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.

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