On Thomas Merton and the Psalms

by the Rev. Amber Carswell


I’ve observed two diametrically opposed approaches to religious life and the pursuit of God.


First is the pursuit of novelty. I don’t think we can often be accused of this in the Episcopal Church, by and large, but the pursuit itself is certainly familiar to all of us in a consumer-driven society. “If I just had this new thing, this new experience, then I would be happy,” we reason, often without words. When I was an evangelical, this pursuit of the new experience of God was paramount. Anything older was recycled, stale; it meant that the fresh and alive Word of God was not being allowed to speak. The nagging sense of unfulfillment could be assuaged by a more powerful and exciting worship experience. But this feeling of renewal lasted momentarily; the cycle of ever more spectacular reinvention was never complete.


In the Episcopal Church, I find much more of the devotion in the opposite direction. It’s a trust in the old, simply for the fact that it is old, “it is what we’ve always done.” There’s a nostalgia that works as powerfully and persuasively as any charismatic renewal I’ve known. It may not reach the emotional vistas of the pursuit of novelty, but it does have equal and opposite allure. It looks backward, and that sense of unfulfillment is again momentarily assuaged by a re-enactment of a time that has been lost.


Thursday, December 10 is Thomas Merton’s feast day. In his autobiography, Merton writes of his early days and his pursuit of novelty, the misspent youth. His frivolous and transitory experiences eventually sent him headlong into a monastic order of Trappists, an order devoted to silence and ancient ways of prayer. Trappist monks pray about four hours a day. If you visit their monasteries, you won’t hear idle chatter because it’s not allowed. You’ll hear the Psalms, chanted mostly.


As Merton dove into these old ways, he found something of the relationship between old and new which speaks to this false dichotomy of nostalgia and novelty. He breaks it down in his little book on the Psalms:


“The Church indeed likes what is old, not because it is old but rather because it is ‘young.’ In the Psalms, we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection. We return the youthful strength and directness with which the ancient psalmists voiced their adoration of the God of Israel. Their adoration was intensified by the ineffable accents of new discovery: for the Psalms are the songs of men who knew who God was. If we are to pray well, we too must discover the Lord to whom we speak, and if we use the Psalms in our prayer we will stand a better chance of sharing in the discovery which lies hidden in their words for all generations.”


Yes, he says, part of this pursuit involves the old and the seasoned. It’s because we, in fact, are not old or seasoned ourselves. Our untrained voices are still young in learning the praises of God. The immediacy and sincerity of the old Psalms bring us into a company just discovering the true and trustworthy things of God. The moment captured is not a reel to play back and mourn its former glory. It’s inviting you into its continuing song. We join in and find ourselves made new, too.


5 thoughts on “On Thomas Merton and the Psalms”

  1. Amber, thank you for raising up the dance between novelty and nostalgia. I love the Psalms and in reading them slowly and out loud, I even occasionally experience what Merton calls “lepoint vierge,” a virgin point at the center of our being, untouched [by sin and] by illusion, a point of pure truth . . . which belongs entirely to God.

  2. Hi Amber. Thanks for this.

    It deepened my understanding of an idea I attribute to Joe Campbell: God puts us in a world of seeming opposites, including – as you and Merton point out – nostalgia and novelty. Even children know you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    To be a grown-up is to able to hold two opposite thoughts at the same time without short-circuiting, and perhaps see that the dichotomy is false, as Merton did, and so figure out how then to act. How then to pray.

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