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Milosz and Merton: poets of hidden victories.

  In the face of earthly powers, how weak an act of faith in the
  incarnate God seems to be.
--Czeslaw Milosz, "If Only This Could Be Said" (1)

On the eve of his ninety-first birthday, and two years before his death, Polish-American writer Czeslaw Milosz published in these pages a remarkable essay in which he ponders "the difficulty of labeling oneself a Christian" in a world of seeming contradictions. Chastened by "the bitterness of maturity," Milosz confesses a certain shame that his contemporaries take him to be something he is not, namely, a man who, by virtue of his Catholic faith and his gray hair, has all the answers. They have only questions. Most of his peers respectfully reject religious faith for themselves, he observes, but adhere to its rituals when "something has to be done, but no one knows what." When someone dies, for example, everyone, including his nonbelieving friends, accepts a religious funeral with relief. "It frees them from the necessity of an almost impossible improvisation at a time when, at best, one can come up with a moment of silence and the playing of a Mozart recording." The truth is, Milosz confesses, "I am one of them, and I am just as confused."

Hints of victory

Long stripped of its triumphal, majority status among the educated, uncomfortably adrift in the sea of postmodern suspicion, the faith of a Christian looks to the elder Milosz something like a quaint, if not embarrassing, mustard seed. Still, the essay reflects no nostalgia, no pining for putative glory days when Catholic identity and widely assumed conceptual categories bred intellectual confidence. There is, rather, a hint of something unreconciled in Milosz, suggested by several religious affirmations which steal poignantly in the back door of an otherwise sober anti-apology. For just as surely as his own faith cannot save him from the "internal altercations" prompted by a confounding, disjointed horizon of meaning--"St Francis's cheerfulness is not for me"--neither can he overlook the stewing power that hides in simple acts of goodness and religiosity. The seeming nothingness of tiny kernels of holiness, he intimates, "not only lasts but contains within itself enormous energy which is revealed gradually." Despite our bondage to the world of "new refrigerators and flights to other planets," one must also reckon with hints of "victory" that are also woven into the fabric of the human story.

What is this hint of victory, and where is it to be found? "Not inside the four walls of one's room or in lecture halls or libraries," says Milosz, "but through communal participation the veil is parted and for a brief moment the space of Imagination, with a capital I, is visible." Joy surfaces spontaneously when people come together, even strangers, "to participate in something that exceeds them and unites them." Yet even in utter loneliness and seeming darkness, a seam of possibility flashes, the rumor of something new waiting to break in. "Sorrow and wonder intermingle" in the apprehension of nakedly human moments, in the sight of elderly churchgoers, for example, old men and women in their "ultimate human aloneness seeking to be rescued in the vestibule of the church." In the imaginations of old people, there lives a secret nurtured only by the passing of years: "Our own good impulses and those of our contemporaries, if only short-lived, do not pass without a trace."

People are, in short, potential miracle workers. Like pebbles cast into an immensely impersonal sea, and in ways that remain entirely mysterious, human beings somehow play a part in "superterrestrial causality." How this happens, Milosz does not know. "My criteria are inadequate; I understand nothing." Yet Milosz can affirm the action of grace in us mainly because its opposite, human depravity, is no mystery at all. "If I believed that man can do good with his own powers, I would have no interest in Christianity." He does not, however, associate much consolation with these hidden irruptions of grace. Given the power of evil in history, one hardly finds in peak moments a basis for longstanding consolation, still less for exultation. Ruling out self-delusion, the best one can manage is a "despairing cheerfulness."

The lightning flash of God

Perhaps, it is no surprise that Milosz accused his old friend Thomas Merton of being too cheerful. (2) While both writers' anthropologies were anchored in human poverty, for Milosz the human condition is above all a poverty of enslavement to self-love, inevitably predatory and self-serving. Merton begins with a different revelation altogether. For him, what characterizes the human community before all else is "the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship." As he famously described this "something" in the passersby on a busy street corner--at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, March 18, 1958--"It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody." (3)

Merton calls this interior light the hidden ground of love, or better, le point vierge (roughly, "the virgin point"). The way he uses this expression (he resisted translating it) conveys something more than the biblical symbol imago Dei. With it, the poet describes that hidden spark (moment? place?) in which all creation, inclusive of every human being, embraces the invitation to be, to fully participate in the unfolding life story of God.
  Who is more little, who is more poor than the helpless man who lies
  asleep in his bed without awareness and without defense? Who is more
  trusting than he who must entrust himself each night to sleep? What
  is the reward of his trust? Gentleness comes to him when he is most
  helpless and awakens him, refreshed, beginning to be made whole. Love
  takes him by the hand, and opens to him the doors of another life,
  another day. ...

  When the helpless one awakens strong at the voice of mercy, it is as
  if Life his Sister, as if the Blessed Virgin, (his own flesh, his own
  sister), as if Nature made wise by God's Art and Incarnation were to
  stand over him and invite him with unutterable sweetness to be awake
  and to live. This is what it means to recognize Hagia Sophia. (4)

It is here, from within le point vierge, that Wisdom-Sophia reaches from "end to end mightily" (Wis 8:1), wishing to be, as she surfaces in one of Merton's most sublimely realized texts, "the unseen pivot of all nature," the source and center of all things which belongs entirely to God, and which remains "untouched by sin and by illusion." And while the human community in one sense recedes into the "huge chorus of living beings," its consummate place in the mysterium tremendum is in no way diminished. Like the psalmist beholding the glory of the heavens, Merton wonders just how it is that God calls and empowers each of us to be "little less than the angels" (Psalm 8).

The answer is found in "incarnation." On the corner of Fourth and Walnut, the incarnation of God in Christ found a home for Merton not only in the "flight of the escaping dove"--as he had written years earlier in the much-celebrated "Fire Watch, July 4, 1952" (5)--but now in the stranger, the other who was once alien and even threatening to his monastic vocation. This experience of holding "the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake," this unveiling of God with a human face, is not very far from the Sermon on the Mount, nor is it alien to the world's poets, as Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes: "The lottery vendor who hawks tickets 'for the big one,' wrote [the poet Cesar] Vallejo, somehow deep down represents God." (6) Indeed, every person, as Merton discovered that day, is a lottery vendor who offers us "the big one": our encounter with that God who shines deep down in the heart of each person. For she "is daily his delight, rejoicing before him always ... and delighting in the human race" (Prov 8:30-31).

It is worth remembering that Merton's turn toward the secular cathedral--with its cities, skyscrapers, wars, and race riots--mirrors a concurrent shift in the Catholic theology of grace, much more recovery than invention, effected by Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, and many others in the years surrounding the Second Vatican Council. This mining of the fully theological contours of human experience might be posed as a question: If Christ cannot be found on Fourth and Walnut, how can we expect to find him in a monastery, or in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? In a stirring tribute to Rahner, his lifelong teacher, German theologian Johann Baptist Metz writes something that could just as well be said of Merton: "[For] Rahner, God is a universal theme, a theme concerning all humanity, or it simply is no theme at all. God is never for him the private property of the church, nor of theology. And not even of faith: the lightning flash of God is to be reckoned on every human experiential and linguistic terrain." (7)

It would be wildly incorrect to conclude that Merton (still less Rahner) failed to take the reality of sin and evil seriously. One might argue, with Milosz, that he did not take it seriously enough. But if that is the case, one has to ask at what point the Catholic analogical imagination finally gives itself over, perhaps reluctantly but quite reasonably, to a dialectical worldview that alternates more or less chaotically between the presence and absence of God, a world that is still waiting for God's definitive breakthrough.

Merton, rather--anticipating the Christ-haunted humanism of Gaudium et Spes, and imbibing the thought of the Russian diaspora writing in postwar France--presses the incarnational trajectory to its eschatological limit. In the shadows of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, at the analogical breaking point of history, the felt absence of God is juxtaposed darkly in Merton's writings with cruciform presence; God's silence is countered still more ("seventy times seven") with the divine mantra of mercy, the irrational gift of forgiveness. Whether such an "answer" can be heard or appropriated in the dark night of faith is another question, to be sure, but Merton's illumination of a hidden receptivity and holiness in all things provides, with Rahner, Teilhard and others, a welcome balance in Catholic thought to what had been a sharply skewed overemphasis on the Fall in Western Christianity since Augustine. (8)

It is Merton's luminous Imagination, after all, with a capital "I"--his extraordinary fluency with the sacramental power of language--that continues to attract an incredibly divergent and frequently off-beat community of admirers, many of whom would not otherwise be inclined toward traditional religiosity and doctrine. For these especially, it may be observed that Merton's literary corpus, to borrow from Milosz, "frees them from the necessity of an almost impossible improvisation." For contemporary seekers paralyzed by doubt, by the difficulty of labeling oneself as a believer, or even a fully alive human being, this is no small gift. Merton offers both a language and an integral life-story that bends most compellingly and (I dare say) intelligibly toward an elemental goodness and wholeness still experienced by many, although perhaps without the words to say it, as the deepest truth of reality.

To move mountains with a word

On the possibility of glimpsing such a truth, if only in fragments, even Milosz holds out a glimmer of hope, a hope that binds him closely to Merton: "To move mountains with a word is not for us, but this does not mean that it is impossible. Were not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John miracle workers by virtue of their having written the Gospels?" Some forty years earlier, his Trappist friend wrote in a similarly sapiential vein: "The office of the monk or the marginal person, the meditative person or the poet is to go beyond death even in this life, to go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and to be, therefore, a witness to life." (9) To move mountains with a word, to be a witness to life--is this not also the office of the theologian? The priest and the prophet? The ordinary Christian? In a poem of 1968, "Incantation," Milosz seems to concur, celebrating the effervescence of Wisdom--"an enemy of despair and a friend of hope"--even in hearts and minds grotesquely stunted by "the congealed fist of the past."
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction. (10)

Of course as poets, as Catholic poets, it was the task of both Milosz and Merton to wrestle with such dichotomies, the tension of opposites that must not be broken in any languaging of faith: blindness and sight; captivity and liberation; destruction and glory; blood-letting and an empty tomb. If Milosz's hermeneutic in this task was suspicion, Merton's was trust (both writers had sharp elbows!). If Milosz in his old age wondered why there should be any love in the world rather than destruction, Merton seemed more determined than ever on the verge of his death to affirm that humanity belongs to God, and can attain to genuine holiness--this even in "the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest." (11)

Without question the reasons for their differences may be found in the personal histories and cultural matrixes that shaped their respective worldviews. But I thank God for their differences, and I hold them together as Catholic poets who, each in distinctive ways, give voice to the lightning flashes of God on every genuinely human terrain. How weak it seems, and yet how wondrous, is the act of faith in the incarnate God.


(1.) Czeslaw Milosz, "If Only This Could Be Said," Cross Currents 52:1 (Spring 2002): 60-72.

(2.) See Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz, ed. Robert Faggen (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996); Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth: letters to Writers, ed. Christine M. Bochen (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993), 53-86; also David Belcastro's insightful study, "Czeslaw Milosz's Influence on Merton's 'Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude,'" in The Merton Annual Vol. 7 (New York: AMS Press, 1994): 21-32. Merton first wrote to Milosz in 1958 after reading The Captive Mind, initiating a correspondence and friendship that lasted until Merton's death in Asia in 1968. From the outset, their letters are marked both by genuine admiration and strikingly frank critique of each other's work. They met together twice, first in 1964, when Milosz visited Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and again in October of 1968, when Merton met Milosz and his wife in San Francisco before his departure for the East. Meiton's final letter to Milosz, from Darjeeling, India, is dated November 21, 1968, just weeks before his death.

(3.) Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 158.

(4.) Thomas Merton, Hagia Sophia, in Emblems of a Season of Fury (New York: New Directions, 1962), 62.

(5.) Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Octagon, 1983; orig. 1953), 349-62.

(6.) Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973), 202, where he also cites Yves Con-gar's notion of the neighbor as "sacrament."

(7.) Johann Baptist Metz, A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Paulist, 1998), 109.

(8.) For a close study of Merton's Christology, especially as informed by Russian literature and Russian sophiology, see Christopher Pramuk, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical/Michael Glazier, 2009); idem, "Apocalypticism in a Catholic Key: Lessons from Thomas Merton," Horizons 36/2 (2009): 235-64.

(9.) Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1973), 306.

(10.) Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems: 1931-1987 (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 210.

(11.) Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 157. His signature essay on the subject may be "Is the World a Problem?" (1966), in Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 159-71.
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Title Annotation:Czeslaw Milosz & Thomas Merton
Author:Pramuk, Christopher
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2010
Previous Article:Border crossings.
Next Article:Witnessing and re-imagining through the arts: meditation on a dialogical project.

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