I haven't read enough of William Blake to have an informed opinion about him. But Thomas Merton's writing changed my life. Next to the words and teachings of Emperor Haile Selassie I, Thomas Merton's writing was probably the greatest influence in my becoming Orthodox.
Here are some thoughts about William Blake from Thomas Merton. It sure makes me want to read more William Blake, (and more Thomas Merton!)
How incapable I was of understanding anything like the ideals of a William Blake! How could I possibly realize that his rebellion, for all of its strange heterodoxies, was fundamentally the rebellion of the saints? It was the rebellion of the lover of the living God, the rebellion of the one whose desire for God was so intense and irresistible that it condemned, with all its might, all the hypocrisy and petty sensuality and skepticism and materialism which cold and trivial minds set up as unpassable barriers between God and the souls of men.
The priests that he saw going their rounds in black gowns – he knew no Catholics at the time, and had probably never even seen a Catholic priest – were symbols, in his mind, of the weak, compromising, pharisaic piety of those whose god was nothing but an objectification of their own narrow and conventional desires and hypocritical fears.
He did not distinguish any particular religion or sect as the objects of his disdain: he simply could not stand false piety and religiosity, in which the love of God was stamped out of the souls of men by formalism and conventions, without any charity, without the light and life of a faith that brings man face to face with God. If on one page of Blake these priests in black gowns were frightening and hostile figures, on another, the “Grey Monk of Charlemaine” was a saint and a hero of charity and of faith, fighting for the peace of the true God with all the ardent love that was the only reality Blake lived for. Towards the end of his life, Blake told his friend Samuel Palmer that the Catholic Church was the only one that taught the love of God. (Note by GMK: I doubt if Blake ever had any encounters with Orthodoxy; but if he had encountered true Orthodoxy, I’m sure he would have felt the same way in the end that he did about the Catholic Church. Just my opinion.)
I am not, of course, recommending the study of William Blake to all minds as a perfect way to faith and to God. Blake is really extraordinarily difficult and obscure and there is, in him, some of the confusion of almost all the heterodox and heretical mystical systems that ever flourished in the west – and that is saying a lot. And yet, by the grace of God, at least in my opinion, he was kept very much uncontaminated by all his crazy symbols precisely because he was such a good and holy man, and because his faith was so real and his love for God so mighty and so sincere.
The Providence of God was eventually to use Blake to awaken something of faith and love in my own soul – in spite of all the misleading notions, and all the almost infinite possibilities of error that underlie his weird and violent figures. I do not, therefore, want to seem to canonize him. But I have to acknowledge my own debt to him, and the truth which may appear curious to some, although it is really not so: that through Blake I would one day come, in a round-about way, to the only true Church, and to the One Living God, through His Son, Jesus Christ.
~ THOMAS MERTON~
[From The Seven Story Mountain, pp. 96-97]