Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

The great spiritual writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote a number of poems in connection with various liturgical days, saints, and Biblical themes and figures. Merton (1915-1968) was a member of the Trappist monastery at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky.

It has been seventy years now since Merton’s first collection of poetry—Thirty Poems—appeared. One of the poems in that collection is “The Flight Into Egypt,” recalling the story from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:13-23) in which Joseph is warned by an angel to take Mary and Jesus and flee into Egypt as Herod plans on executing the infant Jesus. Merton was also greatly troubled by the rise of totalitarianism in the world, and the lines “Squadroned iron resounds upon the streets;/Herod’s police/Make shudder the dark steps of the tenements” evokes the image of a fascist police unit going about its ugly business. I find the words “squadroned iron” particularly effective: I can see the shiny barrels of machine guns and hear jackboots pounding on city streets, although one can easily picture the brutal constabulary of an earlier time.

Giotto di Bondone's "The Flight Into Egypt" (c. 1305-06).

Giotto di Bondone’s “The Flight Into Egypt” (c. 1305-06).

Here is the poem:

Through every precinct of the wintry city
Squadroned iron resounds upon the streets;
Herod’s police
Make shudder the dark steps of the tenements
At the business about to be done.

Neither look back upon Thy starry country,
Nor hear what rumors crowd across the dark
Where blood runs down these holy walls,
Nor frame a childish blessing with Thy hand
Towards that fiery spiral of exulting souls!

Go, Child of God, upon the singing desert,
Where, with eyes of flame,
The roaming lion keeps thy road from harm.

–Thomas Merton, from Thirty Poems (1944)

Luc-Olivier Merson's "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt" (1880).

Luc-Olivier Merson’s “Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” (1880).

Wishing you all once again a festive holiday season, a Merry Christmas, and a prosperous and joyous New Year.

Patrick Kerin


“The Flight Into Egypt” as reprinted in Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, enlarged edition with introduction by Mark Van Doren. New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1967.