Thomas Merton contemplates death . . .
What a tremendous mercy it was that death did not take me at my word, that day, when I was still only seventeen years old. What a thing it would have been if the trapdoors that were prepared for me had yawned and opened their blackness and swallowed me down in the middle of that sleep! Oh, I tell you, it is a blessing beyond calculation that I woke up again, that day, or the following night, or in the week or two that came after.
And I lay there with nothing in my heart but apathy--there was a kind of pride and spite in it: as if it was life's fault that I had to suffer a little discomfort, and for that I would show my scorn and hatred of life. What was life? Something existing apart from me, and separate from myself? Don't worry. I did not enter into any speculations. I only thought, "If I have to die--what of it. What do I care? Let me die, then, and I'm finished."
Religious people, those who have faith and love God and realize what life is and what death means, and know what it is to have an immortal soul, do not understand how it is with the ones who have no faith, and who have already thrown away their souls. They find it hard to conceive that anyone could enter into the presence of death without some kind of compunction. But they should realize that millions of men die the way I was then prepared to die, the way I then might have died.
They might say to me: "Surely you thought of God and you wanted to pray to Him for mercy?"
No. As far as I remember, the thought of God, the thought of prayer did not even enter my mind, either that day, or all the rest of the time that I was ill, or that whole year, for that matter. Or if the thought did come to me, it was only as an occasion for its denial and rejection. I remember that in that year, when we stood in the chapel and recited the Apostle's Creed, I used to keep my lips tight shut, with full deliberation and of set purpose, by way of declaring my own creed which was " I believe in nothing." Or at least I thought I believed in nothing. Actually, I had only exchanged a certain faith, faith in God, Who is Truth, for a vague uncertain faith in the opinions and authority of men and pamphlets and newspapers--wavering and varying and contradictory opinions which I did not ever clearly understand.
There you have it. A dark night of the soul. Thomas Merton, at 17 years of age, stares into the abyss and says, "So what." No bargaining or anger. No praying for the mercy of God, because Merton doesn't believe in God. He is thoroughly committed to the limits of human intellect, even if he doesn't fully understand what those limits are.
I found myself alone a lot today. My wife was ill, so she didn't go to work. So, I had lunch by myself, and cleaned a church this evening by myself. When you're alone for extended periods of time, you have two choices: find some kind of distraction (listening to an audio book, for example), or do some internal inventory and reckoning.
I chose the former, plugging myself into the novel Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I didn't have the energy for any kind of introspection. So, I waded into the marsh with Owens. It was a good choice. Owens has a way of making nature come alive. Herons and bullfrogs and wild turkeys. Of course, it helps that she is an award-winning nature writer and holds a PhD in Animal Behavior. And I can get lost in her language, which edges toward poetry at times.
Because of this, I was feeling very zen when I got home from cleaning. As I was sitting on my couch, I heard something I've never heard in my backyard before: a loon. It was amazing and musical. At first, I thought it was coming from my daughter's room--she frequently plays video games and movies. Then, I thought it was coming from my wife's phone. My puppy was looking at me, tense, like a mouse trap ready to snap. Then I heard the call again, right outside our living room window.
"Did you hear a loon?" I called to my wife, who was in our bedroom.
"I thought I was hearing things," she said. "It can't be a loon."
There is a lake about three streets over from our house. As a kid, I used to call it Mud Lake, because it was more swamp than water. It's real name is Lake Bacon, which is another reason to love it. In winters, as a kid, my brothers used to take me snowmobiling on its frozen surface--a wide, clear expanse of white that you could plow across at 50 miles per hour.
That is most likely where the loon was from. Probably nesting there. When I was in high school, there were swans on the lake, as well. I'm not sure where they came from, but I remember seeing them gliding across the water like mist.
After hearing the loon tonight, I was tempted to go into my backyard and call out, in my best Katharine Hepburn voice, "Norman! The loons! The loons! They're welcoming us back!" I didn't. I'm already a little suspect for wandering the neighborhood in my pajamas, hunting for comets.
I have no idea why there was a loon by my house. But there was. Somewhere in the dusk, just outside my window, it was ululating, over and over. Reminding me that mystery exists, and I don't have to understand it. I can just live in it, without searching for explanation.
That's what poetry is all about. And faith. Living with the unknowable. .
And for that mystery, and the loon, Saint Marty gives thanks.
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