ we can begin to lead that life even on earth, and many in fact do so begin. Some of them are in cloisters, because the vows and rules of religious orders and congregations make the necessary work of preparation easy and, as it were, almost a matter of course. But many more "contemplatives" are out in the world. A lot of them may be found in places like Harlem and wherever people suffer, and perhaps many of these have never even heard the word "contemplative." And yet, on the other hand, not all of those who are in contemplative orders are contemplatives. Through their own fault they miss the end of their vocation. 
"The contemplative life is a life entirely occupied with God—with love and knowledge of God.
"We have said that the poetic sense may be a remote disposition for mystical prayer. This needs explanation. And the first thing that needs to be stressed is the essential dignity of esthetic experience. It is, in itself, a very high gift, though only in the natural order. It is a gift which very many people have never received, and which others, having received it, have allowed to spoil or become atrophied within them through neglect and misuse. 
"To many people, the enjoyment of art is nothing more than a sensible and emotional thrill. They look at a picture, and if it stimulates one or another of their sense-appetites they are pleased. On a hot day they like to look at a picture of mountains or the sea because it makes them feel cool. They like paintings of dogs that you could almost pat. But naturally they soon tire of art, under those circumstances. They turn aside to pat a real dog, or they go down the street to an air-conditioned movie, to give their senses another series of jolts. Obviously for such people art is not even a remote preparation for even the lowest degree of contemplation. 
"But a genuine esthetic experience is something which transcends not only the sensible order (in which, however, it has its beginning) but also that of reason itself. It is a supra-rational intuition of the latent perfection of things. Its immediacy outruns the speed of reasoning and leaves all analysis far behind. In the natural order, as Jacques Maritain has often insisted, it is an analogue of the mystical experience which it resembles and imitates from afar. Its mode of apprehension is that of "connaturality"—it reaches out to grasp the inner reality, the vital substance of its object, by a kind of affective identification of itself with it. It rests in the perfection of things by a kind of union which somewhat resembles the rest of the soul in its immediate, affective contact with God in the obscurity of mystical prayer. A true artist can contemplate a picture for hours, and it is a real contemplation, too. So close is the resemblance between these two experiences that a poet like Blake could almost confuse the two and make them merge into one another as if they belonged to the same order of things. And yet there is an abyss between them."

HT: Claire - A Seat At The Table


  1. I have noticed that the great mystics were also great artists. Somehow the deep mystical, contemplative experience of God is connected to great art.

    A case in point is one my favorite mystics - St. John Cross. His exquisite poems about the mystical life (The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love) are simply unmatched in beauty and depth! No wonder he is also considered as one of the greatest poets of Spain.

    Of course, Thomas Merton, is also an example of a mystic with deep artistic sensibilities.

    To my mind the connection between great art and the deep experience of God lies in the fact that beauty is a reflection of the Divine Presence who is Beauty himself. In the words of Augustine:

    "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!"

    Also, the great mystics often saw the beauty of the Divine in nature and the ordinary events of life, and were able to translate what they perceived through art, so much so that poets, like William Blake could exclaim:

    "The world is charged with the grandeur of God!"

    -- Matt

    1. thanks, Matt.

      It seems to me that it is all gift, whether artistic or spiritual (and there may be very little difference between the two). Nothing that we can really do to earn it, just be open to it.

      Good art, for me, is an expression of something that is truly unfathomable.

  2. I didn't know about this, much obliged.

    1. I don't know that I know much, either, Daniel. But I do know that there is a great power in art to heal painful divisions in our souls in ways that "religion" often does not. It could be that the arts, more so than the "Church" , are the more authentic protector and carrier of the message of Christianity for long periods of historical time. There seems to me to be a crossing over between art and "religion". At root, they both could be the very same thing.


The Stuff of Contemplation (Joan Chittister)

Thomas Merton, Trappist, died December 10, 1968 Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, at the age of twenty-s...