Wednesday, March 18, 2020

March 17: Desolation and Emptiness and Abandonment, Loss, "Nearer, My God, to Thee"

Things getting real for young Thomas Merton . . .

Then the artificiality of the business dawned on me and I went home.  Father said to me:  "What's this I hear about you chasing after girls at your age?"  After that life became very serious, and a few weeks later I put on my new blue uniform and went off to the Lycee.

Although by this time I knew French quite well, the first day in the big, gravelled yard, when I was surrounded by those fierce, cat-like little faces, dark and morose, and looked into those score of pairs of glittering and hostile eyes, I forgot every word, and could hardly answer the furious questions that were put to me.  And my stupidity only irritated them all the more.  They began to kick me, and to pull and twist my ears, and push me around, and shout various kinds of insults.  I learned a great deal of obscenity and blasphemy in the first few days, simply by being the direct or indirect object of so much of it.

After this everybody accepted me and became quite friendly and pleasant, once they were used to my pale, blue-eyed, and seemingly stupid English face.  Nevertheless, when I lay awake at night in the huge dark dormitory and listened to the snoring of the little animals all around me, and heard through the darkness and the emptiness of the night the far screaming of the trains, or the mad iron cry of a bugle in a casserne of Senegalese troops, I knew for the first time in my life the pangs of desolation and emptiness and abandonment.

Desolation and emptiness and abandonment.  Seems like the young Merton is going through a little dark night of the soul here.  He feels friendless and alone at the Lycee, abused physically and mentally.  He is lost.

Over the last couple weeks, I've experienced all kinds of loss.  The loss of my ability to see my students face-to-face in a classroom.  Or to go out and buy simple essential household items like toilet paper or cheese or hamburger.  In fact, every excursion into a public place now kindles in me a little dread.  That's loss of comfort and safety, if you're keeping track.

Today, however, I experienced a loss that hit me very hard.  The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Marquette cancelled all weekend Masses, from now until April 5.  For most of my adult life, since around the age of 17, worship and Mass have been a constant part of my Saturdays and Sundays.  Aside from an occasional weekend away, I've been on an organ bench every Saturday since I graduated from high school.

When I went to church to clean this evening, I had a really heavy heart.  This pandemic has sort of stripped away everything that I hold dear.  And now, it sort of felt like God was packing up and leaving, as well.  The predictions are all dire--death rates that could top out at 5%.  If you do the math, there are 7.53 billion people in the world.  That means, close to 376,500 people will die before this conronavirus is over and done.

So, at church tonight, I dusted the pews and altar.  I emptied the garbages.  Mopped the marble of the sanctuary floor.  I climbed into the choir loft to dust and collect the garbage, as well.  Then I sat down at the piano in the loft.  I played a song.  "Nearer, My God, to Thee."  The same song that the musicians played on the deck of the sinking Titanic.  I played variations of it.  In the end, I held the last notes, let them roll through the church until they faded away under my fingertips.

It's difficult to see God in all of this.  I know He's there, but I just don't understand His will right now.  It's not divine punishment.  It's senseless death of the young and old and sick.  Where is God in that?

Playing that song felt right tonight, as if I was on the deck of a sinking ship:

Then, with my waking thoughts
Bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs
Bethel I’ll raise,
So by my woes to be
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer to Thee.

Saint Marty is trying to feel nearer.

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