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Lions Roar : January 2009
About a Poem: Michael Higgins on Thomas Merton’s “O Sweet Irrational Worship” O SWEET IRRATIONAL WORSHIP Wind and a bobwhite And the afternoon sun. By ceasing to question the sun I have become light, Bird and wind. My leaves sing. I am earth, earth All these lighted things Grow from my heart. A tall, spare pine Stands like the initial of my first Name when I had one. When I had a spirit, When I was on fire When this valley was Made out of fresh air You spoke my name In naming Your silence: O sweet, irrational worship! I am earth, earth My heart’s love Bursts with hay and flowers. Iamalakeofblueair In which my own appointed place Field and valley Stand reflected. I am earth, earth Out of my grass heart Rises the bobwhite. Out of my nameless weeds His foolish worship. THOMAS MERTON, the Trappist monk and prolific writer, who died forty years ago on December 10 in Bangkok, Thailand, was a special student of Zen—of longstanding association, possessed of deep insight, and marked by abiding affection. Many of his works attest to his close familiarity with Zen Buddhism and his impressive correspondence bears ample testimony to his fervor for Catholic–Buddhist dialogue. Author of Mystics and Zen Masters and Zen and the Birds of Appetite, as well as the posthumous collection Encounters: Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki, Merton also wrote many poems that betray an exquisite Zen tonality and wisdom. I have chosen “O Sweet Irrational Worship” from his 1963 volume of verse, Emblems of a Season of Fury. In this poem, simplicity and sparseness of phrasing come together in an act of seemingly effortless art: By ceasing to question the sun I have become light, Bird and wind. My leaves sing. I am earth, earth The speaker is the undifferentiated self; he identifies with nature and does not know an identity distinct from her when he ceases to question what is, and allows what is to be. In this act of “irrational worship” a paradisal innocence is recalled. When I had a spirit, When I was on fire When the valley was Made out of fresh air You spoke my name In naming your Silence: O sweet, irrational worship! The poet longs to restore the integrity and harmony that existed before individual consciousness or reflexive ego-awareness shattered prelapsarian unity. The poet realizes that the only way we can recover paradise is not by ratiocination or systematic inquiry but by a poetic and mystical identification or cosympathy with creation, discovering in its mystery the irrelevance of the “I” and the illusoriness of the empirical self: My heart’s love Bursts with hay and flower. Iamalakeofblueair In which my own appointed place Field and valley Stand reflected. What remains hidden to reason may be known to rapture. This is the language of Zen; this is the wisdom of Zen. Finally, the speaker’s “irrational worship” proclaims the liberating vision of the wholeness of creation: I am earth, earth Out of my grass heart Rises the bobwhite. Out of my nameless weeds His foolish worship. This liberating vision, however, must be sought in solitude and in the emptiness that solitude may bring.♦ PHOTOBYGLENWEHLAN