Wednesday, August 19, 2020

August 19: Saint Francis, Suffering, Anniversary of Sister's Death

Thomas Merton travelling and getting sick again . . .

Then I found the villa of the people I had met at Saint Tropez, and stayed there a couple of days, and finally, fed up with walking, and seeing that I would probably be bored with the rest of the road along the coast, I got on the train and went to Genoa. 

Perhaps the boredom that I felt had its roots in some physical cause, because the first morning I woke up in Genoa, with a bunch of Italian housepainters working on the roof outside my window, I was out of sorts and had a great boil on my elbow, which I clumsily tried to heal by my own private treatments, which did not work. 

So I cashed my letter of credit and got on another train and went to Florence, where I had another letter of introduction to a man who was a sculptor. Florence was freezing. I took a trolley out across the Arno, and found the steep road up the hill where my man lived, and climbed it in the icy silence of a Tuscan winter evening. At first I thought nobody was going to answer my knock on the big hollow-sounding door, but presently an old Italian cook came out, and led me in to the studio where I made myself known and explained that I had a boil on my elbow. So the cook got some hot water and I sat in the dry dust of plaster and among the stone chips around the base of some half-finished work, and talked to the sculptor while his cook fixed up a poultice for my boil. 

The artist was the brother of the former Headmaster of Oakham, the one who had preceded Doherty. I had seen some of his bas-reliefs which decorated the front of the school chapel. He was not as old as his brother, the ex-head. But he was a kind, stoop-shouldered person with greying hair, and had most of the old head’s geniality. He said to me: “I was thinking of going down and seeing the Greta Garbo film in town this evening. Do you like Greta Garbo?” 

I admitted that I did. “Very well, then,” he said, “we will go.” 

But Florence was too cold, and I thought the boil was getting better. So the next day I left, on the way to Rome. I was tired of passing through places. I wanted to get to the term of my journey, where there was some psychological possibility that I would stop in one place and remain. 

The train ambled slowly through the mountains of Umbria. The blue sky glared down upon the rocks. The compartment was empty save for myself, and nobody got in until one of the last stations before Rome. All day I stared out at the bare hills, at the wild, ascetic landscape. Somewhere out there, on one of those mountains, St. Francis had been praying and the seraph with the fiery, blood-red wings had appeared before him with the Christ in the midst of those wings: and from the wounds, other wounds had been nailed in Francis’s hands and feet and side. If I had thought of that, that day, it would have been all I needed to complete the discouragement of my pagan soul, for it turned out that the boil was no better after all, and that I had another toothache. For that matter, my head felt as if I had a fever as well, and I wondered if the old business of blood-poisoning was starting once again.

Merton is moving toward his religious conversion in fits and starts.  Every once in a while, he comes close to people, like Saint Francis, who might have made a difference in his untutored soul had he encountered them.  Saint Francis, the first known person who suffered from stigmata.  Francis embraced his suffering, felt that it brought him closer to the life of Christ.  Merton, with his boil and toothache and possible blood poisoning, suffers without this meaning.

I'm not saying that suffering is good.  It isn't.  It's our reaction to suffering that makes the difference.  Some people wallow.  Others place blame.  Still others seek escape.  And then, the rare few, let suffering refine them, make them better human beings.  Regardless, suffering plain sucks.  Especially if it seems pointless and arbitrary.

Today was the five-year anniversary of the death of my sister, Sally.  Lymphoma of the brain took her.  Her suffering was long and, from my point of view,  needless.  She was a good person.  Generous and loving to everyone in her family.  A person you could depend upon.  An anchor.

Now, don't misunderstand me here.  Sally wasn't a saint by any means.  She was very human, with very human flaws.  Sometimes, she pissed me off.  A lot.  There were times when we didn't speak to each other.  For weeks.  However, even in those times of struggle, she still had my back, and I had hers.

I dreamed of her last night.  Felt her with me most of today.  I wouldn't say I was haunted by her.  She's just hasn't strayed much from my thoughts.  I find it difficult to believe that five years have passed since that morning I stood near the foot of her bed and watched her take that last breath.

This year has been one of suffering for many people.  I'm not unique in any way.  In fact, I would venture to say that I'm fairly ordinary is this respect.  But, today--and tonight--I've been really struggling.  Most of my life, I've believed in the power of love to overcome anything.  It's what I was taught in catechism as a young boy.  As the old hymn goes, "Jesus loves me, this I know . . . "  Love is what saves the world.  Turns tragedy into meaning.  I've always believed that.

That belief has been shaken a lot recently.  It seems to me, on this anniversary night of my sister's death, that love may have a beginning, middle, and end.  And what comes after?  Loss?  Grief?  Anger?  Tears?  Doubr?  I will admit that my Higher Power and I haven't been talking a lot recently.  The conversation has consisted of a lot of finger-pointing and fuck you-ing.

There isn't going to be much light at the end of my post this evening.  I apologize for that.  My sister is still dead.  The pandemic is still raging.  Donald Trump is still President of the United States.  And love still isn't enough to avoid suffering.  Sometimes, all that exists is suffering, and it goes on and on and on.

I'm waiting for some kind of salvation to materialize.

Saint Marty is surrounded by ghosts.

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