Merton getting a little religion in his young life . . .
On the other hand, I do not think they can have been very well instructed Catholics, for one day, as we were emerging from the Lycee, on the way out to one of those walks, we passed two religious in black soutanes, with black bushy beards, standing in the square before the school, and one of my friends hissed in my ear "Jesuits!" For some reason or other he was scared of Jesuits. And, as a matter of fact, now that I know more about religious Orders, I realize that they were not Jesuits but Passionist missionaries, with the white insignia of the Passionists on their breasts.
At first, on the Sundays when I remained at the Lycee, I stayed in Permanence with the others who did not go to Mass at the Cathedral. That is, I sat in the study hall reading the novels of Jules Verne or Rudyard Kipling (I was very much affected by a French translation of The Light That Failed.) But later on, Father arranged for me to receive instructions, with a handful of others, from a little fat Protestant minister who came to the Lycee to evangelize us.
On Sunday mornings we gathered around the stove in the bleak octagonal edifice, which had been erected in one of the courts as a Protestant "temple" for the students. The minister was a serious little man, and he explained the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and the Publican and so on. I don't remember that there was any particularly deep spirituality about it, but there was nothing to prevent him from showing us the obvious moral lessons.
I am grateful that I got at least that much of religion, at an age when I badly needed it: it was years since I had even been inside a church for any other purpose than to look at the stained glass windows or the Gothic vaulting. However, it was practically useless. What is the good of religion without personal spiritual direction? Without Sacraments, without any means of grace except a desultory prayer now and then at intervals, and an occasional vague sermon?
Religion has not played a very big part in Thomas Merton's youth. Aside from a couple of Quaker meetings and a grandmother who taught him how to recite the Our Father, he is fairly clueless when it comes to spirituality. It seems that Merton's belief in God begins and ends with Jules Verne at this point in his life.
I've had a lot of time to think about my own spirituality recently. I've found myself sitting at employee check-in stations at the hospital on three days--last Saturday and Sunday and tonight. I am currently at an employee entrance, scanning badges and taking names. Today, the hospital pretty much locked itself down. The only people (besides employees) who can enter and exit the buildings are patients. That's it. Things have gotten VERY serious in a short period of time.
I am struggling to see the point of all of this from a spiritual perspective. Where is God, and why would He allow this to happen? These days, I'm sure I'm not alone in this line of thought. In fact, I'd lay money that most people with any kind of religious faith are pretty much in the same boat. I imagine Noah, sitting on the deck of the ark, watching the rains wipe out everything that he knew, probably thinking, "What in the hell is this all about?"
I am still working at the medical office, although that could change at any moment. You see, I'm not really considered "essential" as an employee. If you don't understand what that means, let me translate: my job will probably be one of the first ones to go when the health system that owns us starts making cuts due to the epidemic. Because I don't do direct patient care in any way, I simply don't make the cut.
It seems, in the past year, that God has been slowly stripping away all of my security blankets. You know what I mean. Everything that made me feel safe and secure has pretty much evaporated since last April. Addiction had a part in it. So did mental illness. And the economy. Now it's a tiny little virus. Losing my job (and health insurance) from the hospital will almost be the last vestige of stability that still exists in my life.
Of course, I'm dealing with unknowns right now. I don't KNOW that I'm going to be laid off. I don't KNOW how long that layoff will last IF it does happen. I am living in a state of negative capability, as poet John Keats would have said. It's all about uncertainty. For Keats and Shakespeare, that was a good thing. Me? It puts me right on the edge of my roof, ready to jump off.
But, for the moment, I am employed. I have paychecks coming in from the college and the health system. I am important. Necessary. Until I become unimportant. Nonessential.
So, tonight, I see employees coming in and leaving. The ones coming in look a little grim. The ones going out look exhausted. I scan badges. Wish everyone a goodnight. Feel the cold swoop in every time the door opens and closes.
Perhaps God is trying to prove to me that I'm not that significant. Like the Grimm fairy tales that I'm teaching my students at the moment online, the people who put their faith in material possessions and circumstances (the wicked stepmothers and evil sorcerers of the world) are generally sealed in barrels of boiling oil and snakes and heaved into the river. It's a rough lesson to learn. No happily ever after.
So, this is Marty, non-essential saint, signing off from the pandemic front line for now.
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