All across America, people can’t stop talking about Pope Francis’s recent speech to Congress. And although he’s not my Pope, I still admit to being inspired by him. His historic speech to Congress is notable for many reasons, and I especially appreciate his references to Thomas Merton, the monk-poet. Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was an instant bestseller and has sold over one million copies and been translated into fifteen languages. Thomas Merton, perhaps better than anyone else in American popular culture, brought the notion of contemplative prayer into a somewhat widespread awareness and conversation. The Poetry Foundation website credits him “with introducing the mysticism of Eastern spirituality to Western Christians.”
I myself confess a certain fondness for a poet who conjures the image of the dim “light of early Lent.” Those of us who keep Lent know what he means.
Winter’s Night (1946)
When, in the dark, the frost cracks on the window
The children awaken, and whisper.
One says the moonlight grated like a skate
Across the freezing river.
Another hears the starlight breaking like a knifeblade
Upon the silent, steelbright pond.
They say the trees are stiller than the frozen water
From waiting for a shouting light, a heavenly message.
Yet it is far from Christmas, when a star
Sang in the pane, as brittle as their innocence!
For now the light of early Lent
Glitters upon the icy step –
“We have wept letters to our patron saints,
(The children say) yet slept before they ended.”
Oh, is there in this night no sound of strings, of singers!
None coming from the wedding, no, nor
(The sleepy virgins stir, and trim their lamps.)
The moonlight rings upon the ice as sudden as a
Starlight clinks upon the dooryard stone, too like a
And the children are again, awake,
And all call out in whispers to their guardian angels.
In the first stanza, the internal rhyme and harsh assonance of awaken, grated, skate, and breaking call to mind the cracking of ice on the frozen river. This poem is sad and hopeful both because it is the innocence of children who have wept letters to their patron saints, the faith of children whispering to their guardian angels, tentative faith balancing in the dark nights between Christmas and Easter. I am chagrined to realize that I do not cry out to the saints with such weeping pleas nor do I whisper secrets to my guardian angel. I am reminded that Christ called us all to become like little children. So too the poet conveys a patient, doubting, desperate hope—hope in the midst of despair—hope awaiting the far-off Bridegroom. The children awake to this hope. However dark and cold the winter, they have not lost faith; they still whisper to their guardian angels.
Merton’s poem reminds me to latch tightly to hope in a world hovering in bleak midwinter. It may be a seasonal poem, and perhaps I’ll return to it again in February. But for now, every day may I cry out to my saints and angels as I await the heavenly Bridegroom.
“Merton was above all a man of prayer . . .” Pope Francis said. As much as I respect Merton’s poetic career and social consciousness, I wonder if he best appreciates being remembered as a man of prayer. I hope that at the end of my career, I will be remembered as being a person of prayer.
Thank you, Pope Francis, for calling to remembrance God’s servant Thomas Merton, for publicly lauding a poet, and for reminding us that poetry and writing can be a calling from God.
“Thomas James Merton.” [Biography]. N.Y.: Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/thomas-james-merton. Web.
“Thomas Merton’s Life and Work.” Louisville, KY. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. http://merton.org/chrono.aspx. Web. [Check out their website for some great photos of Merton.]
Pope Francis. Address to Congress. September 24, 2015. “Pope Francis Addresses Congress: Read the Full Remarks.” Vox Media, Inc. http://www.vox.com/2015/9/24/9391549/pope-remarks-full-text. Web.
“Winter’s Night.” Index of Thomas Merton’s Marian Poetry. Dayton, OH: The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute. http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/poetry/merton.html#toc. Web.