To mark what would have been Thomas Merton's 99th birthday, a reflection and poem from the great spiritual writer that appeared in our pages in 1963.
In comment: This poem is only a partial and ambivalent statement. It is generated by tensions and perplexities which call, perhaps, for mention, for they express themselves in a general air of disillusionment. But I am not disillusioned with the idea of space exploration as such. On the contrary, this fantastic endeavor seems to me, in spite of various abuses, to be, in the classical sense of the word, “magnificent.” It is a noble, incomparably lavish expression of man’s intelligence and his courage.
I do not regard the exploration of space in itself as a Promethean impiety: quite the contrary. It is something which man should do because he is the son of God and the master of God’s creation. And if the space man is in all truth a sample of what the man of the future might turn out to be, then I think I like him. I find him admirable. By his patience, his humility, his courageous and simple ability to co-operate in infinitely tiresome programs, he is worthy to inherit the earth. Provided he does not forget there are other and deeper explorations to which he is called, with or without the encouragement of his society.
However, that is not what the poem is about. It has really nothing to do with the flesh-and-blood space men who have made the headlines, but about the headlines themselves. It is about the image, the fabricated illusion, the public and international daydream of space and space men. This is less magnificent. It is pitiably shallow, bedeviled with ambiguities and nonsense, a front for great crass power plays and Cold-War chicanery.
The poem is in a minor key because it takes account of this less charming aspect of the second most enormous and second most wasteful of our great international games. The best thing about this game, however, is that it does not threaten our survival. This, at least, can be said in its favor.
Brooding and seated at the summit
Of a well-engineered explosion
He prepared his thoughts for fireflies and warnings
Only a tourist only a shy American
Flung into public sky by an ingenious weapon
Prepared for every legend
His space once visited by apes and
No longer perfectly pure
Still proffered virginal joys and free rides
In his barrel of fun
A starspangled somersault
A sky-high Mother’s Day
Four times that day his sun would set
Upon the casual rider
Streaking past the stars
At seventeen thousand miles per hour
Our winning Rover delighted
To remain hung up in cool hours and
Smiling and riding in eternal transports
Even where a dog died in a globe
And still comes round enclosed
In a heaven of Russian wires
Uncle stayed alive
Gone in a globe of light
Ripping around the pretty world of girls
“It will be fun,” he thinks
“If by my cunning flight
The ignorant and Africans become
Convinced of what? Nobody knows
And Major is far out
Four days ahead of his own news
Until at last the shy American smiles
Colliding once again with air fire and
To stand on noisy earth
And engineer consent
Consent to what? Nobody knows
What engine next will dig a moon
What costly uncles stand on Mars
What next device will fill the air with burning dollars
Or else lay out the low down number of
What day? May we consent?
Consent to what? Nobody knows,
Yet the computers are convinced
Fed full of numbers by the True