• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
Thinking Out Loud

Thomas Merton's 'Plowed Soul'

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of “Thinking Out Loud.” E-mail us!

Plowed Soul

The sun as it rises casts long shadows across the furrowed fields surrounding Gethsemani Abbey south of Bardstown, Kentucky. A tractor makes its way steadily along, plowing the waiting soil, breaking and turning the earth, preparing the ground to receive seeds for a new crop. In the plow's wake, a cloud of black birds rise, shift and alight on the newly plowed ground making a meal of whatever is unearthed.

Standing in the breeze on a hill above Gethsemani, the loamy aromas of the earth rising, you see fields gracing the rolling terrain, greens, browns and golds beneath a blue sky, the soft curvatures of nature cradling the sharper lines made by human hands. Hummus yielding to humanity. Plowing makes the land ours and places our productive mark upon it.

There's a passage in Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain in which he speaks of his "plowed soul." Merton is sitting in worship, a "low Mass," listening to a sermon, reflecting on his own "infidelities" during the years when he refused to yield to God. He ponders the idea that perhaps God had withheld grace from him out of mercy, because God could see that he wasn't ready for faith, that he would only "waste and despise" grace and end up in ruin.

"For there is no doubt that one of the reasons why grace is not given to souls is because they have so hardened their wills in greed and cruelty and selfishness that their refusal of it would only harden them more. ... But now I had been beaten into the semblance of some kind of humility by misery and confusion and perplexity and secret, interior fear, and my ploughed soul was better ground for the reception of good seeds." [Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1948/1978), p. 210]

A synonym for "plowed" is the word "harrowed." While "plowed" has an almost peaceful feel about it, bringing to mind the image of a field of gently turned rows, the sort of scene we see from a hilltop, the word "harrowed" takes us down to field level, reminding us of the process of plowing, the violent cutting and forced turning of the packed earth, the rending, tearing and breaking of the soil that is necessary for seeds to be planted and to grow. Both words speak to the potential of new life, but “harrowed” reminds us that growth is not without discomfort and pain.

Merton's idea of God plowing his soul might rankle some contemporary sensibilities. It is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's well-known comment: "We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us, we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be." Merton seems to share something of the understanding of God we find in John Donne's Holy Sonnets, where violent images are used to describe God's shaping of the poet's soul, or in George Herbert's image of a priest being "annealed" like stained glass in God's furnace so divine light can show through his life. Again, such a view of God is distasteful to many today, and for good reason. Such a theology has been used to justify not only a sadistic god, but to excuse the most cruel, violent and abusive of human behavior.

Yet saints, from ragged Anthony the Great, taunted and tempted in his Egyptian desert, to Lady Julian of Norwich, wracked by her physical suffering, have found in and through their emotional, spiritual and physical trials the loving transformative purposes of God being hammered out. Perhaps we can only speak confessionally of such experiences in our own lives. Certainly we do well to resist speaking prescriptively to others. But many have found comfort in their perception that God worked through their suffering to transform them.

It is significant, I think, that immediately after Merton comments about his "plowed soul," he describes the experience of walking out along the street at the end of worship that day, though he remained (in his words) "only a blind and deaf and dumb pagan as weak and dirty as anything that ever came out of the darkness of Imperial Rome or Corinth or Ephesus." Making his way down Broadway in New York City, suddenly he becomes aware that he is happy, at peace, content with life. "I was not yet used to the clean savor that comes with an actual grace," he writes. (Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 210-211).

But the ploughed ground of Merton's soul was even then being made ready for planting. And he knew that the plowing marks us as God's.

Leave a comment

  • 1044 Alta Vista Road |
  • Louisville, KY 40205 |
  • 800.264.1839 |
  • Fax: 502.895.1096 |
  • Site Map
© Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary