Monday, November 30, 2020

November 29-30: Supernatural Order, Mother COVID-Positive, Mystery

 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.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

November 27-28: Job and St. John of the Cross, My People, Light Enters You

 Merton and Bob Lax and a dog named "Bunky" . . .

All that year we were, in fact, talking about the deepest springs of human desire and hope and fear; we were considering all the most important realities, not indeed in terms of something alien to Shakespeare and to poetry, but precisely in his own terms, with occasional intuitions of another order. And, as I have said, Mark’s balanced and sensitive and clear way of seeing things, at once simple and yet capable of subtlety, being fundamentally scholastic, though not necessarily and explicitly Christian, presented these things in ways that made them live within us, and with a life that was healthy and permanent and productive. This class was one of the few things that could persuade me to get on the train and go to Columbia at all. It was, that year, my only health, until I came across and read the Gilson book. 

It was this year, too, that I began to discover who Bob Lax was, and that in him was a combination of Mark’s clarity and my confusion and misery— and a lot more besides that was his own. 

To name Robert Lax in another way, he was a kind of combination of Hamlet and Elias. A potential prophet, but without rage. A king, but a Jew too. A mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate. In his hesitations, though without embarrassment or nervousness at all, he would often curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to find a word with which to begin. He talked best sitting on the floor. 

And the secret of his constant solidity I think has always been a kind of natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God. Lax has always been afraid he was in a blind alley, and half aware that, after all, it might not be a blind alley, but God, infinity. 

He had a mind naturally disposed, from the very cradle, to a kind of affinity for Job and St. John of the Cross. And I now know that he was born so much of a contemplative that he will probably never be able to find out how much. 

To sum it up, even the people who have always thought he was “too impractical” have always tended to venerate him—in the way people who value material security unconsciously venerate people who do not fear insecurity. 

In those days one of the things we had most in common, although perhaps we did not talk about it so much, was the abyss that walked around in front of our feet everywhere we went, and kept making us dizzy and afraid of trains and high buildings. For some reason, Lax developed an implicit trust in all my notions about what was good and bad for mental and physical health, perhaps because I was always very definite in my likes and dislikes. I am afraid it did not do him too much good, though. For even though I had my imaginary abyss, which broadened immeasurably and became ten times dizzier when I had a hangover, my ideas often tended to some particular place where we would hear this particular band and drink this special drink until the place folded up at four o’clock in the morning. 

The months passed by, and most of the time I sat in Douglaston, drawing cartoons for the paper-cup business, and trying to do all the other things I was supposed to do. In the summer, Lax went to Europe, and I continued to sit in Douglaston, writing a long, stupid novel about a college football player who got mixed up in a lot of strikes in a textile mill. 

I did not graduate that June, although I nominally belonged to that year’s class: I had still one or two courses to take, on account of having entered Columbia in February. In the fall of 1937 I went back to school, then, with my mind a lot freer, since I was not burdened with any more of those ugly and useless jobs on the fourth floor. I could write and do the drawings I felt like doing for Jester. 

I began to talk more to Lax and to Ed Rice who was now drawing better and funnier pictures than anybody else for the magazine. For the first time I saw Sy Freedgood, who was full of a fierce and complex intellectuality which he sometimes liked to present in the guise of a rather suspicious suavity. He was in love with a far more technical vocabulary than any of the rest of us possessed, and was working at something in the philosophy graduate school. Seymour used consciously to affect a whole set of different kinds of duplicity, of which he was proud, and he had carried the mendacium jocosum or “humorous lie” to its utmost extension and frequency. You could sometimes gauge the falsity of his answers by their promptitude: the quicker the falser. The reason for this was, probably, that he was thinking of something else, something very abstruse and far from the sphere of your question, and he could not be bothered to bring his mind all that way back, to think up the real answer. 

For Lax and myself and Gibney there was no inconvenience about this, for two reasons. Since Seymour generally gave his false answers only to practical questions of fact, their falsity did not matter: we were all too impractical. Besides his false answers were generally more interesting than the truth. Finally, since we knew they were false anyway, we had the habit of seeing all his statements, in the common factual order by a kind of double standard, instituting a comparison between what he had said and the probable truth, and this cast many interesting and ironical lights upon life as a whole. 

In his house at Long Beach, where his whole family lived in a state of turmoil and confusion, there was a large, stupid police dog that got in everybody’s way with his bowed head and slapped-down ears and amiable, guilty look. The first time I saw the dog, I asked: “What’s his name?” 

“Prince,” said Seymour, out of the corner of his mouth. 

It was a name to which the beast responded gladly. I guess he responded to any name, didn’t care what you called him, so flattered was he to be called at all, being as he knew an extremely stupid dog. 

So I was out on the boardwalk with the dog, shouting: “Hey, Prince; hey, Prince!” 

Seymour’s wife, Helen, came along and heard me shouting all this and said nothing, imagining, no doubt, that it was some way I had of making fun of the brute. Later, Seymour or someone told me that “Prince” wasn’t the dog’s name, but they told me in such a way that I got the idea that his name was really “Rex.” So for some time after that I called him: “Hey, Rex; hey, Rex!” Several months later, after many visits to the house, I finally learned that the dog was called nothing like Prince nor Rex, but “Bunky.” 

Merton is finally finding his crowd.  People who are leading him in the direction of his calling.  Robert (Bob) Lax was a poet who, as Merton hints at here, drifted through life, eventually settling on Patmos.  While I'm not at all familiar with Lax's work, I sort of imagine him as a latter-day John, living on that island and writing apocalyptically.  That Merton was drawn to him is not surprising.  In fact, all of the people mentioned here (Lax, Freedgood, Rice) were instrumental in Merton's conversion.  Ed Rice was the godfather to both Merton and Lax when they converted.

When I was in college, it took me quite a while to find my crowd, as well.  For most of my undergraduate years, I hung with computer scientists and mathematicians.  Took classes in Pascal programming and abstract algebra.  Spent a good deal of my time in rooms with monstrously large desktop computers, figuring life out through flow charts and lines of code.  However, somewhere deep down, I knew I didn't really fit in.  I couldn't get as excited as my friends about pixels and artificial intelligence.  And, to a person, money was their motivating factor.  They were all looking to get rich.

It was only when I started taking upper-division creative writing classes that I found my people.  While I did well in my computer and math classes, by the time I hit my last semesters as an undergraduate, I knew I wasn't going to spend my life debugging programs or teaching students the differences between differential and integral calculus.  I was going to be a writer and surround myself with writers.

For the most part, that is what I have done.  Yes, I worked in the healthcare industry for over 25 years, but, at the same time, I was contingent teaching for the local university's English Department.  And, every once in a while, I would publish a story here, a poem there.  I have not made the kind of money I would have made had I pursued a career in computers.  But I knew I stood a better chance of being the next Galway Kinnell than the next Steve Jobs.  

Because it all boils down to passion.  I am passionate about words and literature and beauty.  I am NOT passionate about algorithms and Booleans.  And, as Frost said, that has made all the difference.  Poetry and my poet friends have sustained me throughout all of my life struggles.

Comparatively speaking, I haven't had nearly as hard a life as some poets.  I have never personally struggled with alcoholism or drug addiction.  Nor have I  suffered from any kind of long-term mental illness.  I am not Dylan Thomas or Sylvia Plath.  In fact, I'm like vanilla pudding when it comes to the typical problems that plague most major poets.  Yet I've had my share of setbacks.

Most poems come from a place of pain.  Rumi said, "The wound is the place where the light enters you."  I would amend that statement a little:  "The wound is the place where poetry enters you."  Poets grapple with pain.  Try to understand it.  Make friends with it.  Transform it.

Most people feel uncomfortable in the presence of real hurt.  They try to make things better, through word or action.  There's nothing wrong with that.  It's a natural human instinct.  However, poets, I think, recognize that all truly beautiful things arise from a place of woundedness.  Think about it.  Would the narrative of Jesus Christ be as moving without the crucifixion?  Little Women work without the death of Beth?  Scrooge be redeemed without the specter of Tiny Tim's absence?  

Poets get that.  The fissures and cracks and wounds of life allow light to break through.  Grief gives way to healing.  Loneliness to love.  Night to day.  That's why I'm a poet and not a computer programmer.  Why I've turned to Seamus Heaney and Natasha Trethewey to understand the events of 2020.  Why my best friends are poets and poetry lovers.

Because Saint Marty learned that the greatest miracles are the ones that require you to travel through mountain and desert, on blistered feet, hungry and cold, following a distant star toward the promise of joy.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

November 26: A Different Order, Giving Thanks, "Pecan Pie"

 Merton being thankful for friends, a teacher, and poetry . . . 

Now I come to speak of the real part Columbia seems to have been destined to play in my life in the providential designs of God. Poor Columbia! It was founded by sincere Protestants as a college predominantly religious. The only thing that remains of that is the university motto: In lumine tuo videbimus lumen—one of the deepest and most beautiful lines of the psalms. “In Thy light, we shall see light.” It is, precisely, about grace. It is a line that might serve as the foundation stone of all Christian and Scholastic learning, and which simply has nothing whatever to do with the standards of education at modern Columbia. It might profitably be changed to In lumine Randall videbimus Dewey

Yet, strangely enough, it was on this big factory of a campus that the Holy Ghost was waiting to show me the light, in His own light. And one of the chief means He used, and through which he operated, was human friendship. 

God has willed that we should all depend on one another for our salvation, and all strive together for our own mutual good and our own common salvation. Scripture teaches us that this is especially true in the supernatural order, in the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, which flows necessarily from Christian teaching on grace. 

“You are the body of Christ and members one of another.... And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not thy help: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.... And if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it; and if one member glory all the others rejoice with it.” 

So now is the time to tell a thing that I could not realize then, but which has become very clear to me: that God brought me and a half a dozen others together at Columbia, and made us friends, in such a way that our friendship would work powerfully to rescue us from the confusion and the misery in which we had come to find ourselves, partly through our own fault, and partly through a complex set of circumstances which might be grouped together under the heading of the “modern world,” “modern society.” But the qualification “modern” is unnecessary and perhaps unfair. The traditional Gospel term, “the world,” will do well enough. 

All our salvation begins on the level of common and natural and ordinary things. (That is why the whole economy of the Sacraments, for instance, rests, in its material element, upon plain and ordinary things like bread and wine and water and salt and oil.) And so it was with me. Books and ideas and poems and stories, pictures and music, buildings, cities, places, philosophies were to be the materials on which grace would work. But these things are themselves not enough. The more fundamental instinct of fear for my own preservation came in, in a minor sort of a way, in this strange, half-imaginary sickness which nobody could diagnose completely. 

The coming war, and all the uncertainties and confusions and fears that followed necessarily from that, and all the rest of the violence and injustice that were in the world, had a very important part to play. All these things were bound together and fused and vitalized and prepared for the action of grace, both in my own soul and in the souls of at least one or two of my friends, merely by our friendship and association together. And it fermented in our sharing of our own ideas and miseries and headaches and perplexities and fears and difficulties and desires and hangovers and all the rest. 

I have already mentioned Mark Van Doren. It would not be exactly true to say that he was a kind of nucleus around whom this concretion of friends formed itself that would not be accurate. Not all of us took his courses, and those who did, did not do so all at the same time. And yet nevertheless our common respect for Mark’s sanity and wisdom did much to make us aware of how much we ourselves had in common. 

Perhaps it was for me, personally, more than for the others, that Mark’s course worked in this way. I am thinking of one particular incident. 

It was the fall of 1936, just at the beginning of the new school year—on one of those first, bright, crazy days when everybody is full of ambition. It was the beginning of the year in which Pop was going to die and my own resistance would cave in under the load of pleasures and ambitions I was too weak to carry: the year in which I would be all the time getting dizzy, and in which I learned to fear the Long Island railroad as if it were some kind of a monster, and to shrink from New York as if it were the wide-open mouth of some burning Aztec god. 

That day, I did not foresee any of this. My veins were still bursting with the materialistic and political enthusiasms with which I had first come to Columbia and, indeed, in line with their general direction, I had signed up for courses that were more or less sociological and economic and historical. In the obscurity of the strange, half-conscious semi-conversion that had attended my retreat from Cambridge, I had tended more and more to be suspicious of literature, poetry—the things towards which my nature drew me—on the grounds that they might lead to a sort of futile estheticism, a philosophy of “escape.”

This had not invoked me in any depreciation of people like Mark. However, it had just seemed more important to me that I should take some history course, rather than anything that was still left of his for me to take. 

So now I was climbing one of the crowded stairways in Hamilton Hall to the room where I thought this history course was to be given. I looked in to the room. The second row was filled with the unbrushed heads of those who every day at noon sat in the Jester editorial offices and threw paper airplanes around the room or drew pictures on the walls. 

Taller than them all, and more serious, with a long face, like a horse, and a great mane of black hair on top of it, Bob Lax meditated on some incomprehensible woe, and waited for someone to come in and begin to talk to them. It was when I had taken off my coat and put down my load of books that I found out that this was not the class I was supposed to be taking, but Van Doren’s course on Shakespeare. 

So I got up to go out. But when I got to the door I turned around again and went back and sat down where I had been, and stayed there. Later I went and changed everything with the registrar, so I remained in that class for the rest of the year. 

It was the best course I ever had at college. And it did me the most good, in many different ways. It was the only place where I ever heard anything really sensible said about any of the things that were really fundamental— life, death, time, love, sorrow, fear, wisdom, suffering, eternity. A course in literature should never be a course in economics or philosophy or sociology or psychology: and I have explained how it was one of Mark’s great virtues that he did not make it so. Nevertheless, the material of literature and especially of drama is chiefly human acts—that is, free acts, moral acts. And, as a matter of fact, literature, drama, poetry, make certain statements about these acts that can be made in no other way. That is precisely why you will miss all the deepest meaning of Shakespeare, Dante, and the rest if you reduce their vital and creative statements about life and men to the dry, matter-of-fact terms of history, or ethics, or some other science. They belong to a different order. 

Nevertheless, the great power of something like Hamlet, Coriolanus, or the Purgatorio or Donne’s Holy Sonnets lies precisely in the fact that they are a kind of commentary on ethics and psychology and even metaphysics, even theology. Or, sometimes, it is the other way ’round, and those sciences can serve as a commentary on these other realities, which we call plays, poems. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all my disciples out there!

Merton and Martin are pretty much in agreement here.  Merton, by sheer luck, is thrown into a class where his life is changed.  He meets people who will have a profound influence on him.  A teacher who will shape his understanding of the world, and friends who will, eventually, lead him to his conversion and calling to poetry and religious life.  

I have had all of those things.  Well, I wasn't called to be a monk, but I was called into a church ministry (music) to which I've pretty much devoted a good portion of my adult life.  And my Mark Van Doren was a teacher (now colleague and friend) I met in my first year of graduate school.  I'll call her Professor B.  Professor B directed both my Master's thesis (a collection of short fiction) and my MFA thesis (a collection of poems).  She was the one who recognized the poet in me, when the idea of leading a life devoted to poetry seemed as foreign as joining the French Foreign Legion.

Poetry has, literally, saved my life so many times,  In times of struggle, when I couldn't feel God anywhere, poetry has brought me into His presence.  In joyful times, poetry has reminded me that God is celebrating with me.  In my normal, day-to-day existence of work and teaching and home, poetry makes those tiny moments of domesticity into things holy and sacred.  

Now, this day which, in the United States, is set aside for gratitude.  The pandemic has altered our lives, made it impossible to gather and give thanks the way we normally do.  Instead, we are expressing our love and thanks for each other by staying home.  While there won't be the physical immediacy of family and friends, we can still be present.  Raise each other up to the universe in praise and prayer and poetry. 

My mother is in the nursing home this year.  She has been there since late summer, when she fell out of bed and broke her hip.  First she went to the hospital for surgery, and then, from the hospital, she was transferred to a long-term care facility.  Most likely, she will never come home again.  We have not been able to see her, except for a short window visit.  On top of her mobility issues, she has macular degeneration and Alzheimer's, and she's extremely hard of hearing.  That means she's isolated from us not only physically, but also in memory, sight, and sound.

I don't know when, or if, I will ever be able to hold my mother's hand again.  Yet, I reach out to her this Thanksgiving.  I say a prayer of thanks for all that she's given me.  Remember all those Thanksgiving meals she cooked.  Turkey.  Mashed potatoes and gravy.  Stuffing full of sage and onion  Jell-O molds of quivering fruit.  Home-made loaves of bread.  Buttery corn and cranberry sauce.  Pumpkin and pecan pies.  All for love.  All for love.

She is with me now, as I type this post.  I'm not sure if I'm with her.  Not sure what part of me her mind allows her to have.  Maybe I'm five or six, a stubborn child who will only eat turkey and bread, no vegetables.  Or maybe I'm a teenager, more interested in finishing dinner so that I can meet up with friends.  Or maybe I'm an adult, handing over my infant son to her, so she can coo and rub his back until he falls asleep in her arms while I mash the potatoes for her.

There will be Thanksgiving with my mother today.  In my mother.  She will get her plate of turkey and stuffing.  Her pecan pie.  She will smile and say to the nurse who brings her dinner, "Thank you."  She taught me that.  To be grateful for everything you're given.

Wherever you are, whoever you are with, however you are celebrating, I wish you grace and gratitude.  Memories of Thanksgivings past to sustain you, fill you with love.  Peace of mind for this Thanksgiving present to satisfy your hearts hungry for togetherness.  And hope for Thanksgivings yet to come to carry you forward in joy and wonder.

Saint Marty gives thanks for Professor B this day.  For his friends and family.  His mother.  And for the poetry that binds us all together.

Pecan Pie

by: Martin Achatz

Mix eggs, sugar and Karo,
melted butter, vanilla from Mexico
in a bowl until it all runs
yellow as corn silk. Add pecans,
one-and-a-quarter cups. Fold
them into the gold syrup,
the way a farmer folds
manure into a field of hay
or my son folds a Tootsie Roll
under his tongue, plants it there,
lets it feed the furrows
of his young body. Pour this filling
into a shell, edges fluted
by my wife's hands, crimped
between thumb and forefinger
to peaks and troughs of dough.
Bake at 350 degrees.
Forty-five minutes to an hour.
You'll know when it's done.
The house will smell
brown and warm and sweet.
Dip a butter knife blade
into the center of the pie.
If it comes out hot and clean,
take the pie out of the oven. Put it
on the front porch to cool.
You can leave it there overnight.
It'll be waiting in the morning.
Cover it with a hand towel. Carry
it to your parents' house,
where your mother asks you
"Is it cold outside?"
over and over as you cut
the pie. "Yes," you tell her.
And "yes" when she asks again.
It is cold this Thanksgiving.
And, yes, pecan pie is her favorite.
Give her a large slice,
with extra Cool Whip
and a hot cup of coffee.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

November 23-25: Mr. Riley, A Better Human Being, Goodness Exists

Merton is kinda being a jerk in this passage . . . 

The minister was called Mr. Riley. Pop had always called him “Dr. Riley” to his great embarrassment. Despite the Irish name, he detested Catholics, like most Protestant ministers. He was always very friendly to me and used to get into conversations about intellectual matters and modern literature, even men like D. H. Lawrence with whom he was thoroughly familiar. 

It seems that he counted very much on this sort of thing—considered it an essential part of his ministry to keep up with the latest books, and to be able to talk about them, to maintain contact with people by that means. But that was precisely one of the things that made the experience of going to his church such a sterile one for me. He did not like or understand what was considered most “advanced” in modern literature and, as a matter of fact, one did not expect him to; one did not demand that of him. Yet it was modern literature and politics that he talked about, not religion and God. You felt that the man did not know his vocation, did not know what he was supposed to be. He had taken upon himself some function in society which was not his and which was, indeed, not a necessary function at all. 

When he did get around to preaching about some truth of the Christian religion, he practically admitted in the pulpit, as he did in private to anyone who cared to talk about it, that he did not believe most of these doctrines, even in the extremely diluted form in which they are handed out to Protestants. The Trinity? What did he want with the Trinity? And as for the strange medieval notions about the Incarnation, well, that was simply too much to ask of a reasonable man. 

Once he preached a sermon on “Music at Zion Church” and sent me word that I must be sure to be there, for I would hear him make mention of my father. That is just about typical of Protestant pulpit oratory in the more “liberal” quarters. I went, dutifully, that morning, but before he got around to the part in which I was supposed to be personally interested, I got an attack of my head-spinning and went out into the air. When the sermon was being preached, I was sitting on the church steps in the sun, talking to the black-gowned verger, or whatever he was called. By the time I felt better, the sermon was over. 

I cannot say I went to this church very often: but the measure of my zeal may be judged by the fact that I once went even in the middle of the week. I forget what was the occasion: Ash Wednesday or Holy Thursday. There were one or two women in the place, and myself lurking in one of the back benches. We said some prayers. It was soon over. By the time it was, I had worked up courage to take the train into New York and go to Columbia for the day. 

 Obviously, Thomas Merton has a vested interest in making Protestant religions look bad.  He was a Trappist monk, and everything in The Seven Storey Mountain is filtered through the lens of monasticism.  Merton was a forward thinker, especially later in his life.  That forward thinking got him into a lot of hot water, especially his thoughts and writings on the Vietnam War (and war, in general).  However, as this passage demonstrates, Merton toed the line when it came to his thinking on Protestantism, at least early in his religious life.

I, myself, was raised by a father who was militantly Catholic.  In fact, for many years when I was young, he dragged the whole family to a church that continued to say the Mass in Latin instead of following the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.  He seemed to consider saying the Mass in English as the work of the devil, and the Second Vatican Council as a communist plot.  (My father was also a member of the John Birch Society for quite a while, so he saw communists in more places than Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was a personal hero of my father.)

In response to my father's ultra-conservative values, I embraced more progressive ideals--valuing all people, regardless of race, social status, gender, sexual orientation, OR religion.  That's right.  My best friends ran with the Martin Luther and John Wesley crowd, if not being outright atheists.  And I often found these members of my inner circle to be more spiritual than the majority of Catholics I knew. 

I married a Methodist.  All their lives, our children have attended Catholic Mass on Saturday evenings and Methodist worship on Sunday mornings.  I've often joked that I've become a Matholic, which sort of sounds like I'm a member of the Church of Pythagoras.  One of my best friends is a Methodist pastor, and another is an atheist.  Still another practices Buddhism.  Almost all are socialist in their political leanings--feed and clothe the poor, take care of the sick, open your doors to the homeless and refugee.  In short, they are walking in Jesus Christ's footsteps, even if they don't profess to be Christians.

These people make me a better human being.  When I head down the rabbit hole of despair and self-doubt, they draw me back to the light.  Through four years of Donald Trump, when so much hatred filled the streets of my country, my friends filled me with hope that something better was possible.  Thomas Aquinas said, "There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship."  I believe that with all my heart.

So, this Thanksgiving Eve, I give thanks that I have people in my life--Christian and Buddhist, straight and gay, scientist and humanist, African American and Native American, Star Wars fan and Star Trek fan--who remind me that goodness exists.  Who, when I fall down, will be there to pick me up, dust me off, check to make sure I haven't broken anything, and then send me back out into the world to make a difference.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for the miracle of his friends.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

November 21-22: Grace Someday, Shoulder Moment, Kurt Vonnegut

 Merton gets tapped on the shoulder by God . . .

I know that many people are, or call themselves, “atheists” simply because they are repelled and offended by statements about God made in imaginary and metaphorical terms which they are not able to interpret and comprehend. They refuse these concepts of God, not because they despise God, but perhaps because they demand a notion of Him more perfect than they generally find: and because ordinary, figurative concepts of God could not satisfy them, they turn away and think that there are no other: or, worse still, they refuse to listen to philosophy, on the ground that it is nothing but a web of meaningless words spun together for the justification of the same old hopeless falsehoods. 

What a relief it was for me, now, to discover not only that no idea of ours, let alone any image, could adequately represent God, but also that we should not allow ourselves to be satisfied with any such knowledge of Him. 

The result was that I at once acquired an immense respect for Catholic philosophy and for the Catholic faith. And that last thing was the most important of all. I now at least recognized that faith was something that had a very definite meaning and a most cogent necessity. 

If this much was a great thing, it was about all that I could do at the moment. I could recognize that those who thought about God had a good way of considering Him, and that those who believed in Him really believed in someone, and their faith was more than a dream. Further than that it seemed I could not go, for the time being. 

How many there are in the same situation! They stand in the stacks of libraries and turn over the pages of St. Thomas’s Summa with a kind of curious reverence. They talk in their seminars about “Thomas” and “Scotus” and “Augustine” and “Bonaventure” and they are familiar with Maritain and Gilson, and they have read all the poems of Hopkins—and indeed they know more about what is best in the Catholic literary and philosophical tradition than most Catholics ever do on this earth. They sometimes go to Mass, and wonder at the dignity and restraint of the old liturgy. They are impressed by the organization of a Church in which everywhere the priests, even the most un-gifted, are able to preach at least something of a tremendous, profound, unified doctrine, and to dispense mysteriously efficacious help to all who come to them with troubles and needs. 

In a certain sense, these people have a better appreciation of the Church and of Catholicism than many Catholics have: an appreciation which is detached and intellectual and objective. But they never come into the Church. They stand and starve in the doors of the banquet—the banquet to which they surely realize that they are invited—while those more poor, more stupid, less gifted, less educated, sometimes even less virtuous than they, enter in and are filled at those tremendous tables. 

When I had put this book down, and had ceased to think explicitly about its arguments, its effect began to show itself in my life. I began to have a desire to go to church—and a desire more sincere and mature and more deep-seated than I had ever had before. After all, I had never before had so great a need. 

The only place I could think of was the Episcopal Church down the road, old Zion Church, among the locust trees, where Father had once played the organ. I think the reason for this was that God wanted me to climb back the way I had fallen down. I had come to despise the Church of England, the “Protestant Episcopal Church,” and He wanted me to do away with what there was of pride and self-complacency even in that. He would not let me become a Catholic, having behind me a rejection of another church that was not the right kind of a rejection, but one that was sinful in itself, rooted in pride, and expressed in contumely. 

This time I came back to Zion Church, not to judge it, not to condemn the poor minister, but to see if it could not do something to satisfy the obscure need for faith that was beginning to make itself felt in my soul. 

It was a nice enough church. It was pleasant to sit there, in the pretty little white building, with the sun pouring through the windows, on Sunday mornings. The choir of surpliced men and women and the hymns we all sang did not exactly send me up into ecstasy: but at least I no longer made fun of them in my heart. And when it came time to say the Apostles’ Creed, I stood up and said it, with the rest, hoping within myself that God would give me the grace someday to really believe it. 

I have been going to church all my life.  Born and raised Catholic, I've gone through periods of truancy in the practice of my faith.  Times when I went to Burger King for breakfast instead of Mass.  I was a teenager then, more interested in friends and girls and alcohol.  That's pretty normal.  A lot of Catholic saints struggled with the same types of distractions prior to their conversions.  Saint Augustine certainly did.  Thomas Merton certainly, as well.  (Technically, Merton isn't a saint.  However, we're all saints-in-making.)  Yet, eventually, there is that moment when God taps you on the shoulder.

I have talked about my shoulder moment in previous posts.  It was, quite literally, a voice in church.  My parish priest (an Italian version of Barry Fitzgerald's character in Going My Way) was in need of a church organist for one of his weekend Masses.  He knew I played the piano.  As I was sitting in the pew one Saturday evening, Monsignor announced that there was "a young man" who would be starting to play the pipe organ for the Mass "next week."  He looked directly at me when he made this proclamation.  When I went up to receive Communion, he winked at me.

That was it.  Monsignor didn't take "no" for an answer.  Some 35 years later, I am still sitting on the same bench every Saturday evening, before the same pipe organ, playing the old Catholic hymns (and maybe a few from the Methodist hymnal, to keep people on their toes).  Music brought me back to church when I was on my way out the door.

I'm no saint.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that.  I am frequently impatient and angry.  Struggle with trust in God.  (I hand my problems over to God in one breath, and then take them back in the next.)  I swear like a Merchant Marine.  (One of my favorite sayings:  "Are you fucking kidding me?!!")  Every once in a while, I have a few too many glasses of wine in a night.  (In my defense, Jesus was known to share a little fermented grape with the disciples, as well.  So, I am walking in Christ's footsteps there.)  And I have a tendency to fret about the future.  A lot.  (This all goes back to my issues with trust.  Instead of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," my theme is more like "my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" most days.)

I am a work in progress.  Will be until the day I die.  I'd love to say that I feel God's presence in my life all the time.  I don't.  In fact, this past year, I haven't heard His voice too much.  Of course, this year has been a year of great testing for the entire planet.  The pandemic; in my country, four years of non-leadership by people who call themselves "Christian" but turn their backs on the poor, homeless, sick, and elderly; and some major personal struggles have made me, at times, question whether God hasn't gone on an extended vacation.  I hear Mount Everest is lovely this time of year.

Yet, every weekend, I get that tap on the shoulder again, hear Monsignor's invitation in my head, and find myself at the pipe organ, playing songs like "For the Beauty of the Earth" or "Panis Angelicus."  It's who I am now, almost 40 years after that first calling.  I'm not the greatest organist in the world by any means.  But it's really not about being great.  It's about growing.

In 2006, a high school English student wrote a letter to Kurt Vonnegut as an assignment, probably never expecting a response.  Vonnegut wrote back.  Here is a portion of what he said:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

That's pretty much the way I approach my musical calling at church.  It is something that allows me to grow in my soul.  Just like reading or drawing or writing or poetry.  It's not about being the best.  It's about becoming.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of Monsignor's invitation so many years ago.

Friday, November 20, 2020

November 20: Apple TV+, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "A Charlie Brown Advent"

Recently, there has been a great deal of hubbub about the fact that Apple TV+ now owns the rights to the Peanuts holiday specials, from the Great Pumpkin to Christmas to the Easter Beagle.  Apple+ flaunted the fact that the perennial A Charlie Brown Christmas would not air on broadcast TV for the first time in 55 years.  

Of course, after much public outcry and hate leveled against Apple TV+, the company switched course.  Now, it is allowing PBS to air the shows.  A good compromise, I suppose.  However, I still yearn for those times when my whole family would gather in the living room and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas.  It marked the beginning of the holiday season every year for me.  And I yearn for those Dolly Madison Zingers commercials, as well.  

Tonight, in my own little protest of the ending of a 55-year tradition, I am going to share an essay I wrote a couple years ago for Christmas.  I had just lost my dad, and it seemed like the holidays were slipping through my fingers like melting snow.  But Charlie Brown still showed up on TV that December, like clockwork, and I remembered how much my father loved Snoopy's dance when Schroeder played the piano.

Saint Marty needs to buy himself some Zingers tomorrow.

(Cue Christmas Time Is Here  . . .)

A Charlie Brown Advent 

by:  Martin Achatz

1.  Would you believe me if I told you that I am haunted by Charlie Brown this December? That, before I went to bed last night, as I was brushing my teeth, I heard a nine-year-old girl’s therapist voice in the dark kitchen say “Do you think you have pantophobia?” as if all the fears of the world—hunger and homelessness and isolation and abandonment and poverty and war—were lined up outside the bathroom door like second graders at recess?

2.  “The early bird gets the worm, but the late bird doesn’t even get the late worm.” 
               --Charles M. Schulz

3.  My dad had to be first. Always. He woke at 4:30 in the morning to get the first coffee. At supper, his plate was full before anyone else sat down at the table, and he was forking meatloaf into his mouth before my mother intoned, “Bless us, O Lord, for these, Thy gifts . . .” First to rake leaves in the fall, snowblow after a blizzard, mow his lawn come April. The trees in his yard were the tallest in the neighborhood. Grass, the greenest. This past February, as he lay dying in a hospital bed, he kept kicking off his blankets, trying to pull himself upright, as if he wanted to be the first at the door to meet what was coming. A tunnel of light. Black hole of oblivion. Saint Peter, surrounded by a cloud of cosmic dust. Perhaps the soil of ancient Babylon, trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar.

4.  “Decorate your home. It gives the illusion that your life is more interesting than it really is.”
               --Charles M. Schulz.

5.  It’s all about spreading and fluffing. Making piles of branches on the floor, shortest to longest. They used to be color-coded, their tips shades of blue jay blue, parakeet green, Woodstock yellow, snow bunting white. The map of these colors has disappeared, so we navigate the process now like dirt roads in the woods. Take Blue Branch Trail to where it forks at Brown Branch Gully. Turn left. Follow the two-rut until it intersects Gold Branch Pass and Black Branch Canyon. Keep straight. Follow the star up ahead all the way to County Road Tree Top.

6.  In the photo, Sparky Schulz stands in the backyard of his Minneapolis home. It’s 1926, and he is four years old. His dog, Snooky, sniffs at his feet. Beside them squats a barrel of a snowman with a wide mouth and eyes like ink spots. It’s three years before the Stock Market Crash. Seventeen years before his mother, terminal with cancer, looked up at him from her bed when he was leaving for Army boot camp and said, “Well, good-bye, Sparky. We’ll probably never see each other again.” Twenty-four years before a boy with a barrel body and ink spot eyes first appeared in a comic strip with Shermy and Patty, Shermy remarking, “Good ol’ Charlie Brown . . . How I hate him!”

7.  “I have a new philosophy. I’m only going to dread one day at a time.”
               --Charles. M. Schulz

8.  Darkness is a thing now. It pushes morning back to eight or eight-thirty. Rushes afternoon out the door by four-thirty or five o’clock. That’s about eight to nine hours of sunlight a day, most of it sweatered in clouds and snow. In a week, the longest night of the year, when the dead can visit the living, when animals can speak. Cows tell jokes to pigs: What do you see when a duck bends over? Butt quack. Nuthatches and waxwings sing hosannas to a smirk of moon. Beagles do impressions of sheep and penguins.

9.  My father died one week before Valentine’s Day, my mother—his little red-haired girl of 64 years—sitting beside his bed, holding his hand. For several hours, his body had been playing a game of crack the whip, drifting one way, shifting suddenly in the opposite direction, then back again, as if trying to send him spinning off into a snowbank where he’d be swallowed in powder. My mother rubbed her fingers against his knuckles, saying over and over, “You’ve been a good husband . . . a good father . . . Yes, you have . . .” I watched his face crumple like an old lunch bag.

10.  Charlie Brown lamenting to Linus about never seeing the little red-haired girl again: “. . . I thought I had plenty of time . . . I thought I could wait until the sixth grade swim party or the seventh grade class party . . . Or I thought I could ask her to the senior prom or lots of other things when we got older. But now she’s moving away and it’s too late! It’s too late! . . . I’ve never even said hello to her!!”

11.  Later in life, Sparky Schulz became obsessed with the movie Citizen Kane, especially the scene where Kane’s mother prepares to send her little boy away, never to see him again, saying, “I’ve got his trunk all packed. I’ve had it packed for a week now.”

12.  In my mind, I see Charlie Brown inside the snow globe from Citizen Kane, standing beside the tiny Alpine-looking cabin, snowflake dander drifting around him like radioactive fallout. He stares up at the convex glass heavens, whispers, “Rosebud?”

13.  “My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. What am I doing right?”
               --Charles M. Schulz.

14.  My father was a chronic rearranger of lights and ornaments. No bare spots. No dark holes. Everything full of sequin and incandescence and spark. More Snoopy than Charlie Brown. Maybe it was a grasping for perfection, something that reflected beginning more than ending. Genesis over Revelations. Big Bang over T. S. Eliot whimper. Birth over death. Christmas over Easter.

15.  Am I haunted or obsessed? In my dreams, I’m an India-ink sketch, with words and sounds written above my head in thick, bold letters. This morning, I turned on my car radio and heard Vince Guaraldi playing jazz piano, tripping across the keys like a parade of fat snowflakes, the bass line a steady plow. It was still dark. Down the street, my neighbor’s house was garish against the ice and stars, a spotlight of Yuletide attention that blinked like an “Open” sign at a gas station: Christmas Here, Christmas Here, Christmas Here. Over and over. My father would have loved this.

16.  “I gave up trying to understand people long ago. Now I let them try to understand me!”
               --Charles M. Schulz

17.  Sparky Schulz was a religious guy who didn’t make his kids go to church. They went horseback riding while he sat in his yellow chair and read the Scriptures. In his house at Christmas time, a wooden crèche sat on a coffee table without explanation, as if its presence was significant enough without a Sunday school lesson. In his Bible, scribbled across Matthew’s gospel narrative of Christ’s birth, were these words: “The Christmas story is a story of purity and can be appreciated only by the pure mind.” Cue music: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” with looing.

18.  My father would cut out Charlie Brown comic strips from the newspaper, scratch the name of one of his kids above Linus or Lucy or Sally, and magnet it to the refrigerator. It would stay posted there for months. He would use them for bookmarks, along with holy cards of Saint Francis and Saint John Vianney. One of his favorites: Charlie Brown sitting on a curb as it starts to rain. Charlie looks up as the rain gets stronger, harder. In the final panel, he’s nearly obscured by thick lines of downpour, and he comments, “It always rains on the unloved!” My father wrote my name in wide blue letters over Charlie Brown’s head. M. A. R. T. Y.

19.  “Get the biggest aluminum tree you can find, Charlie Brown, maybe painted pink.”
               --Lucy Van Pelt

20.  Near the top of my tree, a crystal Snoopy on a sled. It catches the pink bulb behind it, refracts tiny prisms into the needles and branches. At night, when the living room is dark, an arc of Snoopy light sits on the ceiling like a raised eyebrow or crescent of scar.

21.  My mother’s memory is an impermanent thing now. Her days are a series of questions and observations. “Is it cold outside?” and “How was your day?” and “I guess I should be heading home” (she is always home) and “Drive safe” (as I am going out the front door). Most recent additions: ‘Your father has been gone all day” and “Where is your father?” and “Your father never tells me where he’s going.” She paces, shakes her head, pushes her walker back and forth, kitchen to living room to bathroom to bedroom, as if she’s Linus and her blanket is missing.

22.  A few months after Charlie Brown first learned the true meaning of Christmas, Sparky’s father died of a massive heart attack while visiting his son. Sparky didn’t attend the wake or memorial service, claiming he was afraid to fly. Much later, he said, “It’s so complicated. I suppose I’ve always felt that way—apprehensive, anxious, that sort of thing. I’ve compared it sometimes to the feeling that you have when you get up on the morning of a funeral.”

23.  Sitting in her chair one night a month or so ago, my mother looked over at my father’s empty seat and said, “There you are. Where have you been?” For the next 20 minutes, she spoke with my father about chicken noodle soup and car troubles and taxes. How time was moving so fast from Great Pumpkin to Christmas. At the end, she nodded, said, “I miss you, too,” then put her head back and closed her eyes.

24.  Linus to Charlie Brown: “Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about . . .”

25.  It’s about finding love when you’re lost.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

November 16-19: The Thirst to Know, Hercule Poirot, Mysterious Trust

Merton wrestling with concepts of God . . . 

I marked three other passages, so perhaps the best thing would be to copy them down. Better than anything I could say, they will convey the impact of the book on my mind. 

When God says that He is being [reads the first sentence so marked] and if what He says is to have any intelligible meaning to our minds, it can only mean this: that He is the pure act of existing.

Pure act: therefore excluding all imperfection in the order of existing. Therefore excluding all change, all “becoming,” all beginning or end, all limitation. But from this fulness of existence, if I had been capable of considering it deeply enough, I would soon have found that the fulness of all perfection could easily be argued. 

But another thing that struck me was an important qualification the author made. He distinguished between the concepts of ens in genere— the abstract notion of being in general—and ens infinitum, the concrete and real Infinite Being, Who, Himself, transcends all our conceptions. And so I marked the following words, which were to be my first step towards St. John of the Cross: 

Beyond all sensible images, and all conceptual determinations, God affirms Himself as the absolute act of being in its pure actuality. Our concept of God, a mere feeble analogue of a reality which overflows it in every direction, can be made explicit only in the judgement: Being is Being, an absolute positing of that which, lying beyond every object, contains in itself the sufficient reason of objects. And that is why we can rightly say that the very excess of positivity which hides the divine being from our eyes is nevertheless the light which lights up all the rest: ipsa caligo summa est mentis illuminatio

His Latin quotation was from St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium

The third sentence of Gilson’s that I marked in those few pages read as follows: 

When St. Jerome says that God is His own origin and the cause of His own substance, he does not mean, as Descartes does, that God in a certain way posits Himself in being by His almighty power as by a cause, but simply that we must not look outside of God for a cause of the existence of God. 

I think the reason why these statements, and others like them, made such a profound impression on me, lay deep in my own soul. And it was this: I had never had an adequate notion of what Christians meant by God. I had simply taken it for granted that the God in Whom religious people believed, and to Whom they attributed the creation and government of all things, was a noisy and dramatic and passionate character, a vague, jealous, hidden being, the objectification of all their own desires and strivings and subjective ideals. 

The truth is, that the concept of God which I had always entertained, and which I had accused Christians of teaching to the world, was a concept of a being who was simply impossible. He was infinite and yet finite; perfect and imperfect; eternal and yet changing—subject to all the variations of emotion, love, sorrow, hate, revenge, that men are prey to. How could this fatuous, emotional thing be without beginning and without end, the creator of all? I had taken the dead letter of Scripture at its very deadest, and it had killed me, according to the saying of St. Paul: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” 

I think one cause of my profound satisfaction with what I now read was that God had been vindicated in my own mind. There is in every intellect a natural exigency for a true concept of God: we are born with the thirst to know and to see Him, and therefore it cannot be otherwise. 

Yes, I am still very much alive.  Every night this past week, I have sat down with my laptop, intending to post something, and I have found myself, two hours later, asleep at the keyboard with phrases like "I slpurblat thas srptlbvhs ass blosargaeg" glowing on the screen before me.  Mysterious concoctions of letters that seemed to hold some secret meaning.  Unfortunately, I had no Rosetta stone to decipher them.  Like Merton in the passage above trying to unravel the mysteries of God's existence, I tried to unlock the grammars of my exhausted mind and failed miserably.

Life is often like that.  We are confronted by circumstances or ideas that are ineffable, and we do our damnedest to try to figure them out.  It's like reading the ending of an Agatha Christie book first and then working your way backward to see how Hercule Poirot figures it out.  (By the way, that IS the way I read mysteries.  I like knowing the answers immediately instead of living in a state of negative capability where anyone can be killer.)

Of course, the universe doesn't come with an owner's manual.  It would be wonderful if it did.  Then, when I woke up this morning, I would have looked in the glossary under "November," ran my finger down to "19th," found the instruction "see CONVINCING SON TO DO SCHOOLWORK," flipped to that heading, found the page number (464), and opened the manual to that page, in the section "RATIOS AND THE FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY," and learned that my son was not going to do his math work today and write only one paragraph of his paper on S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders.  I would have also found out in a footnote that my almost 20-year-old daughter would pile dirty dishes in the sink and go to bed without touching the dish rag and soap.  It would have saved me a lot of frustration to know all this at the outset.

Instead, I'm sitting at my laptop once more, dizzy with sleep but refusing to go to bed until I finish and publish this blog post.  I have to have something to show for this day.  In the final paragraph of the passage above, Merton says that we are all born with the thirst to love and see God.  Craving for mystery is in our DNA.  It's not for us to know what's going to happen in the next minute or hour or day or week.  Our job is live in the present and trust that, in the end, Hercule Poirot will reveal who murdered Edward Ratchett on the Orient Express.  And that my son will finish his essay for English and problems for math (showing all his work).  And my daughter will wash her dirty bowl, plates, and fork.  

Trust is a hard thing, though, especially if you're a person, like me, who likes to be fairly self-sufficient and not depend on other people.  Yet, that is the exact opposite of what being a Christian is, for sure.  In fact, I would say most world religions rely a great deal on the notion of trusting in the powers of the universe.  Living in the present, safe in the knowledge that the future will work itself out to our greater good.

So, here's to this exhausted moment, with my son's incomplete homework assignments, my daughter's stack of dirty dishes, and my unfinished blog post.  They will all, eventually get done.  I believe that.  Light does prevail over darkness.  Good guys finish first.  Murder mysteries are solved.  And God will continue to remain a mystery.  

I accept all those statements as truth.  Believe in them with all my heart.  Because, otherwise, we are all part of a plotless novel.  A story without a point.  A whodunit without a who. 

Tonight, I trust in this moment, and know that the Orient Express of tomorrow will be solved soo enough.

Monday, November 16, 2020

November 14-15: Aseitas, Religion and Science, Higgs Boson Particle

Merton get a little metaphysical . . .

And the one big concept which I got out of its pages was something that was to revolutionize my whole life. It is all contained in one of those dry, outlandish technical compounds that the scholastic philosophers were so prone to use: the word aseitas. In this one word, which can be applied to God alone, and which expresses His most characteristic attribute, I discovered an entirely new concept of God—a concept which showed me at once that the belief of Catholics was by no means the vague and rather superstitious hangover from an unscientific age that I had believed it to be. On the contrary, here was a notion of God that was at the same time deep, precise, simple, and accurate and, what is more, charged with implications which I could not even begin to appreciate, but which I could at least dimly estimate, even with my own lack of philosophical training. 

Aseitas—the English equivalent is a transliteration: aseity—simply means the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist. There can be only one such Being: that is God. And to say that God exists a se, of and by and by reason of Himself, is merely to say that God is Being Itself. Ego sum qui sum. And this means that God must enjoy “complete independence not only as regards everything outside but also as regards everything within Himself” 

This notion made such a profound impression on me that I made a pencil note at the top of the page: “Aseity of God—God is being per se.” I observe it now on the page, for I brought the book to the monastery with me, and although I was not sure where it had gone, I found it on the shelves in Father Abbot’s room the other day, and I have it here before me.

Here is Merton at his most philosophical, discussing the existence of God.  It's not an easy passage to wrap your mind around, and humans have been contemplating this subject for a very long time.  Before Merton or Dickens, Shakespeare or Cervantes.  It's about trying to know the unknowable.  That's what religion is all about.  As a matter of fact, that's pretty much what science is about, as well.  It tries to explain things that can't be or haven't been explained.  

Now, I know my scientist friends will have a problem with that equivalency, because most scientists think that religion and science are mutually exclusive.  No commonalities at all.  But I've always thought of science and religion as two sides of the same coin.  To ignore science is to deny the mysteries of God's creation.  And to ignore God's mysteries is to deny the complexities of the universe.  The fact that science keeps evolving, discovering new things about who we are and where we live, only reinforces the possibility of a divine Creative Force.

Think about it.  Writer and essayist David Foster Wallace, in an address to graduates at Kenyon College, said this, "Everybody worships.  The only choice we get is what to worship."  Mathematician Amir D. Aczel writes, 

The great British mathematician Roger Penrose has calculated—based on only one of the hundreds of parameters of the physical universe—that the probability of the emergence of a life-giving cosmos was 1 divided by 10, raised to the power 10, and again raised to the power of 123. This is a number as close to zero as anyone has ever imagined. (The probability is much, much smaller than that of winning the Mega Millions jackpot for more days than the universe has been in existence.)

Think about that.  The random chance of this universe in which we live--and the possibility that we came into being--is practically zero.  We should not exist.  This little rock we call home shouldn't exist either.  We are the ultimate jackpot if we accept this randomness.  Or, we need to accept the possibility of some divine creative force.

Which is more plausible?  A being whose very nature is to exist, without cause or justification, as Merton says?  Or a possibility so remote that it makes everything Donald Trump said for four years as President of the United States sound like an acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Physics?  Just because you can't physically measure or see something, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

The existence of the Higgs boson particle was proposed in 1964.  It's existence wasn't proven until 2012.  For over 48 years, scientists accepted the possibility of the particle without physical proof.  They believed in it because all the math and research pointed toward it.  Its probability was that great.


I'm not trying to change anyone's mind here.  All I'm saying is that science and faith pretty much operate the same way.  They aren't mortal enemies.  Rather, they are both trying to do the same thing:  understand wonder and mystery.

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for the faith of science and the science of faith.

Friday, November 13, 2020

November 13: Imprimatur, Incorruptibles, Sanctifying Grace

 Merton is tricked into reading a Catholic book . . . 

There is a paradox that lies in the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of a man. The paradox is this: man’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems. If we follow nothing but our natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell. 

This would be a depressing thought, if it were not purely abstract. Because in the concrete order of things God gave man a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. We were never destined to lead purely natural lives, and therefore we were never destined in God’s plan for a purely natural beatitude. Our nature, which is a free gift of God, was given to us to be perfected and enhanced by another free gift that is not due it. 

This free gift is “sanctifying grace.” It perfects our nature with the gift of a life, an intellection, a love, a mode of existence infinitely above its own level. If a man were to arrive even at the abstract pinnacle of natural perfection, God’s work would not even be half done: it would be only about to begin, for the real work is the work of grace and the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost. 

What is “grace”? It is God’s own life, shared by us. God’s life is Love. Deus caritas est. By grace we are able to share in the infinitely selfless love of Him Who is such pure actuality that He needs nothing and therefore cannot conceivably exploit anything for selfish ends. Indeed, outside of Him there is nothing, and whatever exists exists by His free gift of its being, so that one of the notions that is absolutely contradictory to the perfection of God is selfishness. It is metaphysically impossible for God to be selfish, because the existence of everything that is depends upon His gift, depends upon His unselfishness. 

When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace. 

The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it. 

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints—for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone. For the ones who are called saints by human opinion on earth may very well be devils, and their light may very well be darkness. For as far as the light of God is concerned, we are owls. It blinds us and as soon as it strikes us we are in darkness. People who look like saints to us are very often not so, and those who do not look like saints very often are. And the greatest saints are sometimes the most obscure—Our Lady, St. Joseph. 

Christ established His Church, among other reasons, in order that men might lead one another to Him and in the process sanctify themselves and one another. For in this work it is Christ Who draws us to Himself through the action of our fellow men. 

We must check the inspirations that come to us in the depths of our own conscience against the revelation that is given to us with divinely certain guarantees by those who have inherited in our midst the place of Christ’s Apostles—by those who speak to us in the Name of Christ and as it were in His own Person. Qui vos audit me audit; qui vos spernit, me spernit

When it comes to accepting God’s own authority about things that cannot possibly be known in any other way except as revealed by His authority, people consider it insanity to incline their ears and listen. Things that cannot be known in any other way, they will not accept from this source. And yet they will meekly and passively accept the most appalling lies from newspapers when they scarcely need to crane their necks to see the truth in front of them, over the top of the sheet they are holding in their hands. 

For example, the very thought of an imprimatur on the front of a book— the approbation of a bishop, allowing the book to be printed on the grounds that it contains safe doctrine—is something that drives some people almost out of their minds with indignation. 

One day, in the month of February 1937, I happened to have five or ten loose dollars burning a hole in my pocket. I was on Fifth Avenue, for some reason or other, and was attracted by the window of Scribner’s bookstore, all full of bright new books. 

That year I had signed up for a course in French Medieval Literature. My mind was turning back, in a way, to the things I remembered from the old days in Saint Antonin. The deep, naive, rich simplicity of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was beginning to speak to me again. I had written a paper on a legend of a “Jongleur de Notre Dame,” compared with a story from the Fathers of the Desert, in Migne’s Latin Patrology. I was being drawn back into the Catholic atmosphere, and I could feel the health of it, even in the merely natural order, working already within me. 

Now, in Scribner’s window, I saw a book called The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. I went inside, and took it off the shelf, and looked at the table of contents and at the title page which was deceptive, because it said the book was made up of a series of lectures that had been given at the University of Aberdeen. That was no recommendation, to me especially. But it threw me off the track as to the possible identity and character of Etienne Gilson, who wrote the book. 

I bought it, then, together with one other book that I have completely forgotten, and on my way home in the Long Island train, I unwrapped the package to gloat over my acquisitions. It was only then that I saw, on the first page of The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, the small print which said: “Nihil Obstat ... Imprimatur.” 

The feeling of disgust and deception struck me like a knife in the pit of the stomach. I felt as if I had been cheated! They should have warned me that it was a Catholic book! Then I would never have bought it. As it was, I was tempted to throw the thing out the window at the houses of Woodside —to get rid of it as something dangerous and unclean. Such is the terror that is aroused in the enlightened modern mind by a little innocent Latin and the signature of a priest. It is impossible to communicate, to a Catholic, the number and complexity of fearful associations that a little thing like this can carry with it. It is in Latin—a difficult, ancient, and obscure tongue. That implies, to the mind that has roots in Protestantism, all kinds of sinister secrets, which the priests are supposed to cherish and to conceal from common men in this unknown language. Then, the mere fact that they should pass judgement on the character of a book, and permit people to read it: that in itself is fraught with terror. It immediately conjures up all the real and imaginary excesses of the Inquisition. 

That is something of what I felt when I opened Gilson’s book: for you must understand that while I admired Catholic culture, I had always been afraid of the Catholic Church. That is a rather common position in the world today. After all, I had not bought a book on medieval philosophy without realizing that it would be Catholic philosophy: but the imprimatur told me that what I read would be in full conformity with that fearsome and mysterious thing, Catholic Dogma, and the fact struck me with an impact against which everything in me reacted with repugnance and fear. 

Now in the light of all this, I consider that it was surely a real grace that, instead of getting rid of the book, I actually read it. Not all of it, it is true: but more than I used to read of books that deep. When I think of the numbers of books I had on my shelf in the little room at Douglaston that had once been Pop’s “den”—books which I had bought and never even read, I am more astounded than ever at the fact that I actually read this one: and what is more, remembered it. 

I remember books with the Catholic imprimatur sitting around the house when I was a kid.  My mother was a voracious reader, and also devoutly Catholic.  Therefore, on the table next to her chair, on top of The Thorn Birds and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, sat Purgatory by Father F. X. Schouppe and The Confessions of Saint Augustine.  Unlike young Merton's reaction to books carrying the seal of Catholic approval, I found my mother's taste in religious literature endlessly fascinating.  While my friends were sneaking looks the Penthouse magazines they found under their brother's beds, I was surreptitiously reading about lakes of eternal fire and Augustine's musings on sin.

I understood very little of what I read, the prose a little too lofty and full of "thou" and "thee" and Latin.  But I adored the books about saints, especially ones with actual photographs of their subjects.  Some of these texts contained pictures of saints' bodies, preserved for centuries.  Called incorruptibles, the remains of these holy men and women, by some miracle, did not decompose.  Saint Bernadette.  Saint Theresa.  Saint John Bosco.  I would stare for hours at these pictures, thrilled and horrified at the same time. I felt like, by looking at the actual face of Saint Vincent de Paul, I was seeing something touched by God.

The thing that struck me most about these photos is that they were so . . . human.  These men and women were old.  Sometimes pudgy.  Hooked nosed.  Balding.  The stories about them were full of accounts of visions, levitations, stigmata, healing.  One picture I remember clearly was of a woman who had been martyred.  Her face looked as if she was still suffering, her mouth a grimace, and, in the hollow of her throat, a knife wound with several drops of blood still visible on the skin.  Yet, they all looked like people I saw in grocery stores and shopping malls every day.

If you can't tell, I was a morbid child.  Loved Stephen King and John Saul novels.  Watched midnight horror films.  Read William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist when I was eleven after finding the paperback in a used book store.  (That book scared the shit out of me and sent me to weekly confessions for the better part of a year.)  My religious faith was a weird mixture of catechism and carnival sideshow.  

I think that's why I was drawn to the writing of Flannery O'Connor when I was young.  I loved her Southern brand of Catholicism that included close encounters with serial killers and Bible salesmen who stole glass eyes and artificial limbs from women.  I recognized something inherently truthful in these stories.  They said something mysterious about the human condition.  (Plus, I was sure, O'Connor would have loved those pictures of the corpses of saints.)

I venture to say that those books my mother left around our house, perhaps on purpose, made me the writer and person I am today.  God wasn't some Byzantine mosaic of an old man with a long grey beard and golden plate halo.  Nope.  I could actually look at the face of holiness--thin lips, sunken eyes, and waxy skin.  There was great beauty in those faces, as well.  The way there's beauty in sitting in a room with a dying person, participating in that moment of passing.  It connects you to everything you don't understand about the universe.

And that is what Thomas Merton calls sanctifying grace.  Flannery O'Connor called it grace, as well.  Instances when the veil is lifted, and you can glimpse God, like sunlight in trees.  Or splinters in your eyes.  And it's beautiful.  Terrifying.  Compelling.  

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for his mother's books.  They taught him how to be a poet.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

November 11-12: Quick Post, Poet Friend, "A Duck's Quack Doesn't Echo"

Just a short post to let you know I'm still alive.  

Had a long and productive day.  Work-work.  Schoolwork.  More work-work.  Parent/teacher conferences for my son.  Cleaning and sanitizing a church.

Then I met with a poet friend on Zoom for an hour-and-a-half.  We wrote and laughed and lifted each other up.

Saint Marty has a new poem to share tonight . . .

A Duck's Quack Doesn't Echo

by:  Martin Achatz

A duck's quack doesn't echo, scalpels through everything.  Cloud.  Pine.  Mountain.  Redwood.  Ocean.  A duck quacked over the Grand Canyon.  Six days later, a woman named Chunua heard that quack in the midnight sky of Wuhan.  

Named by her mother, because, on the day she was born, years before the coughing started, cherry blossoms filled the lungs of the trees with sweetness and beauty.  You are Chunua, her mother said, my spring flower.  And she flourished in the hothouse of her mother's arms.  

When Chunua heard that quack last night, she thought it was her mother's ghost in the bare cherry trees.  Still fevered.  Breath hard as an apricot pit.  Chunua stopped. Listened.  Not wanting to let go again.  Pressed a ghost hand to her face, felt her mother's love dancing like bees against the petals of her lips.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

November 10: Bleeding to Death, Narrative Arc, Hallmark Christmas Movie

Merton finds himself empty . . . 

Here I was, scarcely four years after I had left Oakham and walked out into the world that I thought I was going to ransack and rob of all its pleasures and satisfactions. I had done what I intended, and now I found that it was I who was emptied and robbed and gutted. What a strange thing! In filling myself, I had emptied myself. In grasping things, I had lost everything. In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear. And now, finally, as a piece of poetic justice, when I was reduced to this extremity of misery and humiliation, I fell into a love affair in which I was at last treated in the way I had treated not a few people in these last years. 

This girl lived on my own street, and I had the privilege of seeing her drive off with my rivals ten minutes after she had flatly refused to go out with me, asserting that she was tired and wanted to stay home. She did not even bother to conceal the fact that she found me amusing when there was nothing better to occupy her mind. She used to regale me with descriptions of what she considered to be a good time, and of the kind of people she admired and liked—they were precisely the shallow and superficial ones that gave me goose-flesh when I saw them sitting around in the Stork Club. And it was the will of God that for my just punishment I should take all this in the most abject meekness, and sit and beg like some kind of a pet dog until I finally got a pat on the head or some small sign of affection. 

This could not last long, and it did not. But I came out of it chastened and abject, though not nearly as abject as I ought to have been, and returned to the almost equal humiliation of my quarts of ice-cream. 

Such was the death of the hero, the great man I had wanted to be. Externally (I thought) I was a big success. Everybody knew who I was at Columbia. Those who had not yet found out, soon did when the Yearbook came out, full of pictures of myself. It was enough to tell them more about me than I intended, I suppose. They did not have to be very acute to see through the dumb self-satisfied expression in all those portraits. The only thing that surprises me is that no one openly reproached or mocked me for such ignominious vanity. No one threw any eggs at me, nobody said a word. And yet I know how capable they were of saying many words, not tastefully chosen, perhaps, but deadly enough. 

The wounds within me were, I suppose, enough. I was bleeding to death. 

If my nature had been more stubborn in clinging to the pleasures that disgusted me: if I had refused to admit that I was beaten by this futile search for satisfaction where it could not be found, and if my moral and nervous constitution had not caved in under the weight of my own emptiness, who can tell what would eventually have happened to me? Who could tell where I would have ended? 

I had come very far, to find myself in this blind-alley: but the very anguish and helplessness of my position was something to which I rapidly succumbed. And it was my defeat that was to be the occasion of my rescue.

When Thomas Merton set out into the world as a teenager emancipated from parents and financial worry, his goal was simple:  to, as Thoreau said, ". . . live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."  He's done this now.  He has indulged every hedonistic whim that has rippled through his body without a single thought of consequence.  Merton has tried, as I've said in previous posts, to fill a great hole inside himself.  Like most university students (and I've met my fair share of them in my 25-plus years of teaching), he has no idea how to fill that hole--how to find real fulfillment and happiness.  It is a God-sized hole that Merton is trying to fill, infinite, and no amount of material things or experiences will satisfy the longing that he feels.  In this particular passage, Merton seeks his happiness in a female companion.  

We've all done this at one time or another.  Tried to find happiness in another person.  Because that's what society teaches us.  Just watch any television commercial if you don't believe me.  In order to make the woman you love totally happy, buy her a diamond ring from Kay Jewelers.  That, in turn, will insure her love for you, and that love will stamp your passport to nirvana.  Total fulfillment.  The end.  You live happily every after.

Of course, that's the plot of a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.  And I don't know about you, but my life doesn't star Danica McKellar or Lacey Chabert or Candace Cameron Bure.  Don't get me wrong.  I love a good fairy tale as much as the next person, but that ain't real life.  (Yes, I just used the word "ain't" to sound folksy and down-to-earth.)

Real life is more complicated than that.  And plotless.  Often in my film and literature classes, I discuss narrative arc--that camel hump of rising action-complication-climax-falling action-denouement or resolution.  We've all had English teachers who've diagrammed it out on a chalkboard.  It usually looks something like this:  

Of course, most people's lives don't look like that.  Instead, they look more like an EKG--a series of ups and downs, peaks and valleys:

That is the normal rhythm of life.  Periods of peace interrupted by moments of crisis.  If you're lucky, this rhythm follows a steady and fairly predictable pattern.  No real surprises.  If you're not so lucky, it may look more like a seismograph registering an earthquake:

Small tremors building up to a huge, earth-shaking event followed by aftershocks that last for weeks or months or years.  That earth-shaking event could be almost anything--death or divorce or desertion or Trump election or pandemic.  The results are the same:  PTSD waves that stretch on and on and on.

I would say that we are currently in an earthquake time.  In Michigan alone today, we had 6,473 new cases of COVID.  To put that into perspective, the entire country of Peru recorded 2,507 new cases today.  Now, this is not a scientific comparison.  Peru's population is around 32 million people.  Michigan's is around 10 million.  So, with one-third the population of Peru, Michigan had three times as many new COVID cases today.  By any account (scientific or not), those are earthquake numbers.

I don't know how the plot of this Hallmark movie (Corona Christmas) is going to end.  I would like to say that a handsome doctor is going to ride into town, discover the cure for COVID in Christmas tree sap, and save the world, as well as win the heart of a single, struggling mother of two who teaches impoverished second graders.  That's the fairy tale.

Reality:  faith in something bigger than ourselves is what saves us.  For some people, it's faith in science.  For others, faith in God.  Still others put their faith in the inherent goodness of people, as Anne Frank said:  "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."  That's what fills up the bottomless holes in each of us.  We are infinitely empty, and we are also infinitely capable of hope and compassion and belief. 

Because I am human (like Thomas Merton and anyone reading this blog post), I experience mountains and canyons, tidal waves and earthquakes in my life.  I live in a broken world where happy endings are sometimes only on TV or in books.  Yet, when I look inside myself, into that vast unending universe, I see the face of God looking back at me.  Reminding me that--through science or art or poetry or charity or miracles--I will be alright.  

For that infinite possibility, Saint Marty gives thanks.