Saturday, February 1, 2014

Saturday Good Reads: “A Silent Action”

In my post Thursday on “The Un-Magic of Words,” I cited a quote from A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton by Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury. I had planned that post to be followed today by this one on the book itself.  What I didn’t realize was that yesterday would have been Merton’s 99th birthday. It must have been something in the air.

Merton, writer, poet and Trappist monk, was born in France in 1915.  His father was English and his mother American; they had met at art school in Paris. Merton converted to Roman Catholicism while attending Columbia University, and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a monastery in Kentucky belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappist.

Merton wrote books – a lot of books, some 61 in all, not to mention hundreds of articles and poems. One of his best-known works is The Seven Storey Mountain (1958). He became well known in for his opposition to the nuclear arms race and his support of the peace movement in the 1960s.

You can learn more about Merton and his writing at The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, which also has information on the International Thomas Merton Society. Beth Cioffoletti’s blog Louis, Louie is largely a tribute to Thomas Merton, and she includes articles, poems, photographs, and links to other Merton sites.

A Silent Action by Williams is a relatively short book of five previously published essays and a poem by Merton. Although they never met, Williams has spent 40 years reading, studying and writing about Merton. The five essays are:

·       ‘A person that nobody knows’: A Paradoxical Tribute to Thomas Merton
·       ‘Bread in the Wilderness’: The Monastic Ideal in Thomas Merton and Paul Evdokimov (who wrote about the rise of monasticism in the Christian church)
·       ‘New Words for God’: Contemplation and Religious Writing (and the one I cited in my post on Thursday)
·       ‘The Only Real City’: Monasticism and the Social Vision
·       ‘Not Being Serious’: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth

The poem included in the volume is “Summer 1966,” and a fine poem it is.

Bright post-examination weather; in the redundant
classroom, the only point seems here, the belly
of Kentucky heat, the shaven sweating mariners
singing Gregorian shanties in a slow
light evening.  What do I want?  What sixteen-year-olds want,
no doubt; but also: to learn how to sail that sweaty ship,
words falling moistly from the timber, shining,
Latin, American, French.  And the horizon that you think
(so slow the light, so slow the gestures and the voices)
night never quite closes on.

                      The same month
you made a landfall, emptied on to the shore,
gasping and heaving against a new hard element,
against the solid sand.  And now I read you, years on,
leap and flail, mouth wide, reaching - you once-fluent fellow --
for the words to fix it, finding in the unfixable
a bizarre homeliness.  You spent my sixteenth birthday
making a clean(ish) breast of things to the steel smile
of Abbot James.  You staged show after show
for friends, then cancelled.  Not to make sense is
what most matters.

                      What was I seeing,
then, that summer?  light from a dead star?
Not quite.  But who could tell the night, closing its mouth,
the hard sand, were, after all, where the hot songs
would lead?  Practise the Gothic scales for long enough
and they will conjure, surprisingly, this place, flat concrete
convenience foods, an empty page to look into,
finding the anger; painting, then blotting faces you might
hers, yours, that only in fiction would stand still.
Not to make sense, inside the keel of sweating ribs,
not to make sense but room.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention that I was recommended the book by my friend J of India. He also put me on to Cioffoletti’s web site. J blogs at Neither Use Nor Ornament.

Photograph: The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.


Maureen said...

Merton's poems never get old.

Anonymous said...

shape pictures
sentence pictures

who said
one who is dead
can not speak
ill of his self