Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Thomas Merton’s elegy for his brother

By David King, Ph.D, Commentary | Published May 3, 2019

I celebrated in April, as I always do, National Poetry Month, which has been observed in the United States since 1966. And following Lent and Holy Week, I’m celebrating the season of Easter.

I’ve always found it appropriate that a commemoration of poetry falls within the same month in which we most often celebrate Easter because to me poetry is perfectly suited to themes of renewal and redemption. Poetry, like Christ’s Passion and resurrection, offers indeed, as Robert Frost said, a “momentary stay against confusion.”

Trappist Father Thomas Merton, one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century, is pictured in an undated photo. CNS photo

Surely poetry meant a great deal to Thomas Merton, whose conversion to Catholicism was sparked in part by the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and who was an expert in the poetry of the visionary William Blake.

Merton himself was a poet, a writer inspired by the complementary influences of mysticism and the Beat movement in literature. His massive contribution to spiritual literature often overshadows his poetry, however, and many readers are unaware of just how much poetry Merton wrote. Those who do discover it are often confused by the poems and find them difficult to appreciate. Merton’s poetry, like his visual art, admittedly can be obscure and the work requires patience and discipline to appreciate fully. That’s part of the point; the encounter with the work is meant to be a spiritual exercise.

Yet Merton did write a few poems that are more traditional in form, and among the best of these is the elegy he wrote for his brother John Paul, who had been reported missing in action in World War II and who was later discovered to have died on April 17, 1943 when his plane crashed in the North Sea. The poem appears in Merton’s classic “The Seven Storey Mountain,” untitled, and was later published in Thomas P. McDonnell’s “A Thomas Merton Reader” under the title “For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943.”

Some context is important to appreciate the poem. Merton had been baptized a Catholic in November of 1938, and quickly became certain that he had a religious vocation. Following a series of often disappointing events to discover just what that vocation might be, Merton made a retreat in Holy Week of 1941 at the Trappist Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky. He was so enamored with the experience that he became convinced he was meant to be a Trappist, and by March 1942, he had been accepted into the novitiate. World War II was underway, and Merton’s younger brother John Paul came to visit the monastery before he shipped to England for military service.

While at the Monastery in July of 1942, John Paul expressed a desire to become a Catholic.  He received, with the help of his brother, a rapid series of instructions and was baptized on July 26, 1942 in a Kentucky parish. The next day, he received his first Communion at the Monastery. As Merton recounted, “And so we received Communion together, and the work was done. The next day he was gone. … John Paul turned around and waved, and it was only then that his expression showed some possibility that he might be realizing, as I did, that we would never see each other on Earth again.”

The great mystery of Easter

On Holy Saturday of 1943, a letter arrived from John Paul, who had married and been stationed at a base in England where he had begun flying combat missions. A few days later, on Easter Tuesday, Merton was summoned to the Abbot, who informed him that John Paul had been reported missing in action on April 17. A few weeks later, Merton received word that John Paul had in fact died, and that four days after the plane crash, “they had buried John Paul in the sea.”

Merton’s poetic elegy to John Paul is short, not even 30 lines, yet in five stanzas, Merton affirms the mysteries of human relationships, the redemptive suffering that unifies us with Christ in his own suffering, and our hope in the truth of the resurrection.

Merton mourns his brother as “lost and dead,” yet offers as well to take his place:

“Come, in my labor find a resting place

And in my sorrow lay your head,

Or rather take my life and blood

And buy yourself a better bed

Or take my breath and take my death

And buy yourself a better rest.”

Out of this human agony and grief, Merton makes the connection to Christ’s own Passion:

“When all the men of war are shot

And flags have fallen into dust,

Your cross and mine shall tell men still

Christ died on each, for both of us.”

The poem’s final stanza underscores the fact that Christ’s own passion, though it requires death, does not end in death. The sacrifice of Christ, and his resurrection, “buys you back to your own land,” a land where Christ’s own lamentation for humanity becomes transformative and redemptive. Merton writes that Christ’s “silent tears shall fall/Like bells upon your alien tomb./Hear them and come: they call you home.”

I love the repetition in the sounds of “tomb . . . come . . . home” and the meaning those sounds imply. I love the paradox of silence resounding like bells, that departure equates with homecoming, that one loss becomes the loss of all. Yet in redeeming his brother from death through the elegiac language of the poem, Merton also affirms the great mystery of Easter in Christ’s triumph over death.

And like so much of Merton’s work, both his contemplative spiritual literature and his poetry, John Paul’s elegy becomes like a prayer. Real poetry must transcend the individual to become universal; to paraphrase James Dickey, a good poet can tell you how things are with him, but a great poet can tell you how things are with you.

I often use Merton’s poem for his brother as a prayer of my own, and usually offer it for the souls of those I do not know. Anyone who works in a parish, even if only part-time, becomes familiar with the reality of death; not a month goes by without a funeral. The structure of the liturgical year can become so blurred by a steady procession of baptisms, sacramental rites of passage, weddings, and funerals that those affected by them may be anonymous to us.

Merton’s poem is for his brother, but when utilized as a prayer, it can be a gift for all our brothers who suffer, who grieve, yet who hope always in the promise of Easter.