Poetry is a language often able to penetrate more deeply than prose into the nature of the divine as lover of the soul. One poem in particular, “Pass through My Will”, written by renowned Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton and later put to music by Franciscan John Michael Talbot, stands out as a beautiful example, taking the reader on an interior journey through layers upon layers of spiritual significance and growth. At the same time, it captures the simplicity of a folk song and the heartfelt purity of a romantic ballad. It is vibrantly alive and meant to be sung from the soul.
The mood of the poem is set by the opening invitation, “Come, my love…” We are introduced to a relationship with the divine that is the pinnacle of intimacy and the portal of desire. The words recall the prayer “Veni Sancta Spiritus”, asking the Holy Spirit to visit us and enkindle within us the fire of love. The following request to “pass through my will as through a window” courts a total self-giving by laying down all that one is for the light of the sun to penetrate it, gently yet powerfully, so that lover and beloved may be transformed into one another.
This sacrifice of will highlights the subtle Marian undercurrent of the poem. At the visitation of the angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary chose to surrender her own will so that God could truly “penetrate” her in a singularly astonishing way, causing the Word Made Flesh to enter into human history when the Spirit overshadowed her. It also brings to mind the long held Catholic tradition that the birth of Christ, in addition to His conception, took place in a miraculous manner, “as light passing through glass”, thus enabling Our Lady to forego the usual pains of childbirth.
In the first verse, the poet compares himself to the grass “to be consumed by the rays of the sun.” This burns with a fiery longing for an encounter with a lover. Not just any lover…but the Seed of all love, the Answer to all longing. There is the heat and freshness of youthful eagerness “in the late summer’s morning”, running barefoot through a grassy meadow with reckless abandon. And yet it is not aggressive like a beast, but spontaneous like the flow of a river. It is natural in the bosom of nature. As the grass depends upon the light of the sun for its very existence, so we depend upon the light of the Son for ours.
The poem is particularly striking in its reclamation of sexuality as a sacred, life-giving, unifying expression of a greater spiritual love radiating from within. In Celtic tradition, it is said that the soul is not so much within the body as the body is within the soul, an aura of light that encompasses our beings. At the same time, our “clay homes” serve as instruments of making manifest the deeper movements of the heart. It also allows life to flow through us through the act of procreation, which carries our human adventure into the future in the nurturing of immortal souls. These are the reasons why marriage is such a highly honored sacrament in Christianity, and weddings so gloriously celebrated. The physical is a reflection of the spiritual unity which this poem celebrates, the lifelong bond that makes the couple one both in spirit and in flesh.
While physical relations are certainly the norm in married life, Catholic tradition has had a multifaceted understanding of what might be called “spiritual sexuality”. There was also a deeper understanding that people are called to a variety of different walks in life, and virginal marriage was also an option, as in the case of St. Cecelia, who had taken a vow of perpetual chastity along with her spouse. Nevertheless, her relationship with her husband Valerian was nothing short of rivetingly romantic, as he was spiritually awakened by the purity of her voice, and she would go on to sacrifice her life in order to attend his grave. Similarly, in religious and single vocations, the concept of spiritual union was just as intense and real as any romantic experiences could be. There is a universal romance to which every human being is called: the marriage of the soul to its Source.
With this understanding, the poem calls for the coming of the Divine Lover, as “all through the night I lay longing, eagerly to wait for love’s union”. There is no shame in this, but rather a reveling in the anticipation as it was meant to be, not cheap, not base, but holistic between body and soul. The Divine Bridegroom is being called upon by His bride the Church, that living body and vessel of sacramental grace. The night can be seen as the time before the coming of Christ, when all of humanity awaited the Messiah, when God would come to them and make them whole.
It can also be seen as our own present time, awaiting the consummation of time and space itself when love between God and His people will be “consummated in the light.” In a personal context, it can also be seen as every person’s own struggle to find the divine presence in the here and now, their “dark night of the soul”, as so eloquently described by St. John of the Cross during his years of persecution and imprisonment. It is often in the depths of doubt and despair that our yearning for the light becomes most keen. We yearn for it to cut through the veil of night like a piercing sword of the dawn. We yearn to begin our eternity on earth, to carry us forward into the next when the last vestige of separation will be torn away, like the Temple curtain on the day Christ gave up his spirit.
And so we wait “as dawn’s flower awaits for the wedding with the sun.” This brings to mind how flowers turn towards the light of the sun and open their petals to receive it automatically, instinctively, necessarily. But in a deeper sense, it speaks of the essence of the dawn that cannot be seen, the stream of all being and reality brought to light by the sun. This may be called the first manifestation of “Christ”, as God making the divine presence manifest through the act of physical creation, to be illumined fully through the coming of the Son.
This line can allude to the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle by turning the water jugs into the best wine at his mother’s request. The pagan world had long associated wine with fertility, and their gods of the grape vines commonly doubled as gods of the marriage bed. In this act of Christ, we not only see His honor for his mother, the woman whose body gave him life through God-given, Spirit-shadowed fertility, but also for marriage and procreation in general, as well as the celebration of Life in all its forms. Christ is the fulfillment of Baccus, the true vine that bears the fruit that lives, and grows, and is brought to fruition. He is also the one who must drink the sacrificial cup for that cruelest of wedding feasts, pierced and bleeding wine-red upon the cross.
Lastly, the reference to marriage calls to mind the experiences of the great saints, such as St. Catherine of Sienna, who experienced visions of a mystical marriage to Christ, and a ring encrusted with blood-jewels, like the blood-red wounds of the Bridegroom. Again, we see the pouring of wine, and the kissing of wounds, the embrace of self-giving, to the last drop of our essence, of letting go to the mystery of death, and being rekindled by the hope of resurrection.
The poem goes on to explain that the light is “stealing my heart as a secret.” Again, there is a beautiful level of intimacy and gentility here, for just as the creation of the world was brought into being by a Word, so we can imagine a secret being whispered to us in a passing breeze that travels “under the moments, crossing time”, something so beautiful it takes our breaths away. It is found in what Catholics proclaim as “the visible and the invisible”, what Buddhists denote as “all that is, and all that is not,” and what Sufis call “the will between the scene and the unseen”. It is the Great Secret for which we all seek, that knowing that catches us up in the celestial spiral of the eternal dance.
This line also brings to the fore the subtle vulnerability of love. When we open our hearts to another, we always risk having them broken. And yet that risk is the very groundwork of all that is worthy of experiencing and embracing. We want our hearts to be stolen away, for they were never meant to be for us alone, but for the Other. We were meant to follow the path of Christ, to take up our crosses and follow him, to the point of the spear through our sides. The homonym of “stealing” also comes to mind, in that the light is also “steeling” the heart, making it stronger for the trials to come, and bracing it for the thrust of metal, of all evil that may come our way, and accepting that thrust into the tenderest part of ourselves. We must keep our hearts soft and pliable, and even so, welcome the hurt, arms outstretched.
Directed towards this end, the language of the poem begins to take a slightly darker turn. The light of the divine is also portrayed as a thing of great aloneness, perhaps even a cause for despair, for like the rich young man, we are being asked to give up all that we hold dear in exchange for that which will burn us down to bare bones. We abandon our creature comforts and face ourselves as we truly are in order to face the One who gave us our very being. We become “a vanishing form that leaves no shadows.” Like Moses, our faces have been bleached white by “I Am Who Am.”
There is no hiding, no shielding, no shying away from the light. It is all-consuming and all-encompassing, stripping away all that is unnecessary and penetrating to the primal essence of our soul. We find ourselves “exposed naked, alone, between the heavens and the earth”, torn between comfort and discomfort, twisted in both agony and ecstasy like St. Teresa of Avila being pierced by the angel’s dart. We want it to end, and we want it to go on forever.
Nakedness holds many symbolic meanings. One is naked before a physician seeking to cure the maladies of the body, hearkening back to Christ as the Great Physician, who walked among men with His healing hand extended with mercy towards those in physical and spiritual need. One is naked before a lover in the act of lovemaking, but also naked in a spiritual sense in emotional bonding, which indicates a depth that transcends the merely physical and enraptures the heart. Before the Great Lover, we find ourselves comfortable in our own flesh once more, scarred though we may be, and we know the innocence of Eden when the wind of the Spirit brushed against the branches…and we felt it.
But yet again, comfort contrasts with discomfort, for our stark nakedness before God also implies isolation, complete and unyielding. This ultimate act of love in which we yearn to immerse ourselves is also an embrace of pain and humiliation, of bitter wind against exposed flesh, of the wood of a tree so like the tree of Eden, and flooding the knowledge of good and evil with an outpouring of grace. And if we are to be lover and beloved, we must be prepared to suffer with Him on that cross, naked as He was naked, mocked and scorned and spat upon. It is agony. It is ecstasy. It is forsakenness. It is the eye of the storm of Love. Rejection and loneliness inevitably draw us closer to the fruit of Golgotha and the wine of the mystical wedding feast, “lifted high on the cross with the savior.”
Again, Our Lady may be seen present here, standing beneath the wood of the cross like Eve, the mother of all humanity, had once stood before her tree and ate the fruit to grasp at godhood, while the God-man is drained out, and his mother, blessed among women, is robbed of her only child, the heart of her heart. In this instant, Mary undergoes all the pains of labor which may have been forestalled in the stable, birthing the Universal Church and becoming a Mother for all of all Christians and the help of humanity as a whole, represented by the young John, holding her erect in her own agony. She is the guide through the long night, the lady of life as our life ebbs out apace and we implore, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.”
Pinioned to the cross, this naked exposure is also found in the Body of Christ exposed in the Eucharist, those physical elements lent to him by the body of his mother. Received within our own bodies, we truly enter into “love’s union” in the deepest of ways. We not only kiss the wounds, we consume them, and are consumed by them. In the most physical of physical realities, we are eating of the heart of God, eating of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the living Source and fountain of all life. Blood and water flows within us, and we are beings of sacramental light.
In the next line of the poem, we encounter the paradox of the “life-giving tomb, prepared through the night for dawn’s dying.” Again, there is the reference to the dawn, linked closely with the homonyms of “sun” and “Son”. In the aftermath of the Passion of love and death on the cross, having been uprooted from life itself for the sake of the beloved, Christ is laid to rest. His sleeping place is the tomb, which serves as a second womb from which He will be reborn and with Him “a child, New Jerusalem.” We live by the promise that all is being made new, and in hope that all of us will join him in that act of rising. The Old Covenant has passed over into the New, and the wine of redemption is about to be poured into new wine skins.
There is also the reference to the moon in this stanza, which guides us through the long night and illuminates the mansions of heaven. This can be seen as yet another Marian allegory, as the moon is the ultimate “star of the sea”, commanding the tides of the ocean. It also commonly represents the female complement to the male sun. Also, Lady Moon reflects the glory of Lord Sun and leads us to the break of dawn, as the Virgin Mary directs us to her Son, and guides us across the veil of tears. In mythology, stars are sometimes referred to as “tears of the moon”, which also can be seen as a reference to water and the sea. The moon can also be seen as the bride of Christ, representing all of us, who make up the Body of Christ, the Church. This hearkens back another mythology: how the Sun loved the Moon so dearly, that he died every night so that she might draw breath.
But the sting of death never holds full sway. The light is coming; the darker the night is, the sooner it comes. Nature teaches us this is the cold embrace of winter, when the longest night of the solstice heralds the return of the sun. So it is with Christmas, a celebration of the light coming into the darkness. Perhaps it only now, at the cross and at the tomb, that we realize fully that the darkness could not know it, and would seek to extinguish it. Yet still this light could not be conquered by it. Easter dawns and the evolution of reawakening is realized. The story of regeneration has begun. And so we welcome the illumination into our life, and we shimmer like the rainbow of prisms cast through the stained-glass windows of our souls.
At the end of the poem, the spiritual journey is brought full circle with the line: “I like the grass to be washed by the rains of the sun.” Once again this calls to mind a symbolic nakedness, necessary for bathing and cleansing in the waters of eternal life. It is like the freshness of a bath after having traveled on a long and twisting road, the Royal Road of the Cross. But unlike the earlier reference to “consuming”, the use of “washing” also provides a gentler contrast that reminds one of the gentle rebirth realized through the waters of Baptism. It is when we receive a name, and enter fully into the Christian sacramental life.
As with all romances, the intensity of the language used to describe it has been mellowed, and also perhaps matured, with time, and yet it has also been rejuvenated by experiencing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. We have been drained of our egoism and purified by the fires of Divine Love, transformed and reawakened as spiritual beings, risen to a new state of consciousness. But now, instead of the tension of young passions, we have found balance and equilibrium. Lover and beloved have been joined, and flow together in harmony like a stream of sanctifying grace, or matching footprints on the sands of time and eternity.
Come, my love,
Pass through my will
As through a window
Shine on my life
As on a meadow
I like the grass to be consumed
By the rays of the sun
On a late summer’s morning
Come, my love,
All through the night
I lay longing
Eagerly to wait
For love’s union
Like dawn’s flower awaits
For the wedding with the sun
Consummated in the light
Your light, my love,
Is stealing my heart
As a secret
Like a vanishing form
That leaves no shadows
Exposed naked, alone
Between the heavens and the earth
Lifted high on the cross with the Savior
O life-giving tomb,
Prepared through the night
For dawn’s dying
Like a moon
Like the mansions of heaven
Await the rebirth of a child
So come to my life, Light of Heaven
Come, my love,
Pass through my will
As through a window
Shine on my life
As on a meadow
I like the grass to be washed
By the rays of the sun
On the late summer’s morning