Merton learns something about the supernatural order of the universe . . .
Moral theologians say that the mendacium jocosum in itself does not exceed a venial sin.
Seymour and Lax were rooming together in one of the dormitories, for Bob Gibney, with whom Lax had roomed the year before, had now graduated, and was sitting in Port Washington with much the same dispositions with which I had been sitting in Douglaston, facing a not too dissimilar blank wall, the end of his own blind-alley. He occasionally came in to town to see Dona Eaton who had a place on 112th Street, but no job, and was more cheerful about her own quandary than the rest of us, because the worst that could happen to her was that she would at last run completely out of money and have to go home to Panama.
Gibney was not what you would call pious. In fact, he had an attitude that would be commonly called impious, only I believe God understood well enough that his violence and sarcasms covered a sense of deep metaphysical dismay—an anguish that was real, though not humble enough to be of much use to his soul. What was materially impiety in him was directed more against common ideas and notions which he saw or considered to be totally inadequate, and maybe it subjectively represented a kind of oblique zeal for the purity of God, this rebellion against the commonplace and trite, against mediocrity, religiosity.
During the year that had passed, I suppose it must have been in the spring of 1937, both Gibney and Lax and Bob Gerdy had all been talking about becoming Catholics. Bob Gerdy was a very smart sophomore with the face of a child and a lot of curly hair on top of it, who took life seriously, and had discovered courses on Scholastic Philosophy in the graduate school, and had taken one of them.
Gibney was interested in Scholastic Philosophy in much the same way as James Joyce was—he respected its intellectuality, particularly that of the Thomists, but there was not enough that was affective about his interest to bring about any kind of a conversion.
For the three or four years that I knew Gibney, he was always holding out for some kind of a “sign,” some kind of a sensible and tangible interior jolt from God, to get him started, some mystical experience or other. And while he waited and waited for this to come along, he did all the things that normally exclude and nullify the action of grace. So in those days, none of them became Catholics.
The most serious of them all, in this matter, was Lax: he was the one that had been born with the deepest sense of Who God was. But he would not make a move without the others.
And then there was myself Having read The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and having discovered that the Catholic conception of God was something tremendously solid, I had not progressed one step beyond this recognition, except that one day I had gone and looked up St. Bernard’s De Diligendo Deo in the catalogue of the university library. It was one of the books Gilson had frequently mentioned: but when I found that there was no good copy of it, except in Latin, I did not take it out.
Now it was November 1937. One day, Lax and I were riding downtown on one of those busses you caught at the corner of 110th Street and Broadway. We had skirted the southern edge of Harlem, passing along the top of Central Park, and the dirty lake full of rowboats. Now we were going down Fifth Avenue, under the trees. Lax was telling me about a book he had been reading, which was Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means. He told me about it in a way that made me want to read it too.
So I went to Scribner’s bookstore and bought it, and read it, and wrote an article about it, and gave the article to Barry Ulanov who was editor of Review by that time. He accepted the article with a big Greek smile and printed it. The smile was on account of the conversion it represented, I mean the conversion in me, as well as in Huxley, although one of the points I tried to make was that perhaps Huxley’s conversion should not have been taken as so much of a surprise.
Huxley had been one of my favorite novelists in the days when I had been sixteen and seventeen and had built up a strange, ignorant philosophy of pleasure based on all the stories I was reading. And now everybody was talking about the way Huxley had changed. The chatter was all the more pleasant because of Huxley’s agnostic old grandfather—and his biologist brother. Now the man was preaching mysticism.
Huxley was too sharp and intelligent and had too much sense of humor to take any of the missteps that usually make such conversions look ridiculous and oafish. You could not laugh at him, very well—at least not for any one concrete blunder. This was not one of those Oxford Group conversions, complete with a public confession.
On the contrary, he had read widely and deeply and intelligently in all kinds of Christian and Oriental mystical literature, and had come out with the astonishing truth that all this, far from being a mixture of dreams and magic and charlatanism, was very real and very serious.
Not only was there such a thing as a supernatural order, but as a matter of concrete experience, it was accessible, very close at hand, an extremely near, an immediate and most necessary source of moral vitality, and one which could be reached most simply, most readily by prayer, faith, detachment, love.
Apprehending God concretely. I think we all spend most of our lives trying to do that. Some people through poetry. Others through science. It's all about trying to understand mystery. Things we just can't figure out in our normal, limited, human way. It takes a force that transcends kitchen tables and bills and jobs. Merton hits the nail on the head here, to use that hackneyed expression. It's about faith and prayer. And love, most of all.
I received word yesterday afternoon that my mother has tested positive for COVID. She's in the nursing home and has been moved to the COVID wing. She's out of my reach. Out of all of our reaches. We can't visit, so we have to rely on reports from the nurses and managers. Feeling this powerless is a painful thing. Poet Louise Gluck writes, "From the beginning of time, in childhood, I thought that pain meant I was not loved. It meant I loved."
Love. This is where mystery comes in. I have no idea what is going to happen with my mother. She has terrible asthma. Diabetes. Alzheimer's. Macular degeneration has taken much of her eyesight, and her hearing is almost gone, as well. If I were to walk into her room tonight, I'm not sure she would know who I was. Yet, I have to trust that she will be well. Trust in God. Poetry. The universe. Love.
Everything is going to be alright.
That doesn't mean there won't be pain. To be alive means you will experience pain. It's inevitable. In some way, my mother will be healed. The form of that healing is, again, out of my hands. As with most powerful forces--hurricanes, blizzards, tidal waves, avalanches, love, healing--there is some devastation left in its aftermath. Relief sometimes--homes spared from fire, lost children found. Tears other times--neighborhoods blown into splinters, loved ones taken away. It depends how the wind blows, the water rises, the healing manifests.
That is the greatest mystery that we all face. We can try to hide from it, which is futile. Or we can embrace it. Open ourselves up. Wade into the storm.
Tonight, I am waist-deep in flood water, sending faith, hope, and love to my mother. I know that I sound like I'm paraphrasing Corinthians. However, Saint Paul got things right every once in a while. The greatest force in the universe is love, and all the pain that accompanies it.
Saint Marty loves. Therefore, Saint Marty hurts. That is the mystery. That is the miracle.