Merton waxing eloquent on his return to France, the land of his birth:
How did it ever happen that, when the dregs of the world had collected in western Europe, when Goth and Frank and Norman and Lombard had mingled with the rot of old Rome to form a patchwork of hybrid races, all of them notable for ferocity, hatred, stupidity, craftiness, lust, and brutality--how did it happen that, from all this, there should come Gregorian chant, monasteries and cathedrals, the poems of Prudentius, the commentaries and histories of Bede, the Moralia of Gregory the Great, St. Augustine's City of God, and his Trinity, the writings of St. Anselm, St. Bernard's sermons on the Canticles, the poetry of Caedmon and Cynewulf and Langland and Dante, St. Thomas' Summa, and the Oxoniense of Duns Scotus?
How does it happen that even today a couple of ordinary French stonemasons, or a carpenter and his apprentice, can put up a dovecote or a barn that has more architectural perfection than the piles of eclectic stupidity that grow up at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars on the campuses of American universities?
When I went to France, in 1925, returning to the land of my birth, I was also returning to the fountains of the intellectual and spiritual life of the world to which I belonged. I was returning to the spring of natural waters, if you will, but waters purified and cleaned by grace with such powerful effect that even the corruption and decadence of the French society of our day has never been able to poison them entirely, or reduce them once again to their original barbarian corruption.
Merton's point--or wonder--is valid. It seems that, at the darkest moments in history, from the most violent or corrupt of times, spring some of the most enduring works of art. Merton's list bears that out. More recently, think of Allen Ginsberg's Howl during the Vietnam War in America. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward at the height of Soviet oppression, Anne Frank's diary scribbled during the Holocaust. It seems that, when the human race is at its worst, artists and poets and writers rise to their very best.
I know that, at times of struggle in my life, I have turned to my work as a means of consolation. Writing helps me make sense of the senseless, find beauty in ugliness. The impulse to put pen to journal pages is, for me, an act of hope. It's sort of like striking a match in a dark room. Suddenly, all that is important and true shines for a few brief seconds. Those matches have to be lit. The light has to shine. If it doesn't, we're all sort of doomed by the brutality of the world.
In my country, I'm living through a pretty dark period. Nationalism is running rampant. Compassion and humanity and charity are in short supply. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia are on the rise. Families are being torn apart, literally and metaphorically. I find it difficult right now to strike any kind of match, shed any kind of light, because the darkness is so deep and entrenched. It has brought out the very worst in everybody.
Yet, I think it's important to keep writing, painting, playing music, creating. It's how we're going to get through these Dark Ages in the United States of America. Maybe, 40 or 50 years from now, some diary is going to be published. It will have been written by an adolescent Central American girl being held in an internment camp somewhere in my country at this very moment. It will be about her longing for her missing parents. About the teenage boy in the internment camp with her, how she longs to kiss his lips. The randoms acts of kindness she may witness during her days, things that give her hope and sustain her will to survive. That diary will be a testament to the indomitable spirit of a human being in the face of inhumanity. It will be beautiful and heartbreaking.
Saint Marty just struck another match in the darkness.
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