Contemplating Christmas Cards with Thomas Merton

Two days before Christmas in 1949, Thomas Merton returned to his room in Kentucky’s Abbey of Gethsemani and opened his mail.

He had received a postcard bearing Fra Angelico’s golden rendering of the Annunciation, the moment when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary with the invitation to bring God into the world through her own body.

“Late Afternoon,” he recorded in his journal.

The quiet is filled with an altogether different tonality. The sun has moved altogether around and the room is darker. It is serious. The hour is more weary. I take time out to pray.”

Merton moves me in this moment. He takes time with the painting on the postcard. He opens his soul to prayer.

“For a few minutes I stayed silent and didn’t move and listened to the watch and wondered if perhaps I might not understand something of the work Our Lady is preparing,” he continues. “It is an hour of tremendous expectation.”

As Merton enters the scene he is convicted: “I remember my weariness, my fears,” he confesses, “my lack of understanding, my dimness, my sin of over-activity.”

Merton’s action is a lesson in how to pray: to sit in the presence of a biblical scene, to feel one’s distance from the holiness of the moment and yet remain humble before it, open to the possibility of intimate communion with the Lord despite his failings. “I look at the serene, severe porch where Angelico’s angel speaks to her,” he continues. “Angelico knew how to paint her. She is thin, immensely noble, and she does not rise to meet the angel.

He opens his heart and addresses the mother of God, believing in her maternal intercession for all who believe in her Son:

Mother, make me as sincere as the picture. All the way down into my soul, sincere, sincere. Let me have no thought that could not kneel before you in that picture.

A series of podcast conversations that references this entry in Merton’s journal in the fifth episode changed the way I pray with Scripture. Praying with Scripture: Christian Meditation and Contemplation in the Ignatian Tradition on the Discerning Hearts website opens wide the possibilities for us who want to draw closer to God as we meditate on the mystery of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us in this, and every, season.

“The event is situated within a time, a precise time within history,” Gallagher acknowledges. “But the saving power of the event is available to all, to people of all times with the same freshness and richness as when the event originally occurred.”

“In fact, our whole annual liturgical cycle is based on that truth.”

Gallagher explains: “That’s why we celebrate  Christmas Mass on December 25th. Or remember…the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter, or…any of the events in the life of Jesus. We do that not simply to remember events that happened in the past, but through our liturgical celebration, through our presence in the assembly at the Eucharist, as we celebrate these events, we have fresh access to the endless power of grace that was opened up for the world when those events originally happened.”

This truth offers us a great invitation to the mystery of our faith with fresh wonder.

This grace is also available, says Gallagher, in the individual contemplation we may make at home, or in a church, or wherever we find ourselves disposed to contemplate Christ.

Even before an image on a Christmas card.

Seeing Mary and Joseph and the newborn child, Gallagher says, our heart can be freshly touched with “the light and the simplicity and the warmth and the love and the richness of that gospel scene.”

Merton accepted the grace of his moment before the Christmas postcard in 1949, but Gallagher reminds us that we can also receive the grace that is “forever and always endlessly available to every member of the Church, the grace which entered the world when that event happened historically 2000 years ago” when we make ourselves present to these mysteries today.

I need that “forever and always endlessly available” grace.

At the end of this dark year, we hunger for innocence, delight and beauty. God has made these things continually available to us as we bring his mysteries forward right here, right now.

Merton’s poem “A Christmas Card,” written in 1947, offers this encouragement:

Look down and offer Him.
The dim adoring light of your belief.
Whose small Heart bleeds with infinite fire.

And one by one the shepherds, with their snowy feet,
Stamp and shake out their hats upon the stable dirt,
And one by one kneel down to look upon their Life.

My heart kneels at the thought.

In in the hope of a Christmas card image, I may joyful join Merton in speaking aloud his fearless question:

Shall not this Child
(When we shall hear the bells of His amazing voice)
Conquer the winter of our hateful century?

Shall Christ not conquer the hate in my heart even now at the end of this hateful year?

He can. He will.

Mother, make me as sincere as the picture. All the way down into my soul, sincere, sincere.”

Let earth receive her King.

Merry Christmas, dear readers. If you know someone who would enjoy this post, please share Sparrowfare and invite others to subscribe here.

You might also like Conversion at the Crèche: A Poem for the Unfinished Soul.

I highly recommend Praying with Scripture: Christian Meditation and Contemplation in the Ignatian Tradition on the Discerning Hearts website and wherever you get your podcasts. If you want to make more time for prayer in 2021, this series of seven conversations would be a great place to start.

Do you have a podcast recommendation for growing closer to Christ? Please share below!

Photo by Nikola Jelenkovic on Unsplash. Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation and Giovanni Lanfranco’s Nativity courtesy of Wikipedia.