Christopher Merrill, Feb 07 | Pilgrimage of the Heart – A Writer’s Journey to Mount Athos


Christopher Merrill is director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa (photo by Mark Paul Petrick).

CHRISTOPHER MERRILL’S books include four collections of poetry, among them Watch Fire, for which he received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets, and four books of nonfiction. He works as a literary critic and journalist, and his writings have been translated into 25 languages. He now directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He and his wife, the violinist Lisa Gowdy-Merrill, have two daughters, Hannah and Abigail.

The most recent of his four non-fiction books, Things of the Hidden God (Random House, 2005), is a gripping account of the transforming pilgrimages he made to Mount Athos, in northern Greece, in the aftermath of his reporting on the Balkan wars. He writes: “It was time for me to come to terms with the way my life had turned out: the love I had squandered, the misgivings I had about my vocation and my faith, the dread I felt at every turn.” Merrill and I discussed this journey in an email correspondence while he was in London in early January.

Meg White: In Things of the Hidden God, you write about a personal transformation stemming from of a time of deep despair. You have said that in making these pilgrimages to Mount Athos [a small peninsula in the Aegean Sea with 20 monasteries and more than 2,000 monks], you traded “the physical risks of covering the breakup of Yugoslavia for the psychic ones of opening your heart to the possibility of grace.” This was a search, it could be said, for the redemptive power of God’s love. In this respect I consider your book to be a great love story, would you agree?

Christopher Merrill: Very much so. In this book I tried to come to terms with various forms of love—spiritual, physical, marital, filial, paternal, vocational—because the crises I was navigating through an ancient faith were all rooted in love—of the world, of my wife and infant daughter, of poetry. Several years of war reporting had brought into sharp relief the consequences of not attending to what most mattered in my life, and my sense of being unmoored from all that I loved carried for me spiritual significance; hence the desire to go on a pilgrimage, with the hope that I might find my way back to the center.

Can you tell us about your religious background?

I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, where I remain, notwithstanding my attraction to Orthodoxy. My uncle, who is my godfather, is an Episcopal priest, my spiritual father is a monk in the Old Calendar Church, and so I am torn between these two glorious traditions. I am trying to discern my way forward.
In the book, you write about the inherent problem of the Western, skeptically trained mind wrestling with the concept that insight trumps logic. In this interpretation of the Gospels, the invisible outweighs what we can see with the naked eye—not unlike the difference between fact and metaphor, or prose and poetry—and a direct experience with God means more than rational proof of his existence. How did you put aside your rational, intellectual mind in order to experience God personally? And do you think you would have undertaken this search if not for the despair you found yourself in?

First, it is important to note that I was seeking not to convert to Christianity but rather to deepen the faith that I had practiced since childhood. But, as you rightly note, this requires a continual opening of one’s heart to the possibility of grace—not exactly a hot topic of conversation on the literary circuit. Nor does this leap into the dark require a divorce between faith and reason. Many great writers through the ages have been believers, and no one questions their intellectual gifts. Faith can be informed by doubt, which is why the pillars of Orthodox theology—penitence, purification, and prayer—are designed to serve whatever intellectual bearing one might possess. Indeed, my spiritual father, who has a doctorate in psychology, is better versed in the scientific method than many atheists I know, and I would never presume to question his analytical powers. Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, there is more mystery to the universe than anyone can account for.

As for my own search: no doubt despair played a crucial role in my decision to travel to Mount Athos. And what I learned there is that whatever progress I might make in the spiritual life will be conditioned by my willingness to open myself up to God. Needless to say, I have a very long way to go.

Do you think poetry may be more helpful to the reader in abandoning the rational mind and opening it to the possibility and mystery of the experience of grace?

The experience of reading and writing poetry is not a matter of abandoning one’s rational thought processes, but of opening oneself up to another way of thinking, which embodies the full range of mental activity—imaginative and discursive, analytical and rhythmical. This is not unlike the experience of prayer, particularly the praying of the Psalms, which are poetry of the highest order: one hundred and fifty divine gifts.

On this topic, what do you consider to be the relationship between poetry and God?

I had the good fortune at Epiphany to attend the sung Eucharist in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where John Donne preached in the 1620s, and in his poems and sermons he spells out the proper relationship between mankind and God, which of course includes poetry and which may be summed up in one of his lines: “All the way to Heaven is Heaven.”

Who are the poets you consider to be the most sacred? You’ve called Emily Dickinson “the mother of our poetic search for the divine”? Who else do you especially admire?

The Psalmist, Chaucer, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Hopkins, Hardy, Frost, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, St.-John Perse, Breton, Char, Elytis, Seferis, Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Montale, Lowell, Bishop, Wilbur, Merwin, Geoffrey Hill, John Ashbery—the list is endless.

Do you have any psalms that are particular favorites?

Psalm 22, the psalm of Christ’s Passion.

You say you find the school of confessional poets boring and yet you have written a memoir—a genre many consider confessional by nature? What do you consider to be the difference between these two?

What bores me is derivative literature, whether it is confessional, surrealist, traditional, or experimental. Period styles—and I have lived through several literary periods—are the background noise in which the writer seeks to hear his or her own voice. Yes, my book is confessional, but I hope that it also contains enough vivid description of Mount Athos, its landscape, churches, art, and holy men, as well as of its history and theology, to raise the narrative above the standard memoir. My experience is less important than what I might convey about the mystery and importance of this sacred place.

W. S. Merwin said of Things of the Hidden God, “Mr. Merrill’s intimately conceived and beautifully told tribute to his deepening relation to the lure of Athos and its traditions, and the discoveries to which it has led him, is a rich and revealing personal chronicle.” High praise, indeed! I will forever associate Merwin with William Stafford. Merwin, our most elegant living poet, read at Shambaugh shortly after Stafford’s death. He said Stafford was one of those rare things—a truly great poet and, also, a truly decent human being. Stafford was a man of great faith. What are the ways in which your search for and faith in God have influenced your work and character? Do you feel it has it made you a better poet and person?

What good fortune it has been for me to know and be friends with William Merwin. My wife and I used to take care of his house, dogs, and magnificent gardens in Maui, and I remember those weeks tending to thousands of endangered palms that he had saved from around the world as a blessing. His poetry, prose, and translations; his independence and integrity; his kindness—these are for me a model of being in the world.
I feel a similar gratitude toward William Stafford, although I did not know him very well. But his ideas about writing, his attentiveness, his basic decency were from the beginning a spur to me. And I continue to read his poems with great pleasure.

Christian doctrine makes plain that God will judge the role that faith has played in my own work and character. Like any sinner, I can only pray for mercy.

Would you talk about the ways in which your faith has evolved since the writing of the book?

I suspect that one’s faith evolves often in ways that one may not grasp until much later—if at all. I hope—and I pray daily—that my faith is deepening.

Do you, or have you, ever pray(ed) on your knees?

I have, and I do.

Which do you consider the greater sin: spiritual indifference or the intolerance and hatred preached by some religious leaders?

It is not for me to judge the relative gravity of a sin, although it occurs to me that these two sins are related, since each derives from a sense of certainty, either of God’s absence or of His plan for mankind. Uncertainty is my lot, and I am more interested in discerning what God may have in mind for me than in passing judgment on what others believe.

In what ways did you find the ancient ascetic lifestyle at Mount Athos beneficial to your spiritual practice?

Asceticism is integral to mindfulness: one fasts not to starve oneself but to be mindful of one’s appetites. And this holds for every aspect of one’s spiritual practice, which teaches us how to live in the present, while remaining mindful of eternity.

You have said that your experiences in the Balkan wars darkened your view of the world—that the events you witnessed made you question your belief in human decency. Do you believe there is anything to be gained spiritually from suffering?

In my book I discuss theodicy—the Christian doctrine that seeks to account for God’s omnipotence and goodness in the face of evil—and this has given me a framework within which to understand man’s capacity for cruelty, which as we know is limitless. Because we are blessed with free will, we may decide to ignore the moral imperatives spelled out in all of the great religions, as a host of recent examples make plain—9/11, the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, the beheadings in Baghdad. But what faith instills in us is a sense of obligation to counter evil, within and without.

Suffering is integral to existence, and what every religion teaches is how to transform that suffering into faith. This may seem like small consolation in the wake of a tragedy, but it is for many of us what suffices in our darkest moments.

What music moves you, turns you on? Which visual artists?

I am married to a violinist, and so there is classical music playing at all hours of the day and night in my house. I like to listen to everything from medieval chant to Bob Dylan, with a particular interest in folk music. My favorite new band is Destroyer, and I’ve been playing a lot of Keith Jarrett on my travels.

Among visual artists I am drawn especially to Vermeer, Monet, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Chagall, Edward Hopper, Joseph Cornell, and Mark Rothko. I published a book on Georgia O’Keeffe when I lived in Santa Fe, and her vision is an abiding influence on me. Likewise the anonymous icon painters whose works grace the churches on the Holy Mountain. I saw a marvelous exhibit of David Smith’s sculptures at the Tate, which featured an old television interview with Frank O’Hara. The poet’s extraordinarily intelligent consideration of the sculptor’s work has inspired in me new ideas about the relationship between the two art forms.

How do you define love?

There is no better definition of love than what the Apostle wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians—the key passage in the Christian marriage ceremony: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” That Christians often forget their wedding vows is no reason to imagine that Paul’s definition has lost its currency.

Lastly, how do you feel about being referred to as “ever God’s fool”?

I can think of many worse things to be called than that!

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