Merton – On the Psalms

The Old Testament Book of Psalms (the Psalter) is a hymn book that was finalized between 500 – 390 BCE.  The Psalms are a collection of religious poems of Israel that were used during liturgical ceremonies originally in the Temple in Jerusalem and in Jewish synagogues.  Thousands of psalms were written but only 150 found their way into the Psalter.  The Psalms represent the work of numerous poets; 83 of these poems bear King David’s name.

The Psalms describe God as the Holy One who dwells in the fullness of life and power.  In Psalm 99, verse 8, for example, the poet declares: “Extol the Lord our God and bow in worship before God’s holy mountain, for the Lord our God is Holy.”   The Psalms also depict God as the Eternal One.  Psalm 90, verse 2, states: “Before the mountains were created or You had formed the earth and its surface, from eternity to eternity You are God.”  God who is eternal is a refuge in times of need..  In Psalm 91, verses 1 and 2, we read: “You who dwell in the shelter of God most High, abide in the shadow of the Almighty, say to the Lord, my refuge, my fortress in whom I trust.”  Additionally, the Psalter claims God as redeemer.  In Psalm 31, verses 2 – 5, the poet prays: “Into your hands I commend my spirit, You who have redeemed me, Lord, faithful God.”

As a Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton chanted his way through the entire Psalter every week of the year.  Merton prayed the Psalms so frequently that their words took up residence in his heart and resounded in his being. The Psalms were Merton’s daily spiritual sustenance.  They were bread for his pilgrimage through life.

Merton wrote several books about the Psalms: Praying the Psalms and Bread in the Wilderness.  In these texts, Merton contends that the Psalms are perhaps the most significant and influential religious collection of poems ever written.  He notes that the Psalms encompass various facets of the human experience of the Divine, including: delight in God’s Law and peace in God’s will (Psalm 1); confidence in God (Psalms 119 – 133); mystical joy (Psalm 41); sorrow for offending God (Psalm 129); and joyful praise and adoration of God (Psalm 117).

When praying the Psalms, one raises one’s mind and heart to God and brings the substance of his or her life to the experience. Merton notes:  “We bring to the Psalms the raw material of our poor, isolated persons, with our own individual conflicts, sufferings and trials.”[i] Merton recommends that one read or recite the Psalms slowly, savoring them, meditating on their meaning, and allowing their life lessons to penetrate one’s being.  Additionally, Merton reflects that “There is … no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of a person that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms.”[ii] Merton adds that “God will give Godself to us through the Psalter if we give ourselves to God without reserve in our recitation of the Psalms.”[iii]

The Psalter is canticum novum, the song of those reborn as new creation.  Those who pray these poems glorify God.  The Psalms build a bridge between earth and heaven, for, as Merton declares:  “To chant the Psalms … is to join in the Liturgy of heaven.  It is to praise God with something of the same love with which God is praised by the blessed spirits.” [iv] who are enjoying life in eternity with God who is Love.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[i] Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness (New York: New Directions, 2014) 118.

[ii] Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1956) 44.

[iii] Merton, Bread in the Wilderness, 64.

[iv] Merton, Bread in the Wilderness, 136.

Merton – On the Desert Experience

The desert is a recurrent theme in the writings of Thomas Merton. Interesting is the fact that Merton probably saw a real desert in his life only when he visited the Benedictine monastery of Christ in the Desert in Chama canyon in New Mexico immediately before departing on his final journey – his pilgrimage to Asia.

The word “desert” conjures up images such as sparse life, hunger and thirst, heat and cold, temptation and testing, and failure and triumph.  Metaphorically, life is a kind of desert experience wherein encounters with both godly and diabolical reality constantly occur and offer opportunities for spiritual growth and purification.

In the 4th century C.E., early Christian Fathers fled to the deserts of Egypt and Syria to learn how to trust God alone. Merton reflects:

What the Desert Fathers sought when they believed they could find ‘paradise’ in the desert was the lost innocence, the emptiness and purity of heart which belonged to Adam and Eve in Eden.  Evidently they could not have expected to find beautiful trees and gardens in the waterless desert, burned by the sun.  Obviously they did not expect to find a place, among the fiery rocks and caves, where they could recline at ease in shady groves, by cool running water.  What they sought was paradise within themselves, or rather above and beyond themselves.  They sought paradise in the recovery of that ‘unity’ which had been shattered by the ‘knowledge of good and evil.’[1]

In the desert wilderness, the hermit Fathers wrestled with their inner demons.  They responded to God’s grace to unmask their false, self-centered selves in order to find their true identity in Christ, their Divine Lover.

The life of the early Desert Fathers required inner stamina, psychological and spiritual maturity, and the renunciation of their ego-selves.  According to Merton, the sayings and stories of these men stress that the desert experience requires an experienced guide; simplicity of life; the integration of contemplation and labor; unreserved commitment to gospel living; and a radical willingness to strike out into the unknown.

For Merton, rather than being an experience of alienation and isolation, the desert experience is a school of compassion.  In the inner ground of one’s desert being, one embraces one’s true self and, consequently, profoundly identifies and empathizes with others in their struggles and sufferings. Regarding this, Merton reflects:

What is my new desert?  The name of it is compassion.  There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion.  It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.  It shall become a pool; it shall bud forth and blossom and rejoice with joy.  It is in the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water and the poor possess all things. [2]

One does not need to make his or her way to a particular place to experience the essence of the desert experience.  Merton stresses that the world one inhabits, with all its issues and complexities, is the locale wherein one encounters  God and wages battle with evil forces within and without oneself.  Merton encourages contemporary spiritual seekers to embrace the desert in their lives and, in so doing, journey along the pathway that leads to shedding their false ego-selves in order to discover their true, compassionate selves in God!

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, (New York: New Directions, 1968) 117.

[2] Thomas Merton, Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer, Ed.  Jonathan Montaldo (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995) 463.