Thomas Merton: Transformation in Discovery

In his penetrating book on the Psalms – Bread in the Wilderness – Thomas Merton, after having established the way in which all of the Scriptures can be said to speak of Christ (the typological or ‘spiritual’ sense so beloved of the Fathers), spends one short chapter developing this idea of a Christological reading of the sacred texts, by examining how it is that we can ‘enter into’ them and, by doing so, allow the Word to transform us. This way of reading the Bible, which does not replace but complements and augments the literal sense of Scripture, had been commonplace in the Church until very recently, and has both an Apostolic (c.f.; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; Romans 5:14; 1 Peter 3:20-22) and Dominical (c.f.; Luke 24:25-27, 44-47; John 2:18-22) pedigree.

As tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, I thought Merton’s words could perhaps be a useful guide as to how we may use the period of Lent to reflect more on how God speaks to us through the Bible, particularly with respect to the Psalms, which simultaneously convey a rich variety of human experience and provide moments of great transparency to what God is trying to say to us. His main concern throughout the book is that we recover the knowledge that God really is speaking to us through Scripture, and that this is only truly possible when we see both Testaments as a narrative unity, which is revealed in the light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection:

When we bring our sorrows to the Psalter we find all our spiritual problems mirrored in the inspired words of the Psalmist. But we do not necessarily find these problems analysed and solved. Few of the Psalms offer us abstract principles capable of serving as a ready and sensible palliative for interior suffering. On the contrary, what we generally find is a suffering just as concrete as our own, and more profound…

…What were the dispositions of the saints and the Fathers in chanting such…? They entered into the “action” of the Psalm. They allowed themselves to be absorbed in the spiritual agony of the Psalmist and of the One he represented. They allowed their sorrows to be swallowed up in the sorrows of this mysterious Personage and then they found themselves swept away, on the strong tide of his hope, into the very depths of God.

Bread in the Wilderness (1953), pp.66-67, Hazell, Watson and Viney Ltd.

            By seeing Christ in the poetic evocations and textures of the Psalms, past generations of Christians thus found it much easier to hear His voice, and that of His Body the Church (whose type is the people of Israel) whether this be in suffering, in praise, in bereavement or in joy. They then found it much easier to enter into the experiences of our Lord and ‘offer up’ their own experiences to be united with Him, thus allowing those experiences to become sanctified, even transfigured somehow, by the mystery of Christ and His Cross:

We too, when we chant these verses as the old saints must have chanted them, experience the truth of which the Fathers reveal to us in their writings. We find out that when we bring our own sorrows and desires and hopes and fears to God and plunge them all into the sorrows and hopes of the mysterious One who sings this Psalm, a kind of transubstantiation is effected. We have put all that we have – or rather all our poverty – into the hands of Christ. He who is Everything and has everything pronounces over our gift words of His own. Consecrated by contact with the poverty He assumed to deliver us, we find that in His poverty our poverty becomes infinite riches: in His sufferings our defeats are transubstantiated into victory, and His death becomes our everlasting life.

ibid, p.67.

            Here we can begin to see that the reading of Scripture, done in the right spirit, can be a truly sacramental experience, wherein genuine contact with God is enabled via this uniting of our experiences with His. The thing that Merton most counsels against during his book though, is in trying to obtain an aesthetic or psychological impact such as we may gain from engagement with a particularly powerful work of art. The encounter we seek (and can gain) with God through Scripture is one that requires humility and faith on our part. We must believe that it is Christ who is spoken of in the sacred texts, and that we need to meet Him there – only then can we receive the grace which transforms:

The acceptance of this grace of recognition, in which the Spirit signifies to us, by the touch of a secret experience, that Christ speaks, sings, suffers, triumphs in a Psalm, is a new awakening to our own divine sonship. We lift up our heads in the valley of the shadow and we draw breath, and light momentarily trembles in our eyes that have been too long filled with the waters of death. Then our spirit cracks the walls of its tomb with something of the power Christ shed into our souls on the morning of His Resurrection…

…We are fulfilled by an Identity that does not annihilate our own, which is ours and yet is “received”. It is a Person eternally other than ourselves who identifies Himself perfectly with ourselves. This Identity is Christ, God. We discover something of the theological reality that human nature has been, by Him, not absorbed, but assumed.

ibid, pp.69-70.

            So Merton’s conclusion here returns to the essential fact underlying all his discussion of a properly Christological reading of the Psalms – namely that it is the Incarnation which makes any of this possible. That our encounter with the divine can be mediated by anything material, whether this be the printed page, or the water of baptism, is simply an extension of the marvellous act of divine humility that took place when the Word of God assumed human nature to Himself – which, as Merton points out, is a very different thing from absorption.

God wants to meet us, to transform us, to save us from our sins, and is willing to use any means to make this happen. He has humbled, and continues to humble Himself in this way; the central question we must ask ourselves during Lent is how much are we willing to humble ourselves and turn from our self-love in order to receive the graces He wishes to pour out into our souls? Thomas Merton has shown here what rich blessings may be ours if we approach the treasures of revelation with humility, and faith. If these are increased in us during this Lenten season, we will receive even greater joys at Easter.


2 thoughts on “Thomas Merton: Transformation in Discovery

  1. Very nice post. Thanks for posting in time for Lent. As part of my studies last semester, we were required to read the entire book of Psalms in one sitting, each month. I can tell you a couple of things: 1. It took me about 5 hours. 2. the first time it was very disorienting, I came out of my study feeling like I had been on a trip, and everything looked like I hadn’t seen it in a while. 3. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. I stole that from somewhere… anyway, Christologically is a very appropriate way to read the Psalms – Augustine found Jesus everywhere in them, and if you read them as if Jesus wrote them himself it is very edifying as you think through the events of his life.

    Thanks again.


    • Thanks again for your kind words, and thank you for sharing your experiences with the Psalms – most interesting. That really does sound like an experience that would make you look at the world differently – might give it a go some time!

      And yes, I am just starting to appreciate how reading the Psalms (as well as the whole OT) through a Christological lens can open up great insights into the life and heart of Jesus. I’d accepted the principle for a fair while, but am only recently beginning to put it into practice.

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