Poesie: Merton’s Epitaph for John Paul

This is possibly the saddest poem I have ever read.

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Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveler

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrow lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed –
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.

When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring;
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
and buy your back to your own land:
The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: They call you home.

~ Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968)

Thomas Merton wrote the above poem after learning of the death of his brother John Paul, who had been in the American Air force in WWII, and stationed in Oxfordshire at the time:

Reverend Father (…) read me the telegram that Sergeant J. P. Merton, my brother, had been reported missing in action on April 17th [1943].

I have never understood why it took them so long to get the telegram through.  April 17th was already ten days ago – the End of Passion Week.

Some more days went by, letters of confirmation came, and finally, after a few weeks, I learned that John Paul was definitely dead.

The story was simply this.  On the night of Friday the sixteenth, which had been the Feast if Our Lady of Sorrows, he and his crew had taken off their bomber with Mannheim as their objective.  I never discovered whether they crashed on the way out or on the way home, but the plane came down in the North Sea.  John Paul was severely injured in the crash, but he managed to keep himself afloat, and even tried to support the pilot, who was already dead.  His companions managed to float their rubber dinghy and pulled him in.

He was very badly hurt: maybe his neck was broken,  He lay in the bottom of the dinghy in a delirium.

He was terribly thirsty.  He kept asking for water.  But they didn’t have any.  The water tank had broken in the crash, and the water was all gone.

It did not last too long.  He had three hours of it, and then he died.  Something of the three ours of the thirst of Christ Who loved him, and died for him many centuries ago, and had been offered again that very day, too, on many altars.

His companions had more of it to suffer, but they were finally picked up and brought to safety.  But that was some five days later.

On the fourth day they had buried John Paul in the sea.

~ Thomas Merton: The Seven Storey Mountain

2 comments on “Poesie: Merton’s Epitaph for John Paul”

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