On Prayer and Poetry


Thomas Merton

by Joe Linker

What is prayer? When I was a kid, I learned the Catholic prayers, and believed Sister Mary Annette, who liked to quote Shakespeare, when she said, “Words without thought never to heaven go.” King Claudius is trying to pray, looks like he is praying, to Hamlet, anyway, and so Hamlet decides to put off killing him, for fear that if the king is killed while praying, he’ll go to heaven, while Hamlet wants full revenge, not to send his uncle to an unjust reward. What Hamlet doesn’t realize is that while Claudius’s “words fly up, [his] thoughts remain below.” Annette waxed literary, incomparable to none.

Impossible to know with certainty if the thoughts of others are wedded to their words, so I don’t know if I alone among Annette’s 8th grade class had this problem, but my rote prayers were recited much like Malachy McCourt explains in his book “A Monk Swimming.” He had misheard “amongst women” in the prayer known as the “Hail Mary.” But if his thoughts were behind his words, applying Claudius’s rule, I suppose Malachy’s monk swimming would have made it into heaven. If I had said “a monk swimming,” my thoughts would have been about the surf down the road from our church.

Salinger’s Franny gets caught up with prayer, and one day, her brother Zooey explains the alleged benefits of the pilgrim’s prayer to his mother, who has expressed some concern for what Franny’s getting into: “And the main idea is that it’s not supposed to be just for pious bastards and breast-beaters,” Zooey says. “You can be busy robbing the goddam poor box, but you’re to say the prayer while you rob it.” The argument of the pilgrim’s prayer, in Zooey’s explanation, seems to run counter to the “words without thought” school of prayer.

Hemingway’s characters are often caught in prayer, or anti-prayer. Consider the waiter’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, in the short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name….” And, “I don’t love anybody,” Krebs tells his mother in “Soldier’s Home.” “Now you pray,” his mother tells him. “I can’t,” he says. In the short piece titled “Chapter VII” in “The First Forty-Nine Stories,” a soldier caught in battle prays, “Dear jesus please get me out.” He makes promises to Jesus, bargains for his life, and “The shelling moved further up the line,” but “The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.”

What happens when Jesus gets prayers at odds, opposing viewpoints? Athletes often pray. A ballplayer will make the sign of the cross at the plate just before a pitch. Does this give the batter a kind of steroid-prayer advantage? But couldn’t the pitcher simply counter with a prayer of his own, just before delivery? Do the prayers then cancel out? But something has to happen to the pitch: call strike, ball, foul ball, base hit. But is this what prayer is supposed to be about? On the other hand, given the pilgrim’s prayer premise, why not position oneself in constant prayer? Baseball is a game of inches.

I pray you, is the idea of prayer to be always asking for something? But prayers are often made for the benefit of others. Praying for peace would seem to benefit everyone. We might pray for rain, or for a dry spell, for sun or shade, for our horse to finish first. If we have everything we need or want, should we then stop praying? But we might pray we don’t lose something, or that someone else gets everything they need or want. Is there ever enough prayer?

We pray for peace, health, safety, security. We pray for stuff. We pray that there be more stuff, and less stuff. Different kinds of stuff. Not everyone prays, of course, but if prayer is a question, surely everyone has a prayer at some point. What is gambling but a prayer, a prayer to the god of luck. John Cage said “…nothing is accomplished by writing, hearing, playing a piece of music; our ears are now in excellent condition.” Probably the same might be said of poetry. Not much accomplished there, either, and the most accomplished poets seem to know this, which improves the condition of their voice. Can the same be said of prayer?

Last year, New Directions published a small book collecting selections of Thomas Merton’s writing, titled “On Christian Contemplation.” For Merton, prayer seems to be a kind of poetry, but only after acknowledging a marketplace uselessness of both; and prayer, like poetry, might also transcend doctrine: “…ascending the slopes in darkness, feeling more and more keenly his own emptiness, and with the winter wind blowing cruelly through his now tattered garments, he meets at times other travelers on the way, poor pilgrim as he is, and as solitary as he, belonging perhaps to other lands and other traditions. There are of course great differences between them, and yet they have much in common.” Merton felt “much closer to the Zen monks of ancient Japan than to the busy and impatient men of the West.” He characterized these men as thinking “in terms of money, power, publicity, machines, business, political advantage, military strategy – who seek, in a word, the triumphant affirmation of their own will, their own power, considered as the end for which they exist.”

This does not mean that in prayer one escapes one’s responsibilities for putting bread on the table. This is a problem for poets, of course, too: “Simply to evade modern life would be a futile attempt to abdicate from its responsibilities [while clinging to its advantages. The way of contemplation is a way of higher and more permanent responsibilities] and a renunciation of advantages – and illusions,” Merton says.

The modern world presents problems for the poet and the prayer: “Can contemplation still find a place in the world of technology and conflict which is ours?” Peace, and wholeness, Merton argues, are not “the most salient characteristics of modern society.” No kidding. Yet, “What is keeping us back from living lives of prayer? Perhaps we really don’t want to pray. This is the thing we have to face.” But, if we do want to consider prayer, or contemplation, or poetry, how do we go about it? “If you want a life of prayer, the way to get it is by praying,” Merton says.

How does one pray? Merton says, “The best thing beginners…can do…is to acquire the agility and freedom of mind that will help them to find light and warmth and ideas and love for God everywhere they go and in all that they do. People who only know how to think about God during fixed periods of the day will never get very far in the spiritual life. In fact, they will not even think of Him in the moments they have religiously marked off for ‘mental prayer.’” And “mental prayer” is an awkward term, because we don’t pray with our minds, Merton explains.

But to return to the idea of uselessness, of prayer and of poetry, commercial uselessness, worldly uselessness: Merton says, “Christ does not control by power; further He does not control by law. This is one of the most important and neglected features of the New Testament.” Not everyone feels the need to enter into contemplation, prayer, or poetry, but that does not mean the need is not there, seeded within the individual soul. While at the same time one’s personal anguish might be so intense or one’s perspective so hurt as to call forth a dismissal of God and Christ and all the baggage one feels associated with the church and its people and prayer and what one sees to be the hypocrisy and futility of it all. So, “How does the theology of prayer approach this problem?” Merton asks. “Not by reasoning but by symbol, by poetic insight, leading directly to those depths of the heart where these matters are experienced and where such conflicts are resolved.”

On the other hand, one might want for something simple, a simple prayer, a simple poem. One shouldn’t have to google a prayer or a poem to enjoy the moment. To google literature, in a search for meaning, is to ruin a good meal. The same might be said for church prayer, church being the place where we google our souls, but any book might work, Merton says, and reading prayers out of a book, or reading a book as a prayer “is a good thing to do and very easy and simple.”

Why pray? “The real purpose of meditation is this,” Merton says: “To teach a man how to work himself free of created things and temporal concerns, in which he finds only confusion and sorrow.” Still, we might find ourselves bored with all of this, with the idea we are going to spend any time away from our busy schedules on something as trivial as prayer or poetry. We want to feel productive. We want to help others. We’ll go to church, appear to be part of some community, put some bills in the basket, sprinkle some holy water on our face, just in case there really is something to all the hocus-pocus. For the bored or busy, Merton seems to advise to not only get it while we can but where we can: “Learn how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus or riding in a train.” One can pray “with few words or none…half-hopeless.” There are poems like this, or there should be.

There’s a chapter in the little Merton book titled “Silence.” Did Merton read John Cage? Merton says, “Whether the house be empty or full of children, whether the men go off to town or work with tractors in the fields, whether the liner enters the harbor full of tourists or full of soldiers, the almond tree brings forth her fruit in silence.” Another chapter is titled “Difficulties & Distractions.” One can’t escape all of one’s difficulties or distractions, even in prayer. Hamlet said he could bound himself in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space – were it not that he has bad dreams. Of this kind of tension, Merton says, “Do not strain yourself trying to get ideas or feel fervor. Do not upset yourself with useless efforts to realize the elaborate prospects suggested by a conventional book on meditation.”

“Everything good that comes to us and happens in prayer is a grace and a gift of God,” Merton says. “Even the desire to pray at all, and the attempt to pray, is itself a great grace.” Does this mean that God has ignored many of us, who may not feel this call to pray? Ah, but what is prayer? This claim of Merton’s rings true, pray or not: “The mere fact of having an opportunity to pray is something for which we should be deeply grateful.” Grateful, too, for the opportunity to contemplate poetry, to read, or even to try to write a poem.

There’s a wonderful poem included in the Merton book, called “Song for Nobody.” It seems to embody some of Merton’s idea of prayer:

A yellow flower
(Light and spirit)
Sings by itself
For nobody.

A golden spirit
(Light and emptiness)
Sings without a word
By itself.

Let no one touch this gentle sun
In whose dark eye
Someone is awake.

(No light, no gold, no name, no color
And no thought:
O, wide awake!)

A golden heaven
Sings by itself
A song to nobody.

Merton advocated contemplation in an age of distraction, where we might become free of anxiety and anguish magnified by the reckoning and wreckage surrounding us. And John Cage said nothing is accomplished with music, thus freeing our ears to all sounds. Cage said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.” Maybe Shakespeare’s King Claudius should not be trusted when he says “words without thought never to heaven go.” Words without thought may indeed be the lingua franca of heaven, thoughts without words the mother tongue of heaven.

I confess I do not know how to pray, not in Merton’s view, where one prays with every breath one takes. And I have typically prayed only with reason, and with words, and this seems the wrong approach. One should pray without reason, and without words. Prayer occurs in the act of contemplation, then it disappears. Poetry occurs in the act of writing, then it disappears. “A poem should be wordless,” Archibald MacLeish said, “As the flight of birds.” Relax, Merton says. Make a poem a prayer. If no one reads it, if no one wants it, maybe God will accept it. For readers who have read to the bottom of this post, consider it a poem; for those who have ignored it, it’s a prayer, one with far too many words.

Piece originally published at The Coming of the Toads | Creative Commons License