The Eyes to See:
The Poetic and Prophetic Vision of Thomas Merton

by Richard Fournier.


Merton’s "Message to Poets" is a prophetic message to the poet in all of us. The word "poet" comes from the Greek word "to make", and we are all poets inasmuch as we make the world our own by listening and saying, thinking and seeing. All of us make our worlds from the raw materials presented to us by our cultures. These raw materials are the paradigms, values, customs, and horizons that the culture validates and considers "real". In the "making" of our modern world, Merton saw a dangerous mix of a mass culture and isolated, unconnected individuals. He saw people forfeiting their intrinsic poetic capacity to creatively make and respond to the world as it truly is (paradise consciousness), and instead passively receive a ready-made world of assumptions and objects that is the taken-for-granted reality of modern consciousness.

Merton left this ready-made world which distorts our humanity and became a monk. After a while, he realized it was not that easy to leave the world, and in fact the world had followed him to Gethsemani. But by living on the margins, and by his own unique combination of tradition, experience and grace, he was able to recover to a great extent the capacity to respond to the world in more open, connected and compassionate ways. He realized that for the modern world, the monk, the poet, and the prophet were similar in their calling to "see" the world differently, and to live and articulate a consciousness that was an alternative to the prevailing one.

In this paper, I intend to reflect on Merton’s essay "Message to Poets" through the lens of Lawrence Cunningham’s phrase about poets as "makers of extraordinary possibilities." The poet, as well as the prophet, become "makers of extraordinary possibilities" by the ability to "see" the extraordinary in the ordinary, and thus may offer an alternative vision of possibility and hope. I will explore the interplay between poet and prophet, especially around this capacity to see differently and more truly the nature of reality. I maintain that one of their tasks as writers and speakers is to invite us to a similar vision and participation in this alternative reality.

The poet and the prophet call us from artifice to innocence. They call us to a "future...made by love and hope, not by violence and calculation." (Raids, p.156) Merton’s message to the poets encourages them (and us) to be "innocent"; "to be faithful to Life;" to be "children of the Unknown;" to be "ministers of silence;" and to be "dervishes mad with a secret therapeutic love which cannot be bought or sold." In order to be able to heed these passionate pleas, the poet and the poet in us must be able to separate from the false reality of convention and to participate in the true reality that connects us and lies at the core. This participation and communion in the true reality behind or beneath the culturally given one is an "extraordinary possibility" and is the home of hope.

In 1965, Merton named and affirmed that core reality to his novices at Gethsemane. "I know from what experience I have of it so far... that in fact it is sometimes possible to see that things become transparent. They are no longer opaque, and they no longer hide God. This is true...we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent; God is shining through all, all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true."( Pennington, p.39) This language of shining and transparency is reminiscent of Merton’s description of his experience at Fourth and Walnut. However, Merton’s interest and experience in this deep reality did not begin or end in Louisville. The passion to see clearly and profoundly into a reality beyond the apparent one had been a part of Merton’s journey for many years. Back in 1938, which is twenty years before the Louisville experience, Merton chose William Blake as the subject of his master’s thesis. "Then, too, he was searching for a `clarity’ he described as `the glory of form shining through matter.’" (Capps, p.54) It was Blake who wrote the stunning lines about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary in a poem entitled aptly enough, "Auguries of Innocence."
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

In 1968, ten years after Louisville and the last year of his life, he had the profound experience of "seeing" at Polonnaruwa. (See Asian Journal,) So clearly this was an important and consistent thread in Merton’s life and experience. Our capacity to perceive this God-given reality of transparency and interconnectedness has been diminished and distorted - it has become in fact "hidden". Merton used such phrases as "hidden wholeness" and "hidden ground of love" to name this unperceived but, nevertheless, foundational reality. This reality is not hidden by some mischievous God who enjoys playing games with us, but is rather hidden by our inability to see it. This inability arises from the incrustation and overlay of cultural values and distortions which gives rise to the development of false selves with limited and circuitous self-referential consciousness.

A central theme through much of Merton’s writings is the false, alienated self. This false self is cut off from reality, from others and from its own true source. "Each individual in the mass is isolated by thick layers of insensibility. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear, he doesn’t think. He does not act, he is pushed. He does not talk, he produces conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises. He doesn’t think, he secretes clichés."(McDonnell, p.84). Our culture encourages us to identify with this false self, to walk around like "skin encapsulated egos" (to borrow Alan Watts picturesque phrase), feeling separate from one another, and attempting to fill up our emptiness through the consumption of objects. With the help of the perspective of the poet and the prophet, it becomes possible to by-pass or penetrate this humanly constructed "cramp of consciousness", to show it as illusory, to call our allegiance to this truncated reality into question, and to begin to point us back toward the "hidden wholeness" which shines forth with God’s presence.

Obviously, the poet and the prophet might not be doing this with conscious intention. However, when the poet uses language that cracks us open, that is porous, that teases us and lures us beyond the ordinary way of looking at things, then the poet may be functioning in a prophetic role. The poet and prophet are linked in their ability to be "seers". Walter Brueggemann writes: "Those whom the ancient Israelites called prophets, the equally ancient Greeks called poets. The poet/prophet is a voice that shatters settled reality and evokes new possibility..."(Brueggemann, p.4) Without the help of the poet/prophet we remain circumscribed and defined by the fallen, alienated world of human artifice. This world defines itself as the only reality, and ridicules and derides movement toward hope, imagination and possibility. Herod does not take kindly to the birth of new possibilities and ways of being.

This artificial reality is the matrix we live in with our false selves. By and large we are oblivious to any other reality or possibility. To get people to see this is difficult and risky. "One of the central issues in the prophetic life is that a person rocks the boat, not by telling slaves to be free, but by telling people who think they are free that they’re slaves." (Springs, p.133) We are all slaves to this limited consciousness, yet for the most part , we are not aware of it. One of the reasons why Merton was so excited about his connections with Latin American Poets was that they were outside the "system." They shared an "innocence" and a rootedness in "fidelity to Life rather than to artificial systems." (Raids, p.156) They’re very Being was prophetic for those of us caught in the ever-spinning web of Western artifice. What one sees depends on where on stands. The poet/prophet stands on the margins of this limited reality, and occasionally catch glimpses of the "hidden ground of love", which is our true source and destiny.

The two realities I am writing about are not meant to be taken as a metaphysical dualism descriptive of the universe, but as two ways of human "seeing" and "being" in the world. Merton was equally at home describing this predicament theologically (fallen versus paradise consciousness) or existentially (false or alienated versus authentic, fragmented versus integrated). The fact seems to be that people tend to see in gestalts or whole patterns. For example, there are two ways of seeing the following pictures (pictures #1 and #2, in Appendix), [NOTE: these pictures are not yet available in the electronic pub version] but you can only see them one way at a time. This is analogous to the way we perceive the given reality of our culture. We primarily see things only one way. Maybe the culture defines the first picture only as the "old lady" and makes anyone who sees the "young girl" seem crazy. Or similarly, the culture may define the second picture as a "vase" only, and not be able to see or validate those who might see it as "faces." Reality gets defined rigidly in many areas, such as "black and white, communist and free world, good and bad." But reality is more ambiguous than that. Rigidly defined realities make us see things that aren’t there (picture #3), and not be able to see things that are there (picture #4). The poet\prophet challenges our set ways of seeing things by seeing them differently, and expressing this new way of seeing in such a way that shakes or shatters our habitual way. The poet\prophet gives us clues that help us perceive a larger, less culture bound reality.(see pictures #5 & #6). "Now the eyes of my eyes can see..." (cummings)

It is not by accident that Merton, as well as Blake, links this ability to see with innocence and paradise consciousness. Children often naturally function as the poet\prophet when they see and experience things in fresh open ways that have not yet been closed off by enculturation. Let me share an example from my own life.

During the intense buildup just before the Gulf War, I was watching the news on television and my five year old daughter was playing in an adjacent room. There was loud and proud coverage of "Desert Shield" that showed tanks and planes and soldiers practicing war. The sounds of the shells exploding drew my daughter. She seemed upset and ready to cry. She asked: "Is there going to be a war, Daddy?" I replied that I hoped not, but there might be. She began to cry, which I immediately recognized as a genuinely human response to the prospect of war. I began to think, Why weren’t more people crying? Why wasn’t I crying? But my deep and profound insights into the state of humanity were disturbed by her very simple and concrete fears. She asked, "Is our house going to be blown up? Will Alley-cat be killed?" I reassured her that she didn’t have to cry because the war would be very far away, and that no bombs would explode over here, and that she had nothing to worry about. She went back to drawing pictures of sunny skies and birds flying. Meanwhile on the television the skies were filled with metallic birds with deadly eggs, and I watched it all, content with my seemingly effective parenting. Sarah returned a few minutes later and leaned against me. When I smiled at her she looked me right in the eye and asked, "Do you think the children over there are crying?" "What will happen to the children over there?" I was stunned. She was still alive to the God-given connections that bind us all together. I was still stuck in the world of "us" and "them", of distance and "over there." Earlier, I had tried to comfort her with the illusions that the world teaches, but she confronted me with the baseline reality that is God-given. This was a contemplative moment when my own illusions were shattered and I saw deeply and clearly how far I had strayed from the basic insight so beautifully expressed by Martin Luther King:
"We are tied in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured." ( King, p. 269 )

This same interconnectedness and communion is what Merton felt with the Latin American poets, and poets throughout the world. My daughter has been the bearer of several unbearably beautiful breakthroughs to reality in my heart and life. She has been a poet and a prophet. Jesus was very wise to keep the children near. "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

How do we recover this way of seeing? How can we learn to let go of artifice and embrace innocence? There is a saying in the Talmud: "You don’t see things as they are, you see things as you are." (Capps, p.17) To see things differently , one must be differently. A change in consciousness leads to a change in perception. Inner work is the key. "The first step in the interior unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling, and so forth, and [acquiring] a few of the right ones. The `right’ way of seeing involves in part `the ability to respond to reality, to see the value and beauty of ordinary things.’" (Del Prete, p.66) Here, there are links between poetic and contemplative consciousness. "To be holy is a question of appreciating where one is in life and learning to foster the vital connections that are already operative." (Padovano, p.83) In order to foster the connections, one must be able to see them, feel them, experience them. This is where the poet can help us. The poet is not a professional wordsmith so much as one who sees the world obliquely, and eccentrically (that is "off-center", the center being the culturally defined reality). "By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fastball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace... It is the steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age." (Brueggemann, p.3)

There is irony in the fact that the word poet is from the Greek "to make," for the reality they "make" their way toward, and to which they invite us, is not "made" but given. It is a finding of our way back to an original reality, a by-passing of the humanly constructed world-as-is, to a given world of being, of paradise, of innocence, of no-thing. In the words of another poet: "And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." (T.S.Eliot, "Little Gidding")

The great paradox in the call of the poet/prophet to be "makers of new possibilities," is that the call includes becoming "un-makers" as well- un-makers of old patterns and layers that keep new possibilities in check. This is the prophetic challenge of the poet/prophet. "To prophesy is not to predict, but to seize upon reality in its moment of highest expectation and tension toward the new. This tension is discovered not in hypnotic elation but in the light of everyday experience." (Raids, p.159) The possibility exists everyday, and in each moment, to perceive our ordinary lives as an extraordinary gift of possibility and mutuality. If but the "doors of our perception were cleansed" we might well see infinity in a grain of sand.

And, the paradox continues because the new possibilities are not so new, but emerge from the original ground of our God-given interconnectedness. As Merton puts it: "That which is oldest is most new... What is really new is what was there all the time. The really new is that which at every moment, springs freshly into new existence." (McDonnell,p.74) The extraordinary possibility is living connected to this old/new God-given reality. It is to see through the transparency of the foreground to the "hidden ground of love." And, it is finally, a living out with compassion and love the indescribable reality of our interconnectedness in the "hidden wholeness."

NOTE: This paper was originally delivered at the Fourth General Meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society, held at Saint Bonaventure University, June 1995. The phrase "Makers of extraordinary possibilities" was one of the main sections of Lawrence Cunningham's springboard address entitled; "Harvesting New Fruits: Merton’s Message to Poets.")


Brueggemann, Walter, Finally Comes the Poet, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1989.
Capps, Walter, The Monastic Impulse, Crossroad, NY 1983.
Del Prete, Thomas, Thomas Merton and the Education of the Whole Person, Religious Education Press, Birmingham, 1990
King, Martin Luther, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Melvin Washington, Editor, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1986.
McDonnell, Thomas, Through the Year with Thomas Merton, Image Books, Garden City, New York, 1985.
Merton, Thomas, Raids on the Unspeakable, New Directions, 1966.
The Springs of Contemplation, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1992.
Padovano, Anthony, The Human Journey, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. 1982.
Pennington, M. Basil, A Retreat With Thomas Merton, Element, Rockport, MA 1988.

Richard Fournier is Pastor of the historic Old First Church, Springfield, Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to Merton conferences in Europe and the United States.

This paper was originally delivered at the Fourth General Meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society, held at Saint Bonaventure University, June 1995.

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Richard Fournier.
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