Poetry, Symbolism and Typology—Thomas Merton

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Now the writers of the Bible were aware that they shared with other religions the cosmic symbols in which God has revealed Himself to all men. But they were also aware that pagan and idolatrous religions had corrupted this symbolism and perverted its original purity [Merton cites Romans 1:18 and 25] The Gentiles had “detained the truth of God in injustice” and “changed the truth of God into a lie.”
Creation had been given to man as a clean window through which the light of God could shine into men’s souls. Sun and moon, night and day, rain, the sea, the crops, the flowering tree, all these things were transparent. They spoke to man not of themselves only but of Him who made them. Nature was symbolic. But the progressive degradation of man after the fall led the Gentiles further and further from this truth. Nature became opaque. The nations were no longer able to penetrate the meaning of the world they lived in. Instead of seeing the sun a witness to the power of God they thought the sun was god. The whole universe became an enclosed system of myths. The meaning and the worth of creatures invested them with an illusory divinity.
Men still sensed that there was something to be venerated in the reality, in the peculiarity of living and growing things, but they no longer knew what that reality was. They became incapable of seeing that the goodness of the creature is only a vestige of God. Darkness settled upon the translucent universe. Men became afraid. Beings had a meaning which men could no longer understand. They became afraid of trees, of the sun, of the sea. These things had to be approached with superstitious rites. It began to seem that the mystery of their meaning, which had become hidden, was now a power that had to be placated and, if possible controlled with magic incantations.
Thus the beautiful living things which were all about us on this earth and which were the windows of heaven to every man, became infected with original sin. The world fell with man, and longs, with man, for regeneration. The symbolic universe, which had now become a labyrinth of myths and magic rites, the dwelling place of a million hostile spirits, ceased altogether to speak to most men of God and told them only of themselves. The symbols which would have raised man above himself to God now became myths, and as such they were simply projections of man’s own biological drives. His deepest appetites, now full of shame, became his darkest fears.
The corruption of cosmic symbolism can be understood by a simple comparison. It was like what happens to a window when a room ceases to receive light from the outside. As long as it is daylight, we see through our windowpane. When night comes, we can still see through it if there is no light inside our room. When our lights go on, then we see only ourselves and our own room reflected in the pane. Adam in Eden could see through creation as through a window. God shone through the windowpane as bright as the light of the sun. Abraham and the patriarchs and David and the holy men of Israel—the chosen race that preserved intact the testimony of God—could still see through the window as one looks out by night from a darkened room and sees the moon and stars. But the Gentiles had begun to forget the sky, and to light lamps of their own, and presently it seemed to them that the reflection of their own room in the window was the “world beyond.” They began to worship what they themselves were doing. And what they were doing was too often an abomination. Nevertheless, something of the original purity of natural revelation remained in the great religions for the East. It is found in the Upanishads in the Baghavad Gita. But the pessimism of Buddha was a reaction against the degeneration of nature by polytheism. Henceforth for the mysticism of the East, nature would no longer be symbol but illusion. Buddha knew too well that the reflections in the window were only projections of our own existence and our own desires, but did not know that this was a window and that there could be sunlight outside the glass.

from “Poetry, Symbolism, and Typology,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, pp 333-335,  New Directions 1985. Originally from Merton’s Bread in the Wilderness, a study of the Psalms of the Old Testament as poetry, New Directions, 1953

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