Celebrate Earth Day with Thomas Merton

Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote many poems over the too-brief span of his fifty-three years, but my favorites are those dealing with nature. A few months ago, I blogged about “Night Flowering Cactus,” which I think is his masterpiece in the genre, and today, in honor of Earth Day, I’d like to look at a more spring-like gem, “O Sweet Irrational Worship.” Here is the beginning:

“Wind and a bobwhite
And the afternoon sun.

By ceasing to question the sun
I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth

All these lighted things
Grow from my heart.”

The entire poem can be found here.

The poem begins very simply, reflecting perhaps Merton’s interest in the radical stripping away of the extraneous, which he found in Zen Buddhism as well as in certain mystical paths of Western Christianity such as that of Saint John of the Cross (known for his meditations on “the dark night of the soul”).

In the line “By ceasing to question the sun,” I believe Merton is describing a path to mystical contemplation in which we let go of the rational, analytical part of our mind and simply experience the present: the sun, the wind, the bobwhite (not a generic “bird” but a specific creature). If you go still long enough and just let yourself experience these elements of nature, you may perhaps enter into a mystical union with them as Merton did in the encounter he depicts in this poem: becoming  the light, the bird, the wind.

In the next line, Merton moves beyond this to a more universal identification with the natural world. His “leaves sing” as if he were a tree, and then he moves on to a yet greater epiphany: “I am earth, earth. All these lighted things grow from my heart.” By identifying so completely with the natural world to the extent that he experiences a kind of mystical oneness with it, Merton then perceives the interconnectedness of it all, of all the “lighted” things: things that share in the universal condition of being lit by the sun, things that also share in the universal light of the love and creativity of God.

And then more than this, a connection that shares not merely the same experiences, but one that has gone beyond this to take on a sense of responsibility, of a deep inward tie so that for a mystical moment, all creation seems to grow from his heart. And in fact, perhaps it does, just as in Roman Catholic theology the blood and body of Christ transmute into the wine and bread that Christians take in the mystery of Eucharist.

I fancy that more conservative Christians would frown on the poem as veering towards pantheism, nature-worship, but that is to ignore the deep, worshipful response that nature inspires in so many people, across so many eons and cultures. As I mentioned last week, it was C.S. Lewis, certainly no “liberal” (and certainly no “conservative,” either, but a “mere” Christian), who wrote of the deep joy that nature inspired in him, and of how it pointed the way to his certainty that a transcendent element exists.

Reverence for the earth is urgently needed, now more than ever, when we humans are on the verge of destroying the beautiful world that people of religion believe was made by God, not merely, I would argue, for its utilitarian value, but for its beauty, its joy, and for the opportunity to share fellowship with other living creatures that are so different from ourselves such as Merton’s bobwhite and pine tree.

After celebrating this tree, “a tall, spare pine / [that] Stands like the initial of my first / Name when I had one,” and two ecstatic stanzas that are each followed by the “I am earth, earth” refrain, the poem concludes as simply as it began:

“Out of my grass heart
Rises the bobwhite.

Out of my nameless weeds,
His foolish worship.”

In this final image, the bobwhite, Merton, and the earth itself are inextricably linked, so that Merton’s heart becomes the earth, an emptying of a self that now has no name. The poet’s heart is the humble, lowly matter of grass and weeds, the setting and habitat for the bobwhite, who is now linked with Merton the monk in an act of thanksgiving for life, the act of “foolish” worship, worship of the One in whom both poet and bird live, move, and have their being.

photo by Matt Tillett

photo by Matt Tillett

The Wind in the Willows as Eco Story

Today I’m taking a page from one of my favorite blogs, Isaac Yuen’s Ekostories, putting an eco-lens to one of my favorite childhood books, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

wind in the willowsAs with many children’s books, the main characters are animals, but the way Grahame portrays his animal characters and their environment sets Wind in the Willows apart from the crowd. To begin with, none of the animals has human names: we know them as Mole, the Water Rat (or, more familiarly, “Ratty”), Otter, the Badger, and Toad. Only Toad and Badger are ever addressed as “Mr.”—Badger because of his superior wisdom and Toad because of his wealth and pretensions.

Like the animals’ names, the natural environment in Grahame’s book is treated very much from an animal’s point of view, and the world, though lovely and charming, contains dangers as well, and is described without cloying sentimentality. The Wild Wood occasions the most harrowing scenes in the book, and the tension as Mole becomes lost and hears unfamiliar and threatening whistles and sounds is far greater for me than the scene at the end where the animals band together to retake Toad Hall from the weasels. At the opposite pole is the wonderful chapter where Mole encounters the numinous, when he and Ratty set out to help Otter find his little, lost son.

illustration by Leah Palmer Preiss, found on alphabooks.tumblr.com

illustration by Leah Palmer Preiss, found on alphabooks.tumblr.com

Toad in many ways is given more human attributes than the others, a fact that sets him apart—and seldom in a good way. In fact, I now wonder if Grahame’s rather satiric portrayal of Toad is meant as a comment on human foibles, particularly our fascination with technology, which we see all too often as a toy for our own gratification rather than a tool to benefit society at large. In hindsight, Mr. Toad’s ill-fated love of motorcars seems a prophetic parody of the way the automobile has come to dominate nearly every aspect of life in more economically “advanced” countries. If we are unable to halt global warming, it will be in large part because we, like Toad, have become oblivious to all else but the lure of high speed, forgetful of the realities that lie in the here and now—and the consequences of our actions. “Poop-poop,” indeed.

Lest I sound too somber a note, taken at face value, Toad’s adventures provide a comic counterpoint to the rest of the book, and they are often the chapters that small children enjoy the most. Yet, for me, the real heart of the book lies elsewhere, in the friendship of Mole and Rat, their gentle meanderings through the landscape, Mole’s brief but chilling journey into the Wild Wood, Ratty’s inchoate longings that are awakened as he bids farewell to the migratory  animals who pick up and leave as the seasons change, and the magical moment when Mole meets Nature’s god.

illustration by Paul Bransom from the 1913 ed. via Wikimedia Commons

illustration by Paul Bransom from the 1913 ed. via Wikimedia Commons

What about you? What childhood books influenced your attitude toward Nature?

%d bloggers like this: