Wednesday, September 30, 2020

September 29-30: My New Religion, Communism, Strike a Match

Merton discusses capitalism . . .

It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness. And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money. We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest. 

Being the son of an artist, I was born the sworn enemy of everything that could obviously be called “bourgeois,” and now I only had to dress up that aversion in economic terms and extend it to cover more ground than it had covered before—namely, to include anything that could be classified as semi-fascist, like D. H. Lawrence and many of the artists who thought they were rebels without really being so—and I had my new religion all ready for immediate use.

Warning:  I may sound like a socialist/communist in this post.

Merton has an intense distrust of capitalism.  He pins all the ills of the world on the excesses of a capitalistic society.  (I'm not too far behind him in this idea.)  Of course, Merton hasn't found religion yet.  Instead, he attaches himself to any belief besides the belief in God.  It just so happens that his belief du jour is communism.

I think all young people go through periods where they try on different coats to see which one fits them best.  I know I did.  For quite a few years in college, I thought I was a computer programmer.  Then, I studied fiction writing and was convinced that I was Flannery O'Connor reincarnated (a notion that O'Connor would have found particularly repulsive or hysterically funny--probably both).  Then, I took a poetry class at the urging of one of my mentors at the university.  I was hooked.  I wanted to be Galway Kinnell and e. e. cummings and Sharon Olds and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Of course, having been a student of poetry now for over 25-plus years now, I know that I am NOT and will NEVER BE Kinnell or Hopkins.  Sometimes, the best I can do is Helen Steiner Rice of Hallmark card fame.  And that's okay.  I have to learn to accept things as they are.  Nothing I do can change the outcome of certain situations, no matter how hard I hope, pray, or work.

Tonight, I accepted some hard truths.  These truths made me angry and sad and confused, all at the same time, anger being the dominant emotion.  I'm still angry, but now sadness is taking over.  I expect, near midnight, I will lapse into confusion and fall asleep in that mixed state.

It has been a very long year already.  I expect that the next three months will be more of the same.  Anger.  Sadness.  Confusion.  My life isn't going the way I thought it would.  In fact, it feels as if my life is going in the exact opposite direction I want it to go.  And nothing I do or say can fix it.  I simply have to watch it happen.

You see, a person I care about deeply has doused her life in gasoline and is about to strike a match.  She is turning her back on every person and thing that used to mean something to her.  I know that in the future, one or two or six or thirteen months from now, she's going to be filled with a whole lot of regret.  By that time, it may be too late.  Her kids will have lost faith in her love, and her spouse will be unwilling to be hurt again.

I have to accept all of that.  Not easy for me to do.  But my friend is hell bent of self-destruction.  Nothing will change her mind.  Believe me, I've tried.  She's too far gone, and she sees nothing wrong in her current trajectory.  Until she ends up alone on Christmas Eve or Day.  A good possibility.  Or until she gets sick, really sick, because of the choices she's making.  Another good possibility.

Hard truths.  Difficult to accept.  But I have to.  I will continue to pray for this person.  Hope for this person.  Love this person.  That's all I can do through this dark night of the soul.

It's what God expects Saint Marty to do.

Monday, September 28, 2020

September 27-28: All Spiritual Vitality, Need to Belong, God Front

Merton on his conversion to communism . . .

I had a long way to go.  I had more to cross than the Atlantic. Perhaps the Styx, being only a river, does not seem so terribly wide. It is not its width that makes it difficult to cross, especially when you are trying to get out of hell, and not in. And so, this time, even though I got out of Europe, I still remained in hell. But it was not for want of trying. 

It was a stormy crossing. When it was possible, I walked on the wide, empty decks that streamed with spray. Or I would get up forward where I could see the bows blast their way headfirst into the mountains of water that bore down upon us. And I would hang on to the rail while the ship reeled and soared into the wet sky, riding the sea that swept under us while every stanchion and bulkhead groaned and complained. 

When we got on to the Grand Banks, the seas calmed and there was a fall of snow, and the snow lay on the quiet decks, and made them white in the darkness of the evening. And because of the peacefulness of the snow, I imagined that my new ideas were breeding within me an interior peace. 

The truth is, I was in the thick of a conversion. It was not the right conversion, but it was a conversion. Perhaps it was a lesser evil. I do not doubt much that it was. But it was not, for all that, much of a good. I was becoming a Communist. 

Stated like that, it sounds pretty much the same as if I said: “I was growing a moustache.” As a matter of fact, I was still unable to grow a moustache. Or I did not dare to try. And, I suppose, my Communism was about as mature as my face—as the sour, perplexed, English face in the photo on my quota card. However, as far as I know, this was about as sincere and complete a step to moral conversion as I was then able to make with my own lights and desires, such as they then were. 

A lot of things had happened to me since I had left the relative seclusion of Oakham, and had been free to indulge all my appetites in the world, and the time had come for a big readjustment in my values. I could not evade that truth. I was too miserable, and it was evident that there was too much wrong with my strange, vague, selfish hedonism.

It did not take very much reflection on the year I had spent at Cambridge to show me that all my dreams of fantastic pleasures and delights were crazy and absurd, and that everything I had reached out for had turned to ashes in my hands, and that I myself, into the bargain, had turned out to be an extremely unpleasant sort of a person—vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. I was a mess. Even the sight of my own face in a mirror was enough to disgust me. 

When I came to ask myself the reasons for all this, the ground was well prepared. My mind was already facing what seemed to be an open door out of my spiritual jail. It was some four years since I had first read the Communist Manifesto, and I had never entirely forgotten about it. One of those Christmas vacations at Strasbourg I had read some books about Soviet Russia, how all the factories were working overtime, and all the ex-moujiks wore great big smiles on their faces, welcoming Russian aviators on their return from Polar flights, bearing the boughs of trees in their hands. Then I often went to Russian movies, which were pretty good from the technical point of view, although probably not so good as I thought they were, in my great anxiety to approve of them. 

Finally, I had in my mind the myth that Soviet Russia was the friend of all the arts, and the only place where true art could find a refuge in a world of bourgeois ugliness. Where I ever got that idea is hard to find out, and how I managed to cling to it for so long is harder still, when you consider all the photographs there were, for everyone to see, showing the Red Square with gigantic pictures of Stalin hanging on the walls of the world’s ugliest buildings—not to mention the views of the projected monster monument to Lenin, like a huge mountain of soap-sculpture, and the Little Father of Communism standing on top of it, and sticking out one of his hands. Then, when I went to New York in the summer, I found the New Masses lying around the studios of my friends and, as a matter of fact, a lot of the people I met were either party members or close to being so. 

So now, when the time came for me to take spiritual stock of myself, it was natural that I should do so by projecting my whole spiritual condition into the sphere of economic history and the class-struggle. In other words, the conclusion I came to was that it was not so much I myself that was to blame for my unhappiness, but the society in which I lived. 

I considered the person that I now was, the person that I had been at Cambridge, and that I had made of myself, and I saw clearly enough that I was the product of my times, my society, and my class. I was something that had been spawned by the selfishness and irresponsibility of the materialistic century in which I lived. However, what I did not see was that my own age and class only had an accidental part to play in this. They gave my egoism and pride and my other sins a peculiar character of weak and supercilious flippancy proper to this particular century: but that was only on the surface. Underneath, it was the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called “the world,” in every age, in every class. 

“If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life.” That is to say, all men who live only according to their five senses, and seek nothing beyond the gratification of their natural appetites for pleasure and reputation and power, cut themselves off from that charity which is the principle of all spiritual vitality and happiness because it alone saves us from the barren wilderness of our own abominable selfishness.

When someone feels empty or lost, she will turn to almost anything that will fill her  up.  People.  Food.  Drugs.  Sex.  Politics.  Literature.  Poetry.  Some of the items in that list are better, healthier choices than others.  Nobody has ever overdosed on Billy Collins.  And the only thing that overindulging in Trumpism will do is prove that you are naive, stupid, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or xenophobic.  (Okay, you're ALL of those things.  ALL of them.)  However, overeating can lead to all kinds of health issues.  Too much indiscriminate sex these days will catch you a case of Covid-19 AND an STD.  So, Merton's attraction to communism is not surprising.  In fact, I would say that it's completely and totally human and understandable.

As a Christian, I know that the kind of ennui Merton describes here is a kind of spiritual hunger.  A forty-days-in-the-desert fasting.  There's a reason that nothing satisfies it.  Drug addicts need more drugs.  Sex addicts need more sex.  Poetry addicts need more poetry.  Those kinds of hungers just don't go away.  Hope, which I think is a spiritual state, is like aloe on a burn.  It soothes and heals.

Humans need to belong, be attached.  It gives them hope, even if that hope leads to ruin.  Addicts hope for that next fix.  Poetry lovers, for that next Sharon Olds poem.  Political junkies, for that next election cycle.  Hope makes a person feel larger.  Not isolated.  Because there are others out there who share your desires and wants.  People who understand you.  And that hope can be positive or negative, depending on what you are hoping for.

I woke today with hope in my heart.  It's Monday.  The beginning of another week.  I'm not working today at the medical office.  After a week of being with my son, shuttling him to doctor's appointments, helping him get caught up on missed schoolwork, making sure he's taking his medications, I return to my normal work schedule tomorrow. 

I won't lie.  I'm more than a little anxious about what's going to happen with my son.  He seems to be doing better.  His mood has definitely lightened.  He isn't hiding behind his hair so much, and his homework is getting done with minimal grumbling.  (It's homework.  I expect a little grumbling.)  Tomorrow will be a test.  I'm hoping (there's that verb again) that things will go well.  It's school picture day tomorrow, and, in five year's time, at his graduation party, I want to be able to look at his seventh grade photo and think, "He is amazing."

So, I am filled with weird hope and optimism today, even though it has been raining all morning long.  Perhaps it's because I'm sitting across from my son at the kitchen table and seeing him smile.  Perhaps the universe has shifted, and I'm no longer in a perpetual Mercury retrograde.  Or maybe something good is coming my way, some unknown happiness, and I'm feeling its approach, like a warm air happiness front.  Or a God front, as Merton would say.

For that miracle of hope, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

September 26: Still Wanderers, God-Sized Hole, Jolliest Asshole

Merton in supplication and prayer . . .

All these things, all creatures, every graceful movement, every ordered act of the human will, all are sent to us as prophets from God. But because of our stubbornness they come to us only to blind us further. 

“Blind the heart of this people and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes: lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.” 

We refuse to hear the million different voices through which God speaks to us, and every refusal hardens us more and more against His grace—and yet He continues to speak to us: and we say He is without mercy! 

“But the Lord dealeth patiently for your sake, not willing that any should perish, but that all should return to penance.” 

Mother of God, how often in the last centuries have you not come down to us, speaking to us in our mountains and groves and hills, and telling us what was to come upon us, and we have not heard you. How long shall we continue to be deaf to your voice, and run our heads into the jaws of the hell that abhors us? 

Lady, when on that night I left the Island that was once your England, your love went with me, although I could not know it, and could not make myself aware of it. And it was your love, your intercession for me, before God, that was preparing the seas before my ship, laying open the way for me to another country. 

I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see what I would do when I got to New York. But you saw further and clearer than I, and you opened the seas before my ship, whose track lead me across the waters to a place I had never dreamed of, and which you were even then preparing for
me to be my rescue and my shelter and my home. And when I thought there was no God and no love and no mercy, you were leading me all the while into the midst of His love and His mercy, and taking me, without my knowing anything about it, to the house that would hide me in the secret of His Face.

Glorious Mother of God, shall I ever again distrust you, or your God, before Whose throne you are irresistible in your intercession? Shall I ever turn my eyes from your hands and from your face and from your eyes? Shall I ever look anywhere else but in the face of your love, to find out true counsel, and to know my way, in all the days and all the moments of my life? 

As you have dealt with me, Lady, deal also with all my millions of brothers who live in the same misery that I knew then: lead them in spite of themselves and guide them by your tremendous influence, O Holy Queen of souls and refuge of sinners, and bring them to your Christ the way you brought me. Illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte, et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis ostende. Show us your Christ, Lady, after this our exile, yes: but show Him to us also now, show Him to us here, while we are still wanderers.

Yes, we live in a world of broken people.  That's what Merton is saying here.  We are wanderers, exiles, strangers in a strange land.  Most of us don't even realize this.  We simply wander around, unsatisfied and empty.  And we don't know how to fill that hole that exists in each and every one of us.

For Thomas Merton, that hole is God-sized.  Perhaps it's the same for everyone else, too.  Perhaps sex addicts, alcoholics, drug addicts--all that they need is what Merton needs:  an assurance in God's eternal love.  Maybe if the world wasn't such a broken place, people wouldn't suffer from mental illnesses or feel isolated and alone.  If every person in this world somehow felt God's presence and love, all the time, there wouldn't be suicide or war or Donald Trump.  Because despair and hatred wouldn't be possible or necessary.

If you are anything like me, however, that kind of faith in God is difficult to sustain.  I certainly feel it sometimes, but then my human side takes over.  What happens then?  I slide into doubt and fear.  If I could hang onto those grace-filled moments indefinitely, I would be, to paraphrase Clark Griswold, "The jolliest asshole this side of the nuthouse."

Today was my son's twelfth birthday.  If you are a loyal disciple of this blog, you know that my son has had a very rough three or four weeks.  Lots of anger and depression.  Struggles at school and home.  Suicidal ideation.  As a parent, it has been very difficult to witness.  I just want somehow to step in and make everything better.  It just isn't that simple, however.

Yet, my son had a wonderful day of celebration.  He woke up smiling and happy.  Asked for ravioli for his birthday breakfast, which I provided.  Went out to hang with some of his friends for a while.  Had a birthday party at my mother's house with his aunts.  Pizza and cupcakes and eggnog ice cream.  Then he played computer games all night with his sister.  In a twelve-year-old boy universe, that's about as good as it gets.

And he was genuinely happy.  All day long.

For me, that's God's presence and love.  To see my son laughing and engaged for an entire 14- or 15-hour span of time.   It was grace on top of grace on top of grace on top of grace.

And for that miracle, and his son's birthday, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Friday, September 25, 2020

September 25: The Glory of God, Infinite Loops, Love

A reflection on the goodness of God from Merton . . .

Perhaps they did not know they were waiting for all this. Perhaps they thought they had nothing better to occupy their minds than the wedding of Prince George and Princess Marina which had taken place the day before. Even I myself was more concerned with the thought of some people I was leaving than with the political atmosphere at that precise moment. And yet that atmosphere was something that would not allow itself to be altogether ignored. 

I had seen enough of the things, the acts and appetites, that were to justify and to bring down upon the world the tons of bombs that would someday begin to fall in millions. Did I know that my own sins were enough to have destroyed the whole of England and Germany? There has never yet been a bomb invented that is half so powerful as one mortal sin— and yet there is no positive power in sin, only negation, only annihilation: and perhaps that is why it is so destructive, it is a nothingness, and where it is, there is nothing left—a blank, a moral vacuum. 

It is only the infinite mercy and love of God that has prevented us from tearing ourselves to pieces and destroying His entire creation long ago. People seem to think that it is in some way a proof that no merciful God exists, if we have so many wars. On the contrary, consider how in spite of centuries of sin and greed and lust and cruelty and hatred and avarice and oppression and injustice, spawned and bred by the free wills of men, the human race can still recover, each time, and can still produce men and women who overcome evil with good, hatred with love, greed with charity, lust and cruelty with sanctity. How could all this be possible without the merciful love of God, pouring out His grace upon us? Can there be any doubt where wars come from and where peace comes from, when the children of this world, excluding God from their peace conferences, only manage to bring about greater and greater wars the more they talk about peace? 

We have only to open our eyes and look about us to see what our sins are doing to the world, and have done. But we cannot see. We are the ones to whom it is said by the prophets of God: “Hearing hear, and understand not; and see the vision, and know it not.”

There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not preach and proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world. 

There is not an act of kindness or generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken, not a child’s prayer uttered, that does not sing hymns to God before His throne, and in the eyes of men, and before their faces. 

How does it happen that in the thousands of generations of murderers since Cain, our dark bloodthirsty ancestor, that some of us can still be saints? The quietness and hiddenness and placidity of the truly good people in the world all proclaim the glory of God.

This passage is Merton in love with the evidences of God in the world.  Yes, his story is about to plunge into the horrors of World War II, with all the crimes humans committed against each other during that conflict.  Yet, through it all, Merton says, the subtle and hidden work of truly good people--unspoken saints doing what unspoken saints do--sings hosannas to the glory of God.  It's Merton in ecstasy over goodness.

It has been a very good day.  My son is happy, went to school.  He seems lighter than I've seen him in weeks, as if, were he not tethered to the ground by gravity, he would float skyward.  That, for me, is an example of what Merton is talking about:  God's grace in action.  Sure, he is being helped by guidance counselors and physicians and therapists and medications, but he is smiling and full of light.  That is what matters today.

Now, I am not being naive here.  I know that, tomorrow or tonight or in the next half hour, things could change.  That is the nature of mental health issues.  There aren't any magical cures.  However, there are times when, after a long period of darkness, there's a break in the clouds, and the sun shines through.  This is one of those times for me, and I will take all the sun that I can get.

Tomorrow will be my son's twelfth birthday.  We will celebrate it at my mother's house, with cupcakes and ice cream and singing loud enough to embarrass him until his thirteenth birthday.  And then, on Sunday, we will celebrate it again with some of my son's friends and more family at a socially distanced birthday party.  All the young people will be locked in an Escape Room while the adults watch on iPads.  Face masks will be the fashion of the day.

But, sometime this weekend, maybe tonight, I know I will do something that will cause my son to scream at me, "You are a SHITTY dad!"  And then he will storm off to his computer and disappear into some world where he'll chop the head off an ogre that looks like me.

Because that's what being a parent is all about.  Supporting your kids.  Doing everything you can to give your kids the best life possible.  Wanting your kids to be happy.  Then, when they want to do something stupid or unsafe, you have to use that dreaded word:  No.  And an entire lifetime of mediocre-to-good parenting is wiped out in an instant.  Sort of like the dinosaurs being snuffed out by a meteor.

And you start rebuilding.  It's an unending process.  An infinite loop.  When I was studying Computer Science as an undergrad, I got stuck in a lot of those.  My programming caused a lot of computers to crash.  Now, as a father, I'm trying to program my kids to do the right things, to grow up into good people.  Reflections of the glory of God in this world, as Merton would say.  But kids are a lot harder to program than computers.  They don't speak binary.  And they're wiring is a lot more unpredictable.

However, I do know where to start with my son and daughter.  I know the first line of their programming code.  And it's a line that's looped infinitely, from now until the day I pass from their lives.  It consists of one miraculous word, repeated over and over and over and over:  Love.

Saint Marty sees the glory of God every day in his kids.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

September 23-24: Hill of Forebodings, Fragile Thing, Striking a Match

Merton feels the coming of war . . .

Above all, why did the very boisterousness of the soccer blues, the rugger players, the cricketers, the oarsmen, the huntsmen and drinkers in the Lion and the clumsy dancers in the Rendezvous—why was all their noise so oafish and hollow and ridiculous? It seemed to me that Cambridge and, to some extent, the whole of England was pretending, with an elaborate and intent and conscious, and perhaps in some cases a courageous effort, to act as if it were alive. And it took a lot of acting. It was a vast and complicated charade, with expensive and detailed costuming and scenery and a lot of inappropriate songs: and yet the whole thing was so intolerably dull, because most of the people were already morally dead, asphyxiated by the steam of their own strong yellow tea, or by the smell of their own pubs and breweries, or by the fungus on the walls of Oxford and Cambridge.

I speak of what I remember: perhaps the war that grew out of all this did something to cure it or to change it. 

For those who had nothing but this emptiness in the middle of them, no doubt the things they had to do and to suffer during the war filled that emptiness with something stronger and more resilient than their pride— either that or it destroyed them utterly. But when I had been away from Cambridge about a year, I heard what had happened to one of them, a friend of mine. 

Mike was a beefy and red-faced and noisy youth who came from somewhere in Wales, and was part of the crowd in which I milled around in the daytime and the nighttime during that year at Cambridge. He was full of loud laughter and a lot of well-meaning exclamations, and in his quieter moments he got into long and complicated sentences about life. But what was more characteristic of him was that he liked to put his fist through windows. He was the noisy and hearty type; he was altogether jolly. A great eater and drinker, he chased after girls with an astounding heaviness of passion and emotion. He managed to get into a lot of trouble. That was the way it was when I left Cambridge. The next year I heard how he ended up. The porter, or somebody, went down into the showers, under the buildings of the Old Court at Clare, and found Mike hanging by his neck from a rope slung over one of the pipes, with his big hearty face black with the agony of strangulation. He had hanged himself. 

The Europe I finally left for good, in the late November of 1934, was a sad and unquiet continent, hill of forebodings. 

Of course, there were plenty of people who said: “There will not be a war...” But Hitler had now held power in Germany for some time, and that summer all the New York evening papers had been suddenly filled with the news of Dollfuss’ murder in Austria, and the massing of Italian troops on the Austrian borders. It was one of the nights when I was down at Coney Island, with Reginald Marsh, and I walked in the whirl of lights and noise and drank glasses of thin, icy beer, and ate hot dogs full of mustard, and wondered if I would soon be in some army or other, or perhaps dead. 

It was the first time I had felt the cold steel of the war-scare in my vitals. There was a lot more to come. It was only 1934. 

And now, in November, when I was leaving England forever—the ship sailed quietly out of Southampton water by night—the land I left behind me seemed silent with the silence before a storm. It was a land all shut up and muffled in layers of fog and darkness, and all the people were in the rooms behind the thick walls of their houses, waiting for the first growl of thunder as the Nazis began to warm up the motors of a hundred thousand planes.

Here is a man who, in retrospect, acknowledges all the foreboding signs of the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe and across the globe.  He sees it, in particular, in the death of his Cambridge acquaintance, Mike, who chases the sensual excesses of life.  Mike is a great eater and drinker and luster.  Yet, his end is stark and sobering, a true testament to the adage that you can't always judge a book by its cover.  Mike, the life of the party, "altogether jolly," is broken in some way, a reflection of a world that is breaking around him.

I could easily use this little passage from Merton to reflect on the current rise of nationalism in the world.  I could say something about Trump supporters, and draw comparisons to Adolf Hitler's Germany.  It would be easy.  The parallels are uncanny and terrifying, with Donald Trump in the last 24 hours hinting that he is not going to go gentle in that good night if things don't go his way on November 3.  But I'm not going for easy today.

You see, in this last week, I have learned that hope is a fragile thing.  It's not something that burns like a wildfire every day.  It is more like a match struck in the morning.  If that match only flares up and burns down, without being applied to the wick of a candle, then hope dies.  And if that candle isn't used to light another candle, and another, and another, then the light cast by hope is dim and concentrated instead of radiating.  Hope needs oxygen.  Hope needs company.  Hope needs to be, you'll excuse the term, virally bright.

I have hope today.  This morning wasn't great with my son, but I still have hope.  Teaching today wasn't fantastic, but I still have hope.  Now, the light outside my window is cloudy and gray, but I still have hope.  Because I am embracing the possibility of something better in the days ahead.  Change, for my life, my community, my country, the world.  I am lighting a match this afternoon, holding it to a candle.

I know that I am belaboring this metaphor.  But I really want everyone to know, regardless of how things are going for you, life is too short to hunker in darkness, waiting for bombs to rain down from the clouds.  In a few minutes, I am going to march out my front door into possibility.  It's what I need to do, every time I venture into the world.  Forget yesterday's failures, and embrace tomorrow's successes.

So, everyone out there reading this post, light your match.  Hold it out.  Light somebody else's candle.  Spread your light into every dark corner of the world.

Saint Marty will meet you at the intersection of Hope and Miracle.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

September 21-22: Everything So Empty, Hiroshima, Kitchen Table

Merton faces his failure as a Cambridge student . . .

Day after day I read Freud, thinking myself to be very enlightened and scientific when, as a matter of fact, I was about as scientific as an old woman secretly poring over books about occultism, trying to tell her own fortune, and learning how to dope out the future from the lines in the palm of her hand. I don’t know if I ever got very close to needing a padded cell: but if I ever had gone crazy, I think psychoanalysis would have been the one thing chiefly responsible for it. 

Meanwhile, I had received several letters from my guardian. They were sharp, and got sharper as they went on, and finally, in March or April, I got a curt summons to come to London. 

I had to wait a long time, a long, long time in the waiting-room, where I turned over the pages of all the copies of Punch for two years back. I suppose this was part of a deliberate plan to sap my morale, this leaving me alone in a dismal, foggy room, with all those copies of that dreary magazine. 

Finally, after about an hour and a half, I was summoned to climb the narrow stairs to the consulting room immediately above. The floor was waxed, and once again I got this sense of precariousness in my footing, and was glad to get across the room to the chair by the desk without falling down and breaking a hip. 

With polished and devastating coolness, which carried with it a faint suggestion of contempt, Tom offered me a cigarette. The implication was that I was going to need it. Therefore, obviously, I refused it. 

Nevertheless, the fifteen or twenty minutes that followed were among the most painful and distressing I have ever lived through: not because of anything that he said to me, for he was not angry or even unkind. In fact I do not even remember exactly what he did say. The thing that made me suffer was that he asked me very bluntly and coldly for an explanation of my conduct and left me to writhe. For as soon as I was placed in the position of having to give some kind of positive explanation or defense of so much stupidity and unpleasantness, as if to justify myself by making it seem possible for a rational creature to live that way, the whole bitterness and emptiness of it became very evident to me, and my tongue would hardly function. And the words I murmured about my “making mistakes” and “not wanting to hurt others” sounded extremely silly and cheap. 

So I was very glad to get out of there, and as soon as I was in the street I smoked plenty of cigarettes.

Months went by, and things did not change at all. After the Easter vacation, I was called in to my tutor to explain why I was not attending most of my lectures, and a few other things besides. This time I was not so uncomfortable. As to the exams that were soon to come—I was to take the first part of the Modern Language Tripos in French and Italian—I thought I would be able to pass them, which as a matter of fact I did, getting a second in both. The results were wired to me by one of my friends when I was already on the boat for America—one of those ten-day boats out of London. We were going through the Straits of Dover, and the sun was on the white cliffs, and my lungs were filling with the fresh air. 

I was planning to come back the next year, and had already arranged for a room in the Old Court of Clare, right over the gate that led out to Clare bridge. I would have looked out over the President’s garden. But certainly, considering the kind of undergraduate I was, that was the worst possible place tor me to have wanted to room: for I was right in between the President and the Senior Tutor. However, I never went up to Cambridge again as a member of the University. 

That summer Tom sent me a letter in New York suggesting that I had better give up the idea of ever entering the British Diplomatic service, and that Cambridge was, henceforth, useless. To return would be to waste my time and money. He thought it would be very sensible if I stayed in America.

It did not take me five minutes to come around to agreeing with him. I do not know whether it was entirely subjective, but it seemed to me that there was some kind of a subtle poison in Europe, something that corrupted me, something the very thought and scent of which sickened me, repelled me. 

What was it? Some kind of a moral fungus, the spores of which floated in that damp air, in that foggy and half-lighted darkness? 

The thought that I was no longer obliged to go back into those damp and fetid mists filled me with an immense relief—a relief that far overbalanced the pain of my injured pride, the shame of comparative failure. I say I was no longer obliged to return: I would have to go back long enough to get on the quota and enter America permanently, for now I was only in the country on a temporary visa. But that did not matter so much. The feeling that I did not have to stay was another liberation. 

Once again, I ask myself if it was not mostly subjective—perhaps it was. For I do not accuse the whole of England of the corruption that I had discovered in only a part of it. Nor do I blame England for this as a nation, as if it alone were infected with the sweet and nasty disease of the soul that seemed to be rotting the whole of Europe, in high places above all. 

It was something I had not known or seen, in the England of those first days when I had been a child, and walked in the innocent countryside, and looked at the old village churches and read the novels of Dickens and wandered by the streams on picnics with my aunt and cousins. 

What was wrong with this place, with all these people? Why was everything so empty?

Of course, what Merton is going through has nothing to do with his failure as a university student.  What he's going through is a kind of spiritual ennui.  Since his father's death, he's been adrift in life, not really knowing what or who he is.  He's lost his feeling of purpose, and now he casts all of his dissatisfaction on the external things of his life, instead of looking inward.

It's an easy thing to do:  blaming other people or places or events for your unhappiness.  Addicts do it all the time, casting the source of all their problems on jobs or spouses or children or health or poverty.  That's the easy thing to do.  My husband doesn't understand me.  My job is unfulfilling.  My utilities are about to be disconnected.

The problem with this approach is that there is no personal accountability.  It lets you off the hook, even allows you to feel a little self-righteous or indignant.

These last seven or so days, I've been dealing with a lot of personal struggles at home, with my son, especially.  The start of this pandemic school year has been anything but smooth for the younger of my children.  After a six-month Covid-19 vacation, he can't find his motivation and purpose.  Along with that is a trauma that occurred a while ago that has had some long-reaching effects.

As a parent, I'm trying to be understanding, giving him space.  But my son knows what buttons to push to make me go absolutely nuclear.  Yesterday morning was Hiroshima.  I left home in utter ruin, not quite sure how to continue with my day.  Sitting at my kitchen table last night, after a glass of wine, at almost midnight, I regained some equilibrium.  Not much, but some.

Yesterday morning, I was literally slumped over the stove in my kitchen, praying desperately, needing some kind of divine guidance, 'cuz what I've been doing ain't working obviously.  I wanted Moses to write a message on the wall.  That didn't happen.  The spirit of Joseph Campbell to appear in the bathroom and reveal the hidden mythic meaning of my struggles.  That didn't happen, either.

Instead, I bungled through the day as best I could.  Did the same thing today, probably making tons of mistakes and miscalculations.  Yet, my son made it through the day without harming himself.  We had some moments of real happiness together, when all the darkness of the last couple weeks seemed to retreat into the corner.  I count that as a victory.  Now, he is in bed, hopefully to rise tomorrow morning and go to school.

Me?  I'm sitting at the kitchen table--my work space--eating cold popcorn chicken from KFC and drinking apple wine.  I know tomorrow morning is going to be a battle with my son.  I can't do anything about that right now.  I know that I will feel like a failure as a father.  I can't do anything about that right now, either. 

I have no control over what will happen tomorrow.  The only thing I can control is myself and my reactions.  I know that I love my son.  I can tell him that in the morning.  I know that I will do anything for him.  I can tell him that, too.

That's a good start. 

Saint Marty isn't expecting a miracle tomorrow, but he's not ruling out the possibility, either.  Love can move mountains. so it can surely get an 11-year-old boy onto a school bus.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

September 19: An Introvert, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Toast

Merton grows away from God at Cambridge . . .

All the rest were negative. They were only graces in the sense that God in His mercy was permitting me to fly as far as I could from His love but at the same time preparing to confront me, at the end of it all, and in the bottom of the abyss, when I thought I had gone farthest away from Him. Si ascendero in coelum, tu illic es. Si descendero in infernum, ades. For in my greatest misery He would shed, into my soul, enough light to see how miserable I was, and to admit that it was my own fault and my own work. And always I was to be punished for my sins by my sins themselves, and to realize, at least obscurely, that I was being so punished and burn in the flames of my own hell, and rot in the hell of my own corrupt will until I was forced at last, by my own intense misery, to give up my own will. 

I had tasted something of this before: but that was nothing compared to the bitterness that soon began to fill me in that year at Cambridge. 

The mere realization of one’s own unhappiness is not salvation: it may be the occasion of salvation, or it may be the door to a deeper pit in Hell, and I had much deeper to go than I realized. But now, at least, I realized where I was, and I was beginning to try to get out. 

Some people may think that Providence was very funny and very cruel to allow me to choose the means I now chose to save my soul. But Providence, that is the love of God, is very wise in turning away from the self-will of men, and in having nothing to do with them, and leaving them to their own devices, as long as they are intent on governing themselves, to show them to what depths of futility and sorrow their own helplessness is capable of dragging them. 

And all the irony and cruelty of this situation came, not from Providence, but from the devil, who thought he was cheating God of my stupid and uninteresting little soul. 

So it was, then, that I began to get all the books of Freud and Jung and Adler out of the big redecorated library of the Union and to study, with all the patience and application which my hangovers allowed me, the mysteries of sex-repression and complexes and introversion and extroversion and all the rest. I, whose chief trouble was that my soul and all its faculties were going to seed because there was nothing to control my appetites—and they were pouring themselves out in an incoherent riot of undirected passion— came to the conclusion that the cause of all my unhappiness was sexrepression! And, to make the thing more subtly intolerable, I came to the conclusion that one of the biggest crimes in this world was introversion, and, in my efforts to be an extrovert, I entered upon a course of reflections and constant self-examinations, studying all my responses and analyzing the quality of all my emotions and reactions in such a way that I could not help becoming just what I did not want to be: an introvert. 

I, myself, see nothing wrong in aspiring to be an introvert.  In fact, in my line of business (blogging, poetry, now podcasting), I find that being an introvert is absolutely necessary.  Sitting at my kitchen table every evening, pounding out my daily posts, I need silence, focus, and a glass of wine.  My son sits across from me, gaming most of the time, and he can be obnoxiously loud.  I get most of my best writing done after he goes to bed.

In the last 24 hours, however, I've been distracted by something much more upsetting to me--the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  It came across my Facebook feed late Friday evening.  As soon as I saw Justice Ginsburg's face, I knew that she was gone.  And I lost a little faith in the future of the United States.

Now, the woman was 87 years old and suffering from metastatic pancreatic cancer.  Her demise shouldn't have come as a surprise.  Yet, she was indefatigable in her energy and devotion to her calling.  She was working on the current session of the Supreme Court from her hospital bed.  And her last official public statement, given to her granddaughter a few days ago, was this:  "My greatest wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed."

I am not going to get all political in this post.  Not going to say anything about the hypocrisy of Senate Republicans who started talking about replacing Ginsburg a mere four or five hours after she passed.  (Four or five hours.  Let that sink in.)  Won't be calling out Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham or Donald Trump.  There will be time for that tomorrow and the next day and the next.

Tonight, I honor the memory of a brilliant woman who fought her entire life for justice and equality.  She wasn't perfect.  She would have been the first to admit that.  But she did her best to make the world a better place, and the world IS a better place because Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived.  Ask my daughter who is studying to become a doctor.  Or my sister who is a licensed master plumber and drove trucks at the mine.  Or my friend, Gigi, who was a federal prosecutor.  Or my other friend, Amanda, who's an attorney, too.  Or my friend, Bobby, who's married to the man he's loved for 36 years.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy is long and far-reaching.  That is what I want to say tonight.  She was a warrior in every sense of the word, fighting the hard battles, over and over.  And, for the most part, she won those battles, over and over.

It doesn't matter whether you're Democrat or Republican.  Take out a glass.  Fill it with wine or juice or Coke or milk or whiskey.  Lift that glass in a toast to a tiny, profound, righteous woman who reached down and lifted everyone up.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life.

Friday, September 18, 2020

September 18: Understanding of the Poem, Dante, Math of Life

Merton studies Dante at Cambridge . . .

In these days I seem to remember there was a little sunlight. It fell through the ancient windows of Professor Bullough’s room in Caius. It was a large, pleasant room, lined with books, and with windows opening on the grass of two courts. It was below the level of those lawns and you had to go down a couple of steps to get into his sitting room. In fact I think his sitting room itself was on two levels, and in the corner he had a high medieval lectern. There he stood, a tall, thin, grey, somewhat ascetic scholar, placidly translating Dante to us, while ten or a dozen students, men and women, sat about in the chairs and followed in our Italian texts. 

In the winter term we had begun with the Inferno, and had progressed slowly, taking each day part of a Canto. And now Dante and Virgil had come through the icy heart of hell, where the three-headed devil chewed the greatest traitors, and had climbed out to the peaceful sea at the foot of the seven-circled mountain of Purgatory. And now, in the Christian Lent, which I was observing without merit and without reason, for the sake of a sport which I had grown to detest because I was so unsuccessful in it, we were climbing from circle to circle of Purgatory.

I think the one great benefit I got out of Cambridge was this acquaintance with the lucid and powerful genius of the greatest Catholic poet—greatest in stature, though not in perfection or sanctity. Because of his genius, I was ready to accept all that he said about such things as Purgatory and Hell at least provisionally, as long as I had the book under my eyes, in his own terms. That was already much. I suppose it would have been too much to expect some kind of an application of his ideas to myself, in the moral order, just because I happened to have a sort of esthetic sensitiveness to them. No, it seems to me that I was armored and locked in within my own defectible and blinded self by seven layers of imperviousness, the capital sins which only the fires of Purgatory or of Divine Love (they are about the same) can burn away. But now I was free to keep away from the attack of those flames merely by averting my will from them: and it was by now permanently and habitually turned away and immunized. I had done all that I could to make my heart untouchable by charity and had fortified it, as I hoped, impregnably in my own impenetrable selfishness.

At the same time, I could listen, and listen with gladness and a certain intentness, to the slow and majestic progress of the myths and symbols in which Dante was building up a whole poetic synthesis of scholastic philosophy and theology. And although not one of his ideas took firm root in my mind, which was both too coarse and too lazy to absorb anything so clean, nevertheless, there remained in me a kind of armed neutrality in the presence of all these dogmas, which I tended to tolerate in a vague and general way, in bulk, in so far as that was necessary to an understanding of the poem. 

This, as I see it, was also a kind of a grace: the greatest grace in the positive order that I got out of Cambridge.

I read Dante for the first time when I was a teenager.  Fifteen or 16-years old.  I don't know how much of it I actually understood, but I diligently worked my way through Inferno and Purgatorio and Paradiso.  Yes, I climbed all the way from hell to heaven with the great poet.  I reveled in the phantasms of hell, and purified myself in Purgatory.  And, in the end, discovered it's all about climbing to the stars.

It has been a rough week with my son.  A week that has tested my patience, tolerance, and understanding.  I will admit that I didn't pass all the tests.  I lost my temper a few times.  Swore.  Slammed some doors.  My son, who is a lot like me, knows my wiring.  He can intuit exactly how to short circuit my brain until it goes into complete reactor meltdown, and then I am reduced to sputtering and saying things my father used to say--"Because I said so!" and "My house, my rules!"

It feels as though I'm stuck in Purgatorio, somewhere between the third and fourth terraces.  That's the territory of Wrath and Sloth.  A couple times this week, I simply fumed, all . . . day . . . long.  Then, I reached the point of exhaustion, where I couldn't work up the energy to care about anything.  In the morning, I didn't want to get out of bed, and, in the evening, I put off everything but the most necessary tasks.  I changed my clothes.  Showered.  Ate.  Took my puppy for walks in the backyard.  That's about it.

Today, however, was a good day.  My son met with his therapist.  Went to school.  Came home and didn't retreat behind his pink hair and laptop.  Small victories, but victories, nonetheless.  I want to say that I'm making progress.  Climbing toward the Empyrean.

I'm still being purified.  I know my son may wake up next Monday morning and refuse to get out of bed, yell at me that school is stupid and a waste of time.  My favorite line this week:  "When will I use math ever?!"  I may have won a battle today, but the war is far from over.

The math of life never ends.  There's algebra, then geometry and trigonometry and calculus.  Circles and terraces and spheres to surmount, all in order, in the end, to gaze into the face of love.  That's what my son wants.  It's what I want, too.  It's what we all want.

Dante ends Paradiso with this epic simile:

     As the geometer intently seeks
to square the circle, but he cannot reach
through thought on thought, the principle he needs,
     so I searched that strange sight:  I wished to see
the way in which our human effigy
suited the circle and found place in it--
      and my own wings were far too weak for that.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it had asked.
     Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already--like
a wheel revolving uniformly--by 
     the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for the miracle of Love that moves all things.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

September 15: Dizzy in the Nighttime, Surrender, the Church Lady

Merton returns to university . . .

I took the last train back to Cambridge and was so exhausted that I fell asleep and woke up at Ely, and had to turn back, so that I got in long after midnight. And I felt offended at being gated for what was not, as I thought, my fault. It was the first of the two times I was gated that year. 

Shall I follow the circle of the season down into the nadir of winter darkness, and wake up the dirty ghosts under the trees of the Backs, and out beyond the Clare New Building and in some rooms down on the Chesterton Road? When it began to be spring, I was trying to row-in the Clare fourth boat, although it nearly killed me. But at least, since we were supposed to be in training, I got up early for a few weeks and went to the College for breakfast, and went to bed without being too dizzy in the nighttime.

This little Merton selection sort of sounds like he is surrendering, in some way, to the rigors of college life, joining the university's rowing team.  Although he isn't much good at it, he still participates in the early-morning practices and conditioning.  Because they provide a sense of belonging, I would imagine.

Sometimes all you can do is surrender to life.  Usually, that surrender comes after a long and exhausting battle.  At some point, you just can't take it any longer.  You can only run headfirst into a brick wall so many times before you decide that it's easier to walk around the wall instead.  So you wave the white flag and give up.

I am giving up tonight.  After a long, exhausting day of conflict, I have decided that I'm tired of brick walls and migraines.  My white flag is flying.  I will no longer argue the righteous argument.  Point out injustices.  Try always to do what is right.

Because doing all those things, day after day, wears a person down like an old pencil.  Husbanding is hard.  Fathering is hard.  Working is hard.  Working two jobs is harder.  Working three or more jobs, in one day, is next-to-impossible.

I am told that I'll get my reward in heaven for the good things I do here on Earth.  I'm not so sure it's worth it tonight, because people begin to expect goodness from you all the time.  And that, also, is exhausting.

So, put a fork in me, I'm done.  Someone else can fight the good fight tomorrow.  The only thing on my to-do list is "wake up," and even that is up in the air.

Saint Marty is letting someone else fly the plane for a while.  God.  Yahweh.  Jesus,  Buddha.  Mohammed.  A one-eyed unicorn.  Albus Dumbledore.  Jay Gatsby.  The Church Lady.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

September 13: Buried My Childhood, Mrs. Jones, My Dad's Store

Thomas Merton loses his childhood . . .

In that year most of my friends were gated at one time or another, and by the end of it not a few of us were sent down. I cannot even clearly remember who most of them were—except for Julian. He stands out vividly enough. He wore horn-rimmed spectacles and looked, I will not say like an American, but like a Frenchman trying to look like an American. He could tell long complicated stories in an American accent too nasal to be true. He was the grandson or the great-grandson of a Victorian poet and lived in the old man’s house on the Isle of Wight. He roomed in a big rabbit warren of a place on Market Hill which was going to be torn down at the end of the year to make room for a new building, belonging to Caius College. Before the wreckers came in, Julian’s friends had already begun the ruin of the house by attempting to destroy the precarious section of it where he himself lived. I seem to remember some trouble when somebody threw a teapot out of the window of these rooms and nearly brained the Dean of Kings who was passing by in the street below. 

Then there was a laconic, sallow-faced fellow who came from Oundle and drove a racing car. He sat still and quiet most of the time with the strange, fevered mysticism of the racing driver in his veins while the rest of us talked and yelled. But when he got under the wheel of his car—which he was not allowed to drive as a freshman—he was transformed into a strange sort of half-spiritual being, possessed by a weird life belonging to another frightening world. The prohibition on driving could not, of course, hold him. Once in a while he would disappear. Then he would come back relatively happy, and sit down and play poker with anybody who would take him on. I think he was finally sent down altogether for the wildest of his expeditions which ended with him trying to drive his car down one of the zig-zag cliff paths at Bournemouth. 

But why dig up all this old scenery and reconstruct the stews of my own mental Pompeii after enough years have covered them up? Is it even worth the obvious comment that in all this I was stamping the last remains of spiritual vitality out of my own soul, and trying with all my might to crush and obliterate the image of the divine liberty that had been implanted in me by God? With every nerve and fibre of my being I was laboring to enslave myself in the bonds of my own intolerable disgust. There is nothing new or strange about the process. But what people do not realize is that this is the crucifixion of Christ: in which He dies again and again in the individuals who were made to share the joy and the freedom of His grace, and who deny Him. 

Aunt Maud died that November. I found my way to London and to Ealing, and was at the funeral. 

It was a grey afternoon, and rainy, almost as dark as night. Everywhere the lights were on. It was one of those short, dark, foggy days of the early English winter. 

Uncle Ben sat in a wheel-chair, broken and thin, with a black skullcap on his head, and this time he really did look like a ghost. He seemed to have lost the power of speech, and looked about him with blank uncomprehension, as if all this story of a funeral were a gratuitous insult to his intelligence. Why were they trying to tell him that Maud was dead? 

They committed the thin body of my poor Victorian angel to the clay of Ealing, and buried my childhood with her. In an obscure, half-conscious way I realized this and was appalled. She it was who had presided in a certain sense over my most innocent days. And now I saw those days buried with her in the ground. 

Indeed the England I had seen through the clear eyes of her own simplicity, that too had died for me here. I could no longer believe in the pretty country churches, the quiet villages, the elm-trees along the common where the cricketers wait in white while the bowler pensively paces out a run for himself behind the wicket. The huge white clouds that sail over Sussex, the bell-charmed spires of the ancient county towns, the cathedral closes full of trees, the deaneries that ring with rooks—none of this any longer belonged to me, for I had lost it all. Its fragile web of charmed associations had been broken and blown away and I had fallen through the surface of old England into the hell, the vacuum and the horror that London was nursing in her avaricious heart. 

It was the last time that I saw any of my family in England.

Merton is letting go of his childhood.  For him, his Aunt Maud was his childhood.  She was the one who told him he could be a writer, who encouraged him to pursue what he was passionate about.  Every child needs a person like that, whether it's a friend, parent, aunt, uncle, teacher, or member of the clergy.

My Aunt Maud was my English teacher during my senior year in high school.  Mrs. Jones.  She filled me with confidence, assured me that I was a good writer.  I would show up early for school to help her get ready for the day.  I would stay after school to carry her books down to her car.  She was a bird of a woman who was constantly out of breath, going up stairs or down, walking across a parking lot.  The summer I graduated from high school, Mrs. Jones underwent cardiac surgery.  She didn't survive the operation, and I felt like a part of me died with her.

Saturday afternoon, as I was driving home from church, I lost another part of my childhood.  My father used to own a plumbing store in town.  While the store has been closed for many years, the building still stood there, and the sign with my father's name on it still hung over the street.  Driving home from church, I always looked for that building and sign.  It was a huge part of my childhood.

The building is gone now.  I don't know when it happened.  It was there the week before.  I walked by it just two Saturdays ago and peered in the windows.  Saw the old carpeting and the counter where the cash register sat.  This weekend, there was simply an empty lot.  Not a brick or shingle remained.  It was like it was whisked off to Oz by a tornado, and I didn't even have a chance to say goodbye.

I have so many memories attached to that building, some of them good, some not so good.  Through my entire four years of high school, I worked there every Saturday, open to close.  At the time, I hated it.  I was a teenager and wanted to sleep in, be with my friends.  Instead, I was selling toilet seats and faucets.  Later, I used the desktop computer at the store to write my first college papers.  Some nights, when my friends came home for Christmas break from college, we would sneak into the store and drink beer, smoke weed.  I brought my wife there on some of our first dates, and we would make out in the dark.

So, I am sort of in mourning over the loss of that place, even though I hadn't been inside the building for more than 15 years.  I grew up there, in more ways than one.  Yet, loss is a part of living.  I wouldn't be the writer I am today if it weren't for Mrs. Jones reading my short stories, telling me one afternoon, "You have a gift.  Something special."  And, if it weren't for my dad's store, I wouldn't have learned good work ethic or gotten high on cold December nights or fallen in love with my wife.

Mrs. Jones has been gone almost 35 years.  My dad's store stood empty for close to ten years.  It almost burned down when a neighboring building caught fire.  Yet, I can still hear Mrs. Jones' voice sometimes when I'm revising a poem or essay.  And I still meet people who remember me as that awkward teenager selling them a thermocouple for their water heater.

I will always bear these footprints in my person.  They are a part of me.  Always will be.  Sort of like when you put your hands in wet cement in front of your childhood home.  You go back 20 or 30 years later, those prints are still there.  Maybe a little worse for the wear, but still present.  Visible.

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for the miracle of these indelible prints in the cement of his soul.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

September 12: Red Cow, WHAMMO!, Where Poetry Lives

Thomas Merton as a freshman at Cambridge . . .

Perhaps to you the atmosphere of Cambridge is neither dark nor sinister. Perhaps you were never there except in May. You never saw anything but the thin Spring sun half veiled in the mists and blossoms of the gardens along the Backs, smiling on the lavender bricks and stones of Trinity and St. John’s, or my own college, Clare. 

I am even willing to admit that some people might live there for three years, or even a lifetime, so protected that they never sense the sweet stench of corruption that is all around them—the keen, thin scent of decay that pervades everything and accuses with a terrible accusation the superficial youthfulness, the abounding undergraduate noise that fills those ancient buildings. But for me, with my blind appetites, it was impossible that I should not rush in and take a huge bite of this rotten fruit. The bitter taste is still with me after not a few years. 

My freshman year went by very fast. It was a dizzy business that began in the dark, brief afternoons of the English autumn and ended after a short series of long summer evenings on the river. All those days and nights were without romance, horrible. They could not help being everything that I did not want them to be. 

I was breaking my neck trying to get everything out of life that you think you can get out of it when you are eighteen. And I ran with a pack of hearties who wore multicolored scarves around their necks and who would have barked all night long in the echoing shadows of the Petty Cury if they had not been forced to go home to bed at a certain time. 

At first it was confusing. It took me a month or two to find my level in this cloudy semi-liquid medium in whose dregs I was ultimately destined to settle. There were my friends from Oakham. At first we clung together for protection, and used to spend much time in one another’s rooms, although Andrew’s digs were far away in the wilds beyond Addenbrooke’s hospital. To get there I cycled through a mysterious world of new buildings dedicated to chemistry, and at the end of the journey drank tea and played St. Louis Blues on the piano. Dickens was much nearer. He was around the corner from my lodgings. You traveled through two or three courts of St. John’s College and crossed the river. He was in the so-called New Building. His room directly overlooked the river and he and I and Andrew would eat breakfast there and throw bits of toast to the ducks while he told us all about Pavlov and conditioned reflexes. 

As the year went on I drifted apart from them, especially from Andrew who ended up as the leading man in the Footlights show that year. He was something of a singer. My crowd had no interest in singing and a certain amount of contempt, indeed, for the Footlights and all that it represented. I remember that I almost made friends with one or two serious and somewhat complicated young men who were reading modern languages with me and belonged to my own college, but their reticences bored me. And they, in their turn, were rather shocked by the two-handed heartiness with which I was grabbing at life. 

In the room underneath mine, in my lodgings, was a round red-faced Yorkshireman who was a pacifist. He too was full of reticences. But on Armistice Day he got into some kind of a demonstration and all the rugger players and oarsmen threw eggs at him. I knew nothing about it until I saw the pictures in the evening paper. 

I would not have been interested in making friends with him either—he was too tame and shy. But in any case the landlord took to coming into my room and calumniating the poor man while I listened patiently, knowing of no way to shut him up. Before the end of the year the landlord was much more disgusted with me than with any lodger he had ever had before or, probably, since. 

I think it was after Armistice Day, when I had finally become acquainted with some two hundred different people, that I drifted into the crowd that had been gravitating around the nether pole of Cambridge life. 

We were the ones who made all the noise when there was a “bump supper.” We lived in the Lion Inn. We fought our way in and out of the “Red Cow.”

I've been teaching rooms full of college Mertons for over 25 years.  What Merton describes here isn't unique.  In fact, I would say it's pretty typical for 18- and 19- and 20-somethings.  They don't know who they are, what they are, sometimes where they are.  They are told on a daily basis that they're adults and need to behave as such.  Yet, their prefrontal cortexes are still in that weird state of adolescent playdough, being shaped and reshaped, over and over, by their experiences.  In the morning they wake up as bowls and then--WHAMMO!--they're flattened into plates by afternoon.

Of course, that happens to adults, as well.  You wake up, get dressed, go to the office where you've worked for the last 20 years, and--WHAMMO!--your entire department is being outsourced.  Or, you wake up happily married, go to work, and when you get back home--WHAMMO!--your spouse is gone.  There are no guarantees for stability or happiness in life.  Benjamin Franklin's little nugget of wisdom still applies:  ". . . in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."  One of my many therapists with whom I've worked once told me, "Change is inevitable."  She was right.

I'm sure everyone reading this post will agree that 2020 has been a WHAMMO! year.  So much that I took for granted has vanished.  Going to a movie theater.  Walking into a classroom.  Eating out at a restaurant.  The simplest acts of living in 2019 have been transformed into occasions of possible deadly exposure in 2020.  Two words that will probably be used, over and over, in history books about this time are "isolation" and "distance."  People have been forced to become islands by the pandemic.

I have never been a fan of WHAMMO!  In fact, I would say that I've spent a good portion of my life running from WHAMMO!  I'm a creature of habit.  I've said so many times in this blog.  As a writer, this character trait helps me.  Having a writing routine makes it easier for me to slip deeper and quicker into the place where poetry lives.

Some people might accuse me of wanting a boring life.  That's not true.  I want a life where the people I cherish most are happy and healthy and safe.  I want a life where love and trust aren't distant stars, but twin suns in my orbit.  I want my daughter to realize that she astounds me constantly with her boundless compassion.  I want my son to understand that this world is a better place because he's in it.  I want my wife to know that I've given her my best self, every day, since we've been together.  No WHAMMO! can take any of those things away.

So, yes, Mr. Franklin, death and taxes are certainties.  But I also know I can count on my daughter to hug me every night before she goes to bed.  That my son can't fall asleep until I sit on the edge of his mattress and pray with him.  And that, in the dark tonight, before I close my eyes, I will look at my wife's sleeping face and remember the first time I kissed her.

For all those certain miracles, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Check out my new podcast--Confessions of Saint Marty:

Friday, September 11, 2020

September 11: Animality and Vulgarity, Lose Track, Mirror in Front of My Face

Merton loses the religious faith he recently found . . .

That summer, when I went on a slow and dirty train in a round-about way to Chicago to see the World’s Fair, I picked up two pamphlets on the Mormons in the Hall of Religion, but the story of the holy books discovered through revelation on a hill in upper New York State did not convince me and I was not converted. The thin red and yellow walls of the palaces of the Fair, scattered between the lake and the slums and freight-yards, amused me with their noise, and for the first time I walked in the wide-open air of the flat and endless Middle West. 

Out of sheer bravado I got myself a job for a few days as a barker in front of a side-show in a part of the Fair called the Streets of Paris, the nature of which is sufficiently evident from that name. The ease with which I got the job astounded and flattered me, and it gave me a sense of power and importance to be so suddenly transported from the order of those who were fleeced of their money to the level of those who did the fleecing. However, in a couple of days I also discovered that perhaps I had not risen above the ranks of the “suckers” after all, since the boss of the side-show was more ready to pay me in promises and fancy words than in dollars, for my services. Besides, it was very tiring to stand in the heat and dust from noon to midnight shouting at the sea of straw-hatted heads and shoulders dressed in duck and seersucker or in open-necked shirts and dresses soaked with healthy Middle-Western sweat. The absolutely open and undisguised and noncommittal frankness of the paganism of Chicago and of this Fair and of this particular part of the Fair and, apparently, of the whole country which it represented, amazed me after the complicated reticences of England and the ornate pornography of France. 

When I got back to New York I had lost most of my temporary interest in religion. My friends in that city had a religion of their own: a cult of New York itself, and of the peculiar manner in which Manhattan expressed the bigness and gaudiness and noisiness and frank animality and vulgarity of this American paganism. 

I used to go to the Burlesque and hang around Fourteenth Street with Reg Marsh, who was an old friend of my father’s, and who is famous for painting all these things in his pictures. Reginald Marsh was (and I suppose still is) a thick-set man of short stature who gave the impression that he was a retired light-weight prize-fighter. He had a way of talking out of the corner of his mouth, and yet at the same time his face had something babyish and cherubic about it, as he looked out at the world through the simple and disinterested and uncritical eyes of the artist, taking everything as he found it, and considering everything as possible subject matter for one of his Hogarthian compositions, provided only it was alive. 

We got along very well together, because of the harmony of our views, I worshiping life as such, and he worshiping it especially in the loud, wild bedlam of the crowded, crazy city that he loved. His favorite places of devotion were Union Square and the Irving Place Burlesque, stinking of sweat and cheap cigars and ready to burn down or collapse at any minute. But I guess his cathedral was Coney Island. Everybody who has ever seen his pictures, knows that much about Reg Marsh. 

All that summer I hung around his Fourteenth Street studio, and went with him to many of the parties to which he was invited, and got to know my way around New York. 

But when September came I sailed for England once more. This time I made the crossing on the Manhattan, a garish and turbulent cabin class steamer full of Nazi spies working as stewards and detesting the Jewish passengers. The voyage was a violent one. One night I looked down one of the deep stair-wells and saw six or seven half-drunk passengers having a general fight on the swaying linoleum floor of E deck. And one afternoon in the middle of one of those paralyzing synthetic amusements that are fixed up for the passengers on Atlantic liners—I think it must have been the “horse race”—an American dentist stood up with a loud roar and challenged a French tailor to come out and fight him on the promenade deck. The challenge was not taken up, but all the business men and tourists savored the delicious scandal, for there was no one on board who was not aware that behind it all stood the six-foot daughter of someone prominent in Washington, D.C.

At Plymouth they put those of us who were bound for London on to a fat launch in the middle of the harbor, and once again I looked upon the pale green downs of England. I landed with one of the worst colds I ever had in my life. And so on the tide of all these circumstances of confusion I swept into the dark, sinister atmosphere of Cambridge and began my university career.

Getting distracted is very easy, very human.  Merton leaves Italy full of a religious fervor he's never experienced before.  Upon returning to New York, he falls back into old, worldly habits, and returns to earlier jaundiced view of organized religion.  That it is simply artifice and vanity.  Plus, he is swept up in the "animality and vulgarity" of what he calls "American paganism."  His cathedral is New York City with its steel and glass and multitudes of sweaty humanity.

It's so easy to lose track of yourself in the midst of struggle.  If anything, that's what this year is defined by:  struggle.  For me, the struggle has been on all levels, from the universal to the personal.  So much upheaval and turmoil.  And my son, who I've tried to shield from all the slings and arrows of 2020, has picked up on it.  Yesterday afternoon, a phone call from the school guidance counselor confirmed this fact.  Intuitively, my son realizes something is amiss in his little portion of the planet, and he's been expressing his reaction in unhealthy, self-harmful ways.

Anyone who knows me, even superficially, knows I would do anything for my kids' happiness.  One of the reasons I've held on so long as a contingent professor at the university is so that I can help my daughter and son pay for their college educations.  The reason I work my second job in the medical office is for the health benefits.  Then there's playing the pipe organ on the weekends.  Cleaning churches during the week.  All for my family.  And I don't mind it.  It's what fathers and husbands are supposed to do.

In all this busyness, however, I sometimes don't see problems that exist right in front of my face.  My son is hurting.  Really hurting.  I didn't see it.  I see it now, after that call from the guidance counselor, a visit to his therapist, and a trip to the ER.  It was a sobering night for me.  Held up a huge mirror in front of my face, and I didn't like what I saw. 

What did I see?  I saw a father who was too wrapped up in what he thought a father ought to do, not doing what a father needs to do.  Which is to be attentive.  Be mindful.  Be there.  I'm sitting across from my son right now at our kitchen table.  He's chewing gum, listening to his weird music (Oliver Tree--do yourself a favor and avoid it), and actually smiling.  I haven't seen him smile in quite a few days.

I listened to him today at his therapist's office and then in the ER, and I think my son felt heard.  Perhaps that accounts for his smile.  I think, deep down, that's what everyone wants.  Validation that they are important and loved, no matter what.  That they are heard with a capital "H." 

My son taught me how to be a better father--and person--today.  That's a miracle.  He's home, safe.  Another miracle. 

Saint Marty gives thanks for his son's smile tonight.

Monday, September 7, 2020

September 7: Society of Friends, What It's All About, Silence and Emptiness

Lessons in religion from a young and jaded Merton . . .

The train crossed the Tiber. The little pyramid and the cypresses of the English cemetery where Keats was buried disappeared. I remembered some allusion in Plautus to a big hill of rubbish and potsherds that had once stood in this part of the city. Then we came out into the bare plain between Rome and the sea. In this distance were San Paolo, and the low hills that concealed the Trappist monastery of Tre Fontane. “O Rome,” I said in my heart, “will I ever see you again?” 

The first two months after I landed in New York, and went to the house in Douglaston, I continued to read the Bible surreptitiously—I was afraid someone might make fun of me. And since I slept on the sleeping porch, which opened on the upstairs hall through glass doors and which, in any case, I shared with my uncle, I no longer dared to pray on my knees before going to sleep, though I am sure everybody would have been pleased and edified. The real reason for this was that I did not have the humility to care nothing about what people thought or said. I was afraid of their remarks, even kind ones, even approving ones. Indeed, it is a kind of quintessence of pride to hate and fear even the kind and legitimate approval of those who love us! I mean, to resent it as a humiliating patronage. 

There is no point in telling all the details of how this real but temporary religious fervor of mine cooled down and disappeared. At Easter we went to the church where my father had once been organist, Zion Church, with the white spire standing among the locust trees on the hill between us and the station. And there I was very irritated by the services, and my own pride increased the irritation and complicated it. And I used to walk about the house or sit at the dinner table telling everybody what a terrible place Zion Church was, and condemning everything that it stood for. 

One Sunday I went to the Quaker meeting house in Flushing, where Mother had once sat and meditated with the Friends. I sat down there too, in a deep pew in the back, near a window. The place was about half full. The people were mostly middle-aged or old, and there was nothing that distinguished them in any evident way from the congregation in a Methodist or a Baptist or an Episcopalian or any other Protestant church, except that they sat silent, waiting for the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. I liked that. I liked the silence. It was peaceful. In it, my shyness began to die down, and I ceased to look about and criticize the people, and entered, somewhat superficially, into my own soul, and some nebulous good resolutions began to take shape there. 

But it did not get very far, for presently one of the middle-aged ladies thought the Holy Ghost was after her to get up and talk. I secretly suspected that she had come to the meeting all prepared to make a speech anyway, for she reached into her handbag, as she stood up, and cried out in a loud earnest voice: 

“When I was in Switzerland I took this snapshot of the famous Lion of Lucerne....” With that she pulled out a picture. Sure enough, it was the famous Lion of Lucerne. She held it up and tried to show it around to the Friends, at the same time explaining that she thought it was a splendid exemplification of Swiss courage and manliness and patience and all the other virtues of the watchmaking Swiss which she mentioned and which I have now forgotten. 

The Friends accepted it in patience, without enthusiasm or resentment. But I went out of the meeting house saying to myself “They are like all the rest. In other churches it is the minister who hands out the commonplaces, and here it is liable to be just anybody.” 

Still, I think I had enough sense to know that it would be madness to look for a group of people, a society, a religion, a church from which all mediocrity would absolutely be excluded. But when I read the works of William Penn and found them to be about as supernatural as a Montgomery Ward catalogue I lost interest in the Quakers. If I had run across something by Evelyn Underhill it might have been different.

I think that one could find much earnest and pure and humble worship of God and much sincere charity among the Quakers. Indeed, you are bound to find a little of this in every religion. But I have never seen any evidence of its rising above the natural order. They are full of natural virtues and some of them are contemplatives in a natural sense of the word. Nor are they excluded from God’s graces if He wills. For He loves them, and He will not withhold His light from good people anywhere. Yet I cannot see that they will ever be anything more than what they claim to be—a “Society of friends.”

The Trappist monk Merton seems to take over here, casting a pretty jaundiced eye at any Christian denomination other than Catholicism.  This Merton is very different from the later version who vehemently opposed war and nuclear proliferation.  Who turned turned to Eastern mysticism as a way to deepen his own spiritual life.  At the end of his life, he was attending an international conference on monasticism in Bangkok, Thailand, when he suffered an accidental death by electrocution.  (Some conspiracy theorists say his death wasn't so "accidental," due to his outspoken beliefs regarding world peace and the Cold War.)

Thomas Merton will probably never be canonized because of these controversial aspects of his life.  (The fact that opposition to war and an interest in Eastern contemplative practices are "controversial" says more about the skewed politics of the Church than Merton's own merits as a Catholic thinker/prospective saint.  These days, that line of thinking will probably deny the canonization of Dorothy Day for her "socialist" leanings on behalf of workers and the poor.)  But I'm not here tonight to argue the merits of Merton's cause for sainthood.  Merton was very human.  He enjoyed the spotlight that his writings brought him.  Yet, he tried to use that spotlight to make the world a better place.  Isn't that the definition of true goodness?

In everything that I do--whether it's leading a poetry workshop, teaching a film class, or registering patients for medical appointments--I try to somehow make a difference in people's lives.  I think that's why we're put on this planet.  To lift up, make better, spread joy and peace.  As a Christian, I know one of my jobs is to teach people about Jesus.  Reading the Gospels aloud to strangers won't accomplish this.  The best way I know how to teach people about my faith is through acts of kindness and understanding.  Helping out.  Acceptance.  That's what it's all about.

Every morning, driving to work, I say a little prayer.  It goes something like this:  "Hey, God.  It's me again.  Sorry for messing up yesterday.  Help me to be a good person today.  Grant me wisdom to say and do the right things.  Let me make somebody's life better."  I figure if I can do that by bedtime, I've earned a good night's sleep.

That doesn't mean that my life is without hardships.  If you read any saint's life story, you know that being a saint is a prescription for difficulty--ridicule, persecution, sometimes torture and death.  Just because I'm a Christian doesn't mean I'm automatically exempt from any of these things.  But it does mean that I have, as the Gershwin song goes, someone to watch over me.  That's the difference.  I'm not alone.  Ever.

Of course, some saints have experienced long periods where it felt like God stepped away from them.  Mother Teresa once wrote to a friend and confessor, "[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,--Listen and do not hear--the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak . . ." Her silence and emptiness lasted 40 years. Yet, she never stopped trusting in God's love. That's the difference between a normal person and a saint, I guess. Ever present trust.

I have been experiencing God's silence myself recently. I'm not Mother Teresa. Trust doesn't come as easily for me. Yet, tonight, I was reminded of God's love. I went to my parents' house for a Labor Day barbecue. We had grilled cheeseburgers and watermelon. It was a low-key dinner. No place settings. We just grabbed plates and food. Rose, my sister who has Down syndrome, was there. She's really confused these days. Dementia has taken away a lot of her memory. She frequently called me by my brother's name. She called my wife by my daughter's name.

Yet, she was legitimately happy to see my family, although our puppy got on her nerves a little. At one point she turned to me and said, "Martin, I'm glad you're here." (It was the only time during the evening that she used my name.) That was my sister talking to me. I think it was also God talking to me. Reminding me that I'm here for a reason. And that He's glad I'm here.

I'm no saint, that's for sure. But God spoke to me tonight.

And for that miracle, Saint Marty gives thanks.