Feb 01 2013

Thomas Merton – A Psalm

Published by at 9:54 am under Poetry

A Psalm
by Thomas Merton

When psalms surprise me with their music
And antiphons turn to rum
The Spirit sings: the bottom drops out of my soul.

And from the center of my cellar, Love, louder than thunder
Opens a heaven of naked air.

New eyes awaken.
I send Love’s name into the world with wings
And songs grow up around me like a jungle.
Choirs of all creatures sing the tunes
Your Spirit played in Eden.
Zebras and antelopes and birds of paradise
Shine on the face of the abyss
And I am drunk with the great wilderness
Of the sixth day in Genesis.

But sound is never half so fair
As when that music turns to air
And the universe dies of excellence.

Sun, moon and stars
Fall from their heavenly towers.
Joys walk no longer down the blue world’s shore.

Though fires loiter, lights still fly on the air of the gulf,
All fear another wind, another thunder:
Then one more voice
Snuffs all their flares in one gust.

And I go forth with no more wine and no more stars
And no more buds and no more Eden
And no more animals and no more sea:

While God sings by himself in acres of night
And walls fall down, that guarded Paradise.

— from Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, by Thomas Merton

/ Photo by Admond /

I apologize that it has been several days since our last poem email. I was floored by another bout of chronic fatigue, leaving me barely enough energy to keep up with the essentials of my day job. But I think I’m rebounding now. And I’m glad to be back with you all…

When psalms surprise me with their music
And antiphons turn to rum
The Spirit sings: the bottom drops out of my soul.

How about that for an opening? I love that phrase: “the bottom drops out of my soul.”

The first two-thirds of this poem are an ecstatic meditation on the mystic’s experience of union. A flooding of love and joy. A sense of profound clarity. An awareness of universal harmony amidst the kaleidoscopic multiplicity. An inner music. A giddy feeling of drunkenness.

But the tone of Merton’s poem shifts near the end.

And I go forth with no more wine and no more stars
And no more buds and no more Eden
And no more animals and no more sea:

There is a deflation in his final few stanzas. The riotous sense of life is replaced by emptiness.

I can’t quite decide if he is suggesting the return to mundane awareness, or its opposite — moving beyond to a state of utter stillness, where all of creation opens into a cavernous spaciousness, where no ‘thing’ remains, no boundary exists, only scintillating awareness in the substratum of existence.

While God sings by himself in acres of night
And walls fall down, that guarded Paradise.

Sometimes the question is more interesting than the answer. So let’s let that question mark hover in the air.

Have a beautiful weekend!

Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton poetry, Christian poetry Thomas Merton

US (1915 – 1968) Timeline
Christian : Catholic

Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk and mystic who, perhaps more than anyone else in the 20th century, is associated with opening up a dialog between the spiritual traditions of East and West. He himself studied many Eastern spiritual practices deeply, from Zen meditation to Hindu yogic philosophy.

He is best known today for his essays on the spiritual life, especially his first book, The Seven Storey Mountain, but he was also a gifted poet.

More poetry by Thomas Merton

15 responses so far

15 Responses to “Thomas Merton – A Psalm”

  1. Gerryon 01 Feb 2013 at 1:01 pm

    Love Merton’s poem and the thoughts you so beautifully shared about it. Sending healing thoughts to you, dear Ivan. You give so much to your readers and I pray you recover completely.

  2. Davidon 01 Feb 2013 at 1:10 pm

    wow! I don’t know about the meaning so much but I do know that the words rang through my head like drum beats…like lightening flashes and thunder claps…I don’t remember a poem that had that impact. I honestly could almost care less about understanding, I just love the impression/immersion.

  3. Carol Burnson 01 Feb 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Thank you, Ivan. Merton is my favorite writer and this poem is lovely. I too love
    the first lines – the first time I read them. I had a bodily reaction to ‘the bottom drops
    out of my soul.’ His words are beautiful and descriptive of truth as well. I believe
    there are paradoxes in his writing and so how great to honor the question. Thank you.

  4. Patricia Tayloron 01 Feb 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Bede Griffiths, Benedictine monk involved in the Ashram Movement in India, opened doors for East and West to discover their particular beauties. I find Thomas Merton a brilliant writer but I’m not au fait with his poetry. i loved this one.
    Ivan, the dreaded CFS is indeed a burden and I will hold you in the healing light for 2013.
    Trish Taylor

  5. Judyon 01 Feb 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I have read a bit about Merton and I think he is talking about the afterlife in this poem..I think he is talking about the two sides of what we will see after our existence on this earth..call me crazy but I do think their are two sides, he is there and wants to be but not there yet..he is Catholic and fears that state before the rapture maybe..sounds weird and deep but its all questionable and he in his writings fears these things the most..he is very fearful of doubting God and his holiness..maybe its what Catholics call the in between area…like pergatory or something..accountability is a big thing for many Christians..sorry for being glum about but that is my interpretation..he loves his God very much and is a very holy disciple in my opinion..
    sounds weird I know…Ivan I am sorry you are not feeling well..keep up the beautiful work that you do..I would love it is you would respond to my thoughts on this?

  6. Judyon 01 Feb 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Just thought of something else with this poem..he is talking about his inconsistency..how is with the Lord and then he isn’t..maybe that’s it..faithful and then faithless..because he is human and not able to be consistent.?

  7. bharation 01 Feb 2013 at 10:40 pm

    Vimala Thakkar had talked about the utter loneliness of enlightenment… there is no other. The journey doesn’t end. There is no limit to the path that continues beyond ‘enlightenment’. But there is no ‘other’ to share or understand. She spoke the truth of her own experience. I pass on to Judy and others only what I could grasp from being with her…

  8. vegeteon 02 Feb 2013 at 6:32 am

    A stunning poem describing the ineffable experience of going beyond and seeing/feeling what is truly REAL.
    The ending does seem like a deflation, but I think it could be the ultimate letting go … the last lines are stupendous:
    “While God sings by himself in acres of night
    And walls fall down, that guarded Paradise”

    I hope you’ll feel better soon Ivan. You are such a energetic spiritual and creative soul and source.


  9. Zoe Durga Harberon 02 Feb 2013 at 10:22 am

    This is such a beautiful poem. I love the way it is sort of ragged, spontaneous, the words of a lover drunk with bliss. The “but” is such a surprising turn-around. I feel like he is saying that after all he must approach God as simply himself – all objects and sensory impressions and nature itself disappear – all the symbols of who we think we are – gone. Now he can directly encounter God, going forth just as he is and- the walls fall down.
    I hope you are feeling better. Thank you for this lovely poetry, It is giving me so much enjoyment. Best wishes.

  10. ebrahimon 02 Feb 2013 at 10:24 am

    Give up the ghost of yourself and die!

  11. Carol Teresaon 02 Feb 2013 at 12:57 pm

    It was indeed delightful to find your mail today, Ivan … yes, you were missed. Thank you for directing your recovering energy outwards to all of us who so enjoy your posts.

    With this poem I too ponder your question with fascination, and your words

    “…moving beyond to a state of utter stillness, where all of creation opens into a cavernous spaciousness,…”

    resonate with a sense of stepping into clouds of expansiveness, a maturing of unbounded intimacy. Also, I don’t feel the last stanza to be a ‘deflation’ as much as a reprieve, or a breath … a quiet holding of ecstasy …?

    May you be nourished by the beauty you share.

  12. isabel tippleon 04 Feb 2013 at 10:01 am

    I very much like the ending of the poem – letting the question mark hover. It does indeed suggest the spaciousness of not knowing. Spaciousness has a different flavour to ‘ emptiness’ though, there is a fullness of potential in it. Hovering on the brink of potential has an excitment about it. Being in the stillness, yet hovering on the edge, perhaps the state of true meditation – fully relaxed, yet fully alert. What comes next? – in the stillness, a hidden voice whispers …..’It’s in your heart’.

  13. Pegon 08 Feb 2013 at 11:46 am

    Thank you Carol for “a quiet holding of ecstasy.” BEAUTIFUL.

    Ivan, much love and light to you. For a long time I assumed my issues were chronic fatigue but it was really kundalini. Jana Dixon has a great web site going into the biology and that it takes years to allow the body to complete the many changes that kundalini facilitates.


  14. Dinaon 10 Feb 2013 at 10:39 am

    When I first read the poem, which was unkown to me, even though I’ve read a lot of Merton, the first thing that jumped to my mind was the ten bulls of enlightenment by Kakuan.

    The last verse of Merton’s is the tenth bull. The seeker once enlightened goes back to the marketplace. Like Joko Beck’s book title: Nothing Special, Living Zen.

    Thank you, Ivan, sending metta, Dina

  15. Jagaon 30 Mar 2013 at 7:49 am

    “While God sings by himself in acres of night
    And walls fall down, that guarded Paradise.”
    These lines are a perfect expression for Holy Saturday – today – suspended between Good Friday – God the Son’s sacrifice unto death to take on the burden of our offenses – and Easter Sunday – His resurrection opening to us the gates to eternal life!…

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